LOS ANGELES -- A little before 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Clippers power forward Blake Griffin caught an entry pass on the left block, dribbled to the middle of the key, and was fouled across the arm by Golden State's Draymond Green. There was nothing notable about the play, nothing the least bit memorable, except for the fact that it happened at all.
Had Commissioner Adam Silver not stood before a bank of cameras in midtown Manhattan on Tuesday morning, had he not banished Donald Sterling from the league for life, and had he not vowed that the disgraced owner will be forced to sell the franchise, Griffin never would have made that move to the paint. DeAndre Jordan never would have made that dunk that shook the stanchion. Chris Paul never would have made that pass that froze three defenders. Matt Barnes never would have scuffled with Andre Iguodala, Stephen Curry never would have turned a 2-on-1 fast break into a pull-up three, and Jamal Crawford never would have sank an and-one falling out of bounds .
The Clippers never would have beaten the Warriors in Game 5, 113-103, because the teams never would have played. Those were the stakes for Silver on Tuesday. Either kick Sterling to the side, forever, or watch the Clippers and Warriors walk off the court in protest moments before a nationally televised showdown. "It was a real option," said Warriors coach Mark Jackson. It was more than that. It was a plan. "I'm sure people would have stuck to it," Green said, "if things didn't go well."
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What actually transpired was almost as surreal. Clippers staffers wore all black. Clippers cheerleaders wore all black. Every advertisement in the arena was covered by black fabric. You'd have seen more sponsors at a high-school game. The mood was simultaneously angry and elated, as if Staples Center was hosting a coup, narrated by the Clippers DJ and hostess. Some fans wore T-shirts with pictures of Sterling's face crossed out, over messages such as "Sterling out equality in" and "No room for racism." Signs included "I'm here for Griffin not Sterling"...."Get out Sterling"..."For sale racists need not apply"... "Sterling might own the team for now but they belong to us."
All those images, plus the posters of Magic Johnson and the renderings of Sterling with devils horns, were broadcast on the Jumbotron. Sterling's own organization, from players to coaches to the entertainment staff, turned on him. "We are home!" the fist-pumping DJ bellowed over deep bass. "We are one!" That mantra -- chanted periodically throughout the fourth quarter -- was written in black and white on the LED boards between the suite levels, taking the place of the ads. "It's a great day," said Paul. Oddly, it might have been the best day in the history of the franchise.
Clippers coach Doc Rivers informed his team of Sterling's punishment during a film session at morning shoot-around. "There was nothing in the room," Rivers said. "It was complete silence." It was the sound of satisfaction. "You could be making nothing," Rivers continued. "You want to work for someone who at least shares your values or respects them -- especially when you're working for a company where, when you do your job, you have it on your chest. I get the sense that was very hard for the players. They had to wear it."
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But on Tuesday, unlike Sunday, they didn't ditch their shooting shirts. They didn't flip anything inside-out. When they took the floor for warm-ups to a standing ovation, they were handed note-cards with the words, "We Love You" and their names. "It was one of the most emotional things I've ever been a part of it," Paul said. "We have a tough locker room and a lot of us are tough. But it almost brought tears to your eyes to feel the support."
They were greeted by Jesse Jackson, lingering in front of Sterling's usual seat, and they also saw Sterling's wife, Shelly, flanked by six bodyguards. Shelly called Rivers on Tuesday and requested permission to attend. "I thought that was a very nice gesture," he said. Shelly asked Rivers to tell the players she loved them.
Fans were initially encouraged to boycott the game, even by Mark Jackson. But Silver brought back players and patrons alike, turning a protest into a rally, and another reminder that sports franchises transcend the suits that purchase them. No one buys a jersey with an owner's name on the back. No one lines up for an owner's autograph. No one hangs an owner's Fathead. Sterling may have defined the Clippers when they had nobody else. Now, they are defined by Griffin, Paul, Jordan, and the dozens of dedicated employees who make the club hum. Many people have worked many years to make the Clipper logo a point of pride instead of embarrassment. They shouldn't have to wear it inside-out. And they certainly shouldn't have to miss a playoff date when there have been so few.
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The Clippers' 138th straight sellout crowd -- termed by Rivers "as good as I've ever seen" -- saw the home team capture a game they controlled from the moment Silver grabbed the microphone in New York. Jordan, who went scoreless in Game 4, texted his coach before Game 5 to say: "That wasn't me. I'll be back." He scored 25 points on 8 of 10 shooting, while Paul pitched in 20 and Crawford 19, plus high fives at the end for courtside fans. The Clippers went from drained to determined, and now they head to Golden State for Game 6 on Thursday, leading the series 3-2 and looking for a win.
They need one. They are one.