Lob City Through the Lens: What It Was Like to Work for the Sterling-Era Clippers
Chris Serafino became a fan of the Los Angeles Clippers in the early 1990s, but he didn't realize that he wasn't alone until 2006.
It was the first round of the postseason. The Clippers, led by Elton Brand, Corey Maggette and Sam Cassell, were making their first playoffs appearance in nearly a decade against Carmelo Anthony and the Denver Nuggets.
"I remember being there and having really good seats behind one of the baskets, just like 10 rows up, and it was the loudest I had ever heard the arena," Serafino said. "The next game I went to I could only find seats in the 300 section, but it was still just amazing being there with 20,000 Clippers fans. Everybody was on their feet, everybody was screaming. It was the first time I ever felt like Clipper Nation was a thing."
That moment in time inspired Serafino to follow through on his dream of working for the team he had called his favorite since grade school.
That summer, he found a job listing on the team's website, applied for the position, and became the team's creative services coordinator — a role he describes as a "one-person, in-house creative team".
"I designed a lot of the team's marketing campaigns and materials for the arena," Serafino said. "A good example is if you come to a game and you get a giveaway item. Every year at the beginning of the year you'd get a magnet with a schedule on it, so I'd design stuff like that. Posters, thundersticks — you name it."
But working for the franchise wasn't as perfect as he anticipated. The team began to tank in the years that followed, and the job wasn't cutting it. Seeking better compensation and a more challenging gig, Serafino left the Clippers in 2010 to work for Red Bull, where he began to develop his skills as a social media strategist.
In the meantime, the Clippers were slowly becoming something they had never been since the franchise moved to Los Angeles in 1984: A title contender.
After missing the entirety of his would-be rookie season in 2009, a young Blake Griffin burst onto the scene in 2010 under the direction of newly-hired head coach, Vinny Del Negro. Griffin put together one of the most impressive rookie campaigns in league history, averaging 22.5 points and 12.1 rebounds per game en route to being named the first unanimous Rookie of the Year since 1990 — finishing above future All-Stars John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, respectively.
Several months later, the Clippers landed Chris Paul in an improbable trade with the New Orleans Hornets.
The Los Angeles Lakers had agreed to a three-team deal to acquire Paul, but the NBA — the owners of the Hornets at the time — vetoed the trade. A few days later, a new deal was agreed upon between the Clippers and Hornets, which saw Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman and Al-Farouq Aminu sent to New Orleans.
Almost overnight, Lob City was born. The trio of Griffin, Paul and DeAndre Jordan began to dominate headlines and highlight pages, and the Clippers started to become the talk of the city.
All the while, Serafino had stayed in close contact with the franchise and ended up returning before the start of the 2012-2013 season, when he helped create the digital team and focused on social media.
Things went well during his first season back. The Clippers won 56 games, which set the franchise record for wins in a single season, and Lob City continued to grow in popularity. Los Angeles would go on to lose to the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs that year, but there was no denying that this team had a very bright future.
When the Clippers swapped Del Negro for Doc Rivers in June 2013, things got even better.
"Anyone who ever interacted with Vinny would tell you that he's the nicest guy, like no one has anything bad to say about him," Serafino said. "I just think when it came to him, he was handed the keys to a Ferrari, and I think he signed up to drive a taxi... As soon as Chris Paul landed, everything changed. The situation changed, the expectations changed — and it wasn't Vinny's fault — but I just don't think he had the experience or was ready to handle a locker room full of All-Stars with the pressure to potentially win a championship. When they were able to acquire Doc, it was a no-brainer."
The good vibes lasted throughout the regular season. In Rivers' first year, the Clippers won a franchise-record 57 games and secured a top-three seed in the Western Conference, setting them up for a first-round face-off with the Golden State Warriors.
Throughout the season, though — and during almost all of Serafino's years with the franchise — there was one thing keeping the Clippers from truly being successful: The team's former owner, Donald T. Sterling.
"You didn't see him or hear from him a lot, but when you did, there was always this 'alarm' that would go off through the office," Serafino said. "It would be like, 'Hey, he's coming and he'll be here in 10 minutes,' and he would show up and parade around and ask people weird questions... It got to the point where he's inquiring about your job or what you're working on as much as like, he just wants to know who you are and maybe why he's paying you."
One memory, in particular, stands out to Serafino, who said he was cautioned about leaving valuables out on his desk when Sterling was around.
"There was this time I had my personal camera — like an SLR, a pretty expensive camera that I used for work — sitting on my desk," Serafino said. "I was gone for a little bit, and when I came back, I was like, 'Hey, has anyone seen my camera? Did someone put it away or something?'. Then one of my colleagues was like, 'Oh, DTS took it,'. So I'm wondering what I should do since it was my personal one, and long story short, Andy Roeser, who was the president at the time, told me he had one at home I could borrow... It must've been like a month or two until someone finally replaced my camera. But it was just things like that where it was super bizarre, but also I think it was just the mentality of like, 'I own the team, I own everything that comes with the team and within the walls, it's all mine.'"
Of course, no matter how weird things got for Serafino, nothing compared to when TMZ released the tape of Sterling making racist remarks to his girlfriend about her broadcasting the fact that she associates with black people.
On the tape, Sterling berated V. Stiviano for sharing a picture on Instagram of her posing with NBA legend Magic Johnson and asked her not to bring black people to his games.
The recording was shocking for many, especially since Sterling was the owner of an NBA team and had been "associating" with black people during his 33-year tenure.
Even to members of the organization, Sterling saying something so blatantly racist and vile was surprising.
"I was in the Bay Area for the playoff game against Golden State, and I remember it was like 6 or 7 in the morning and my phone was just non-stop buzzing and ringing and shaking," Serafino said. "I finally looked at it and I had a bunch of missed calls and text messages from a few different co-workers, and they were just like, 'Oh my God, DTS,'... Once I realized what had happened and I read the TMZ article, that's when the magnitude started settling in."
Game 4 took place in Oakland that night, which Serafino says was a blur. The Sterling incident was the talk of the arena, and by the time the game was over, the Clippers had been blown out by Golden State — though nobody was really paying attention to that.
Two days later, on April 29, 2014, the NBA banned Sterling for life from the league and fined him $2.5 million. Serafino and his colleagues watched from Staples Center as it happened live, which he says was equally exciting and confusing. No one knew if their jobs were secure or what would happen to the team, but the team staff was glad that they no longer had to work for Sterling.
Not long after the announcement, Rivers organized a call between the players and coaches at their Playa Vista training facility and the business operations staff at Staples.
"[Doc] was the first person to say that we had to separate ourselves from him even more than we already were," Serafino said. "So that's when he came up with the 'We Are One' statement, which I then went and created, and then we put that across all of our digital platforms and website... The next thing I knew, every team did it."
The Clippers lost a few sponsorship deals between the time the Sterling tape surfaced and the ban was carried out, so the team came up with the idea to completely blackout the arena.
"It was one of those surreal moments that when you're going through it, you don't really know what you're going through until you have time to reflect on it," Serafino said. "But it was also just a natural instinct and a reaction for everyone. Doc took the lead and said all the things that everyone was feeling and wanted to say, so it really ended up working out."
Los Angeles went on to defeat Golden State in Game 7; a triumphant victory for a team that had been through more hell in one week than any should have to go through in its history. Eventually, though, the Clippers ran out of gas in the second round and lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder in six games.
Fortunately, things were starting to look up for the franchise. On May 29, 2014, Steve Ballmer made a $2 billion bid to purchase the team, and he officially became the new owner roughly two months later.
He and Sterling couldn't have been any more different. Ballmer was prepared to spend any amount of money to help the Clippers win, while Sterling was frugal and tried to "make do" with whatever the team had. Ballmer was also enthusiastic about re-shaping one of the league's sorriest franchises — a refreshing take for those who had experienced Sterling's shortcomings firsthand.
"I thought about all the limited resources, all of the things I had always wanted to do," Serafino said. "Having a billionaire owner who comes from the tech world, at least for me, it was super exciting. I think a few of us shared that. Immediately as he came in, there was this hope and optimism where we all thought that we were almost there as it is, and this was going to be the person that kicked us over the hump to the next level. There were a lot of people that thought it was exciting and great, and the fans rallied behind that."
Growing up a fan of the team, this was as good as it could get for Serafino — but good things can't last forever, and it wasn't long before he decided he needed another change of pace.
During the 2015-2016 season — his last with the team — he began to feel jaded.
"You could love pizza more than anyone in the world, but if you ate pizza every night for three years straight, at some point you're going to want a cheeseburger," Serafino said. "There was one day where I just didn't feel the magic anymore. I was standing on the court, watching the players warm-up, and it just felt like any other Wednesday night in my life."
He says that, ultimately, he found himself becoming more of a fan of the players rather than the team.
"It's guys like Pablo Prigioni and Jamal Crawford and Cole Aldrich," Serafino said. "It's always those guys who are at the end of the bench and have been around for a bit that always have the best stories and I think are just happy to be there and will take the time to answer a question or give you something or ask how you're doing... Jamal is probably one of the realest guys in the NBA that I've ever been around."
Since leaving the Clippers in 2016, Serafino has made numerous stops at other companies and making an impact on social media, including Shopify, DAZN and WeWork, where he currently works as senior manager of social media. He has no plans to return to sports coverage, but he says he'll never forget what it was like to grow up a fan of the team, work for them, and make it through the Sterling situation.
"One thing I can take away from the actual Donald Sterling experience is like, anytime in my life when I'm ever stuck on something or I feel like s**t is about to hit the fan, I tell myself I've been through worse and point to that moment," Serafino said. "It's the moment that built resiliency in me."