The triumph here cannot resonate loudly and symbolically enough: A team comprised mostly of African-American men, in a league owned and operated almost entirely by white people, survived the racist bluster of a white, Jewish, 80-year-old owner and all the resulting mayhem to win a seven-game playoff series. They had to deal with painful questions from loved ones, tears from co-workers, non-stop intrusions by media people. They had to decide how to protest properly, whether to take the historic step of boycotting and forfeiting a postseason game. Through it all, they had to conserve enough mental and physical energy to vanquish a heated opponent, the Golden State Warriors, that still wanted to fight in the hallway an hour after the final game.
And, somehow, the Clippers thrashed through the noise and intense social ramifications and conquered a unique, exhausting challenge, among the most daunting trials a sports team will face. They’ve channeled their anger into a strong, poised, unified mission, and no matter where you are, in Los Angeles or beyond, you really should be rooting for them. You support the Clippers not only because of how they’re responded to Donald Sterling’s hateful rant, but because this was a ding-a-ling basketball franchise for three decades. To see the LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS become American trail blazers over an owner’s ignorance is something you never expected and, thus, must be celebrated until the good vibes expire.
The expiration date won’t be arriving anytime soon. Relaxed and unburdened by a hellish experience, the Clippers quickly moved on to Oklahoma City and dominated Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinal series, sending the steadfastly loyal Thunder fans to an unusually early arena exodus. While it would be foolish to rule out Kevin Durant — please pick up after your headline writers, Oklahoman editors — no one is going to beat the Clippers if Chris Paul continues to play possessed basketball. What happened to his sprained left thumb and a right hamstring injury? Wasn’t he going to struggle against Russell Westbrook?
A barrage of eight three-pointers — Michael Jordan, minus the shrug — reminded one and all of Paul’s preeminence as a point guard and leader. This is why they call him Point God. When he confounds every attempted defensive strategy by the Thunder, to the point where Scott Brooks’ future is strongly being questioned, you do wonder for a second where this magnificent human-interest story ultimately might be headed. It’s OK to get ahead of yourself this time. It’s that cool.
“When somebody’s got it going like that, you just try to stay out of the way as much as possible but also help keep that fire going,” teammate Blake Griffin said.
Paul, typically, only was concerned about the next game. “We have to understand that we don’t go into Game 2 with a 17-point lead,” he said of the 17-point victory. “You know, you’ve just got to come back and be hungry and not be satisfied with one.”
The mood was much more methodical and business-like than what we saw Saturday night, when the Clippers won Game 7 against the Warriors in the final seconds. How did you not smile when Doc Rivers — who barely slept for a week as he counseled his wounded players, calmed a simmering rage in Los Angeles, served as a vital spokesman for Black America and the NBA throughout the crisis, spoke to shaken employees at the team’s downtown offices, helped ease his own family’s pain and, oh yes, coached his team through a draining series — became a one-man pep rally at game’s end? He raised his arms, shouted into the stands, stormed down the sideline, high-fives fans, hugged his players and reminded one and all exactly what this group had overcome the previous eight days and nights.
“Our guys fought through the adversity. They went through it. It drained them, and they found enough energy to win,’’ RIvers said. “I just thought this team really needed the game. I just thought with all this stuff, this team just needed a win. My excitement was not for me at all, it was for everybody. I wanted the fans to get excited. They were almost sitting there in shock, and I just wanted them to get excited and exhale for a second.’’
Not to pschoanalyze a team that is tired of public scrutiny. But it’s possible the Sterling scandal, while beginning to die down now that V. Stiviano has made more money off ABC and Barbara Walters, will continue to fuel the Clippers. If they can get through a week of insanity and still win a playoff series, can’t they get through anything?
“There’s not a team that has ever gone through this,” said Griffin, maturing as we speak from a maniacal dunker and shtick pitchman into a thoughful 25-year-old. “I remember that Saturday morning, when everything had hit, you could see certain players that were really emotionally about the situation. This was the first day, and it got bigger. At the point when we had the meeting, it was a huge thing, but it just grew and grew and grew with each day and each hour, honestly, and it just wore on guys. We tried to put it off to the side, but it’s impossible.”
Yet, much of it is over now. The league has banned Sterling for life and quickly launched proceedings to force his ouster as owner, announcing it will appoint a chief executive officer to oversee the team. Sterling is said to be ensconced in the penthouse of one of his Beverly Hills buildings, finally breaking his silence with this regrettable comment to something called DuJour.com: “I wish I had just paid her off.’’ Stiviano claims in one breath in the Walters interview that Sterling is not a racist, saying, “No, I don’t believe it in my heart. I think Mr. Sterling is from a different generation than I am. I think he was brought up to believe these things … segregation, whites and blacks. But through his actions he’s shown that he’s not a racist. He’s shown to be a very generous and kind man.” Then, in the next breath, she says Sterling has gone off on similar racist ramblings. Yes, Sterling is expected to summon his battalion of lawyers and drag the NBA through court for weeks, months and hopefully not years. But the big, bad man has been stripped of his power and dignity.
The Clippers still have theirs. They also have covered up the championship banners of the Lakers inside Staples Center — another deed of Rivers — with plans of hoisting one of their own. Can they in June? With San Antonio and Miami likely awaiting?
Are you going to tell them they can’t?
Paul, who had a much larger burden as president of the players’ union, easily could have checked out of the series. In a career of unusual circumstances — Hurricane Katrina early in his New Orleans career, two years in a temporary Oklahoma City home, a trade to the Lakers voided by commissioner David Stern, a soon-after trade to the Clippers approved by Stern — the Sterling affair truly blew him away. His body was a wreck, with hamstring and thumb injuries, and he sometimes felt overwhelmed by it all.
Instead, he also persevered. “Our team is very tight, and we have a team group text where it’s just our entire team,” Paul said. “Last night, guys were texting that this can’t be over. It’s not time for this to be over. We just felt in the timeouts and at halftime (of Game 7), we just knew it wasn’t time for our season to be over.
“It’s going to sound crazy, but it was all about tonight. Everything else was in the past. We didn’t dwell on all that stuff, and not to diminish how serious everything has been in the past week or so. It was all about basketball.’’
Then, he jumped on a plane to Oklahoma and reiterated the point. “I thought on a lot of those 3s, especially early in the game, we had a hand in his face and a hand in his shots,” Thunder guard Thabo Sefolosha said. “So we did a decent job, but those shots went in and that boosted their whole team.”
“We have to get more physical,” said Durant, who scored 25 points but didn’t look like an MVP. “I’m not talking about hard fouls, I’m talking about jamming the lane, fighting through screens and not letting guys run free. We just have to be more physical.”
I’m not going to describe the Clippers as America’s Team, knowing the term to be trite and silly, but they certainly are a cause that America should embrace and admire and enjoy. My only concern, should they win a title, is the ogre finagling a ring out of it. All Sterling has to do is pay someone off, right? That was a joke, Doc.
Smile. You deserve it.