Clippers Rise Above History, Make NBA Playoffs
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The Los Angeles Clippers may be one of the most woeful sports franchises of all time. The team is having a good year. That despite an owner who, for the past two decades, has made profits, not winning the top priority.
NPR's Luke Burbank reports.
LUKE BURBANK reporting:
May 4, 1981 was an optimistic day in San Diego. The city's struggling basketball team, the Clippers, had just been purchased by a young lawyer named Donald Sterling, and he had big plans. At his first press conference, he announced he was keeping the team in San Diego, and he was going to spend whatever it took to make them a winner.
But 25 years later, the Clippers are pretty much known for two things: being from Los Angeles and losing.
Professor ANDY ZIMBALIST (Economics, Smith College): Sterling came into the NBA with grandiose and positive thoughts.
BURBANK: Andy Zimbalist is an economist at Smith College.
Professor ZIMBALIST: He quickly learned that there was a profitable way to operate that involved much less risk, and I think it's fair to say that Mr. Sterling doesn't have a lot of friends.
BURBANK: What he does have, though, is a very profitable basketball team. Somewhere along the way, Sterling realized that the best way to make money from the Clippers was not by trying to win lots of games, but by paying his players and coaches as little as possible and then collecting on the league's shared revenue from TV deals and the like. And so, over the years, the Clippers have been incredibly good at making money for Sterling-the basketball part, not so much.
Unidentified Man #1: Yeah, they talk about you because you're a Clipper fan.
BURBANK: Lionel Williams and William Johnson are season ticket holders on their way into a Clipper's game. Sometimes, the team has been so bad they couldn't give the tickets away. But a funny thing happened this season. Despite having one of the lowest payrolls in the NBA, the Clippers are actually pretty good. That's created a new problem.
Unidentified Man #2: They're bugging us about tickets to come to the game.
Unidentified Man #1: So that's what we're running into now. And don't think about playoff tickets, don't even ask.
Unidentified Announcer: ...your Los Angeles Clippers!
BURBANK: Inside the Staples Center, the Clipper faithfuls scream and cheer with a vigor born out of a quarter century of futility. Sure, you won't see Jack Nicholson like you would if you were at a Laker game, but you might see Malcolm in the Middle, or that one guy from that one movie. You can feel the excitement inside the team's locker room, too. The Clippers are lead by a mix of young guys just coming into their own, and veteran players.
Forward Vin Baker is one of the old guys. He remembers how helpless the Clippers were over the years.
Mr. VIN BAKER (Basketball Player, L.A. Clippers): We would get a wind every time we came in here. That was the perception in my last 13 years, but it's completely different now. We got winners in this locker room, people ready to go.
BURBANK: These are heady days in Clipperville, as the team prepares to play the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs. But all this success could have a downside. Those young players are going to be worth more money. Will owner Donald Sterling pay the cash to keep them? That's hard to say, especially because Sterling declined our request to be interviewed for this story.
Economist Andy Zimbalist says, though, you never know what Sterling might do. Winning can do weird things to people.
Professor ZIMBALIST: It's always possible that Mr. Scrooge will change his personality, and that what he'll find is it's really fun when the fans like you.
BURBANK: If nothing else, Sterling can revel in the fact that at least one of those promises he made 25 years ago when he bought the team has finally come true. The Clippers are winners--for this season, anyway.
Luke Burbank, NPR News, Los Angeles.