It’s a fallacy that Donald Sterling wasn’t good for basketball business in Los Angeles. He was great for the Lakers, wouldn’t you say? While he was dragging the Clippers into a sinkhole for three decades, the Lakers were winning nine of their 16 NBA championships in that period and becoming the unifying darlings of a diverse, splintered town with few common identities but sunshine and freeway congestion.
When Sterling finally was purged this week, left to litigate one last time in buffoonish desperation, something crazy happened in L.A.: It became a Clippers town. Suddenly pulled together by the ouster of a racist owner, people who previously were indifferent or embarrassed to watch this team now are rallying around the post-Sterling cause. In the middle of it all is a leader of remarkable equilibrium, Doc Rivers, who not only is guiding his players through a disturbing period in their lives but has met with shaken employees within the organization and even helped draft the franchise’s official statement that “wholeheartedly’’ endorsed league commissioner Adam Silver’s lifetime ban of Sterling. Rivers has been so extraordinarily dignified and poised throughout the crisis — while suppressing his own anger as an African-American — that I might suggest he be named the team’s next president.
Other than Silver, he has done the most to calm an ugly storm.
“I couldn’t imagine having another coach who was there, communicating with us, asking us how we’re feeling and not just tell us, `We’re going to do this, we’re going to do that,’ ‘’ said Chris Paul, the team’s star point guard and president of the players’ union. “He actually listened to us throughout this entire thing.”
“He was stoic,” guard J.J. Redick said of Rivers’ role since last weekend. “He was emotional. He was angry, just like anyone else. But he didn’t allow that anger to get him off focus. He’s handled it beautifully. It’s almost like he was the right guy to be here.”
Rivers has made it clear he doesn’t want this job, this role of healer. But he hasn’t run from it. Rather, he has embraced it and gained the admiration of a nation in how he has taken care of his players. “You learn over and over that when something like this happens with a burden of racism, it always falls on the person who has been offended to respond,” he said. “I’ve always thought that was interesting. I felt the pressure on my players. Everyone was waiting for them to give a response. I kept thinking, they didn’t do anything, yet they have to respond. So Adam responded. I thought that that was the sigh of relief that we needed. Is this over? No, it’s not over. But it’s the start of a healing process that we need and it’s the start for our organization to try to get through this and that’s very important.”
Don’t think for a second that the Lakers, out of the playoffs and irrelevant for the first time in eons, haven’t noticed the sea change. With Rivers the new prince of the city and Sterling on his way out at some point, the Clippers might at least begin to narrow the canyon-sized gap in local hoops allegiances. Until now, as Hollywood embraced all things Lakers, the Clippers had Billy Crystal as a fan … and who else? Now, Oprah Winfrey wants to join David Geffen and Larry Ellison in owning them, among many groups who already have declared public interest. Now, this team might go for $1.5 billion on the market in a town that throws around multi-billion-dollar TV contracts for local teams. Now, with Paul and Blake Griffin in heavy rotation on national commercials, the Clippers have the young star power and the blazing future.
The Lakers? They have a brittle, 35-year-old Kobe Bryant — at $48.5 million over the next two years — and a top-nine pick in the draft, their highest in years. And that’s about it, unless you’re counting ancient Steve Nash, who likely will be bought out. They need a reboot, and they began the process by booting coach Mike D’Antoni, who never should have been hired in the first place. When Bryant and Pau Gasol were clamoring for the return of Phil Jackson in November 2012, owner Jerry Buss and son Jim hired D’Antoni, which not only perplexed Lakers fans but upset a certain Jeanie Buss, who only was Jackson’s longtime girlfriend and couldn’t believe her father and brother would diss her bf. While D’Antoni never had a fair chance with a succession of injuries to Bryant and others and the Dwight Howard flop, his up-tempo, small-ball style grated on Bryant and Gasol. A depleted team finished 27-55 this season, the second-worst team in franchise history. “It’s more small ball, which, personally, I don’t really care much for,’’ Bryant said. D’Antoni challenged the front office to pick up his option year for 2015-16, which would have assured him two more seasons and allowed him to avoid lame-duck status next season.
Jim Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak said no, sending D’Antoni on his way with a $2 million settlement. The decision made Lakers fans very happy, including a prominent former Laker who unwittingly set off Sterling’s demise by agreeing to a photo with a woman named V. Stiviano.
“Happy days are here again!” wrote that mad Tweeter, Magic Johnson. “Mike D’Antoni resigns as the Lakers coach. I couldn’t be happier!”
Someone should give Magic a talk show.
Oh, that’s right, he had one. It flopped.
The Lakers need to make a major splash with their next coaching hire. They can’t let the Clippers continue to dominate the local sports conversation, which could happen as they contend for future titles. You’ll hear about the usual suspects — Byron Scott, Kurt Rambis, Lionel Hollins, Jeff and Stan Van Gundy — and John Calipari will be floated even though he and Bryant would kill each other the first five minutes.
The name they should seriously consider is Kevin Ollie. After a long NBA playing career, he took over at Connecticut and, in his first NCAA tournament as a head coach, won the national championship last month. He’s from L.A. He’s the hottest name in the college game, bigger than Calipari. And he’s an NBA guy at heart, having spent 13 years in various cities as a journeyman soaking up knowledge. Ollie can build a bridge from the Kobe era to what’s next, which the Lakers hope includes Jabari Parker or Marcus Smart in the draft and Kevin Love in 2015 free agency.
Sterling tape or no Sterling tape, D’Antoni would have been fired anyway. But now that the Clippers have new life after being kidnapped by a creep since 1981, a coaching change is now an urgent mandate. The Lakers have to match the Doc Rivers wave. The only candidate who might is Kevin Ollie.