The Road to Nowhere

When the NBA's worst team, the Los Angeles Clippers, visited four cities, the name of the game was—as usual—futility
March 23, 1987

On Monday, March 2, The Los Angeles Clippers embarked on a road trip that would take them through the Midwest and on to the East Coast, four games in six days. The Clippers knew that there was very little they could learn from this trip that they really wanted to know, but they took it just the same. At 11-51 they are the worst team in the NBA this season; on a given night they may be the worst NBA team ever to play the game. If the Clippers had a credo—which they don't—it would probably be the one expressed by point guard Darnell Valentine: "You have to do as much as you can, as best you can, even if you can't."

The Clippers left town on a hot streak, which is to say they had actually won a game the previous Saturday night, and in the process had avoided tying the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers for the worst record in NBA history. That Sixers team had set some fairly imposing standards, finishing with a 9-73 record while losing games in 22 American cities, a remarkable feat considering they were playing in what was then a 17-team league. (In those days more games were played at neutral sites.) The Clippers have put together losing streaks of 12 and 16 games this season, but on that Saturday night—Feb. 28—they were able to pull out a 111-106 nail-biter over the Sacramento Kings at the L.A. Memorial Sports Arena for their 10th victory of the year.

There were indications long before the season began that the Clippers were on the verge of becoming a low-end sideshow, the kind of grotesque curiosity you might find in a jar of brine next to the three-headed goat embryo. In July starting guard Norm Nixon fell down a hole in New York's Central Park and was lost for the season. Not lost in the sense that they couldn't find him, of course—but lost. Nixon had been playing the outfield for his actress-wife Debbie Allen's Sweet Charity Softball team and was chasing a fly ball when he ruptured a tendon in his left knee while tumbling down a hole leading to that strange place called Clipperland, where nothing is ever quite what it seems to be.

With Nixon out, the Clippers were obliged to rely more heavily on second-year center Benoit Benjamin, and more heavily is precisely how he showed up for training camp. Big Ben arrived at camp 27 pounds overweight and waddled onto the floor for his first practice looking as if he were carrying a small condo development on his seven-foot frame. But he pronounced himself unconcerned by the extra weight. "Most of my weight is liquid," he said. During the exhibition season, Benjamin's thighs had to be lubed with Vaseline to prevent chafing. "He definitely ain't something sculpted like a Greek god," said Cedric Maxwell, then a Clipper forward. "If Benoit hadn't eaten in two days and he was thrown into a cage with a grizzly, you can rest assured somebody would get a fur coat."

The Clippers were 3-3 two weeks into the season, when things began to get curiouser and curiouser. All-Star forward Marques Johnson brought down a rebound in a game against Dallas, turned his head into Benjamin's ponderous belly, and suffered a ruptured cervical disc that will require surgery if Johnson is ever to play again. "Without Marques we were a leaderless team," says head coach Don Chaney. "I'll bet we've lost 15 games in the fourth quarter because nobody wanted the ball."

If the Clippers are shut out on their upcoming road trip, they will have lost in all 23 NBA cities this season, eclipsing the 76ers' mark for futility on the road. They have not been much better at home. On Feb. 20, a rousing crowd of 8,247 turned up in the Sports Arena for something called Gospel Night, at which an old-fashioned revival meeting was conducted on the court following the game. Though Chaney and several players got up to testify, the Clippers remain a team in need of prayer.

The Clippers even have their own celebrity fan at courtside, a virtual must for any team playing in L.A. Just as the Lakers are rarely without the leering presence of Jack Nicholson, star of major motion pictures, the Clippers have Roberta Leighton, who plays Casey Reed, the "virgin doctor" on daytime TV's The Young and the Restless. Leigh-ton gets her Clippers tickets from her plastic surgeon, who also gives her collagen shots in the face. She doesn't say which is more painful, although the combined effect of the two seems to have made her slightly delirious. "I was attacked by my father in childhood, but it's O.K. because I killed him with a lamp," she says. "My sister is dying of a lingering disease, but actually, she can't the because she's married to the producer." Even some people who don't get shots in the face begin to talk like that after tumbling down that hole into Clipperland, where truth is often stranger than fiction.

MONDAY, MARCH 2

While the team stands around the baggage claim area at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, a woman who has been watching the players carefully for several minutes finally approaches a photographer who is taking their pictures and asks, "Are they the Flippers?" The correct answer, of course, is no, they were never called the Flippers, even when they played near Sea World in San Diego, before owner Donald Sterling moved the franchise north and turned them into the L.A. (Coupon) Clippers, the cheapest team in pro basketball.

When the team bus arrives at the Hyatt Regency it is greeted by a woman standing alone on the sidewalk, holding a sign that says WELCOME CUPPERS, and below that MOM DAILEY. This is the doting mother-in-law of guard Quintin Dailey, who joined the team two months ago. In February 1986, Dailey was suspended by the Chicago Bulls when he made his second visit to a rehab center under the terms of the NBA's drug policy (it was his fourth visit overall). When the Bulls didn't re-sign him at the end of the season, Dailey wound up with the Jacksonville Jets of the CBA, where Clippers scouts saw him and signed him. When he arrived in Los Angeles, he was 25 pounds overweight, and Vaseline futures shot up on the commodities markets. Though he is considered one of the most likable players on the team, Dailey has had difficulty carrying the extra weight and is shooting only 38%.

TUESDAY, MARCH 3

"They've dyed the carpet in their rooms about 12 different colors, they leave hair everywhere, and people call down to complain that they can't sleep at night from the whirring of the blow-dryers," says the Hyatt's assistant manager, a dazed look on her face. "In the mornings the maids open the doors and just start to cry." As she walks away she mutters to herself in a low, incredulous voice: "All that...mousse."

No. it's not the Clippers. The Clippers don't mousse. (The possible exception is forward Michael Cage, who looks as if he sets it wet, but says he prefers a dry curl for the softer, more natural look. "If you get grease all over the basketball," Cage says, "other guys don't really appreciate that at all." Go figure some people.) The Hyatt Regency, where the Clippers are staying, is also headquarters for the Midwest Beauty Show—thousands of hairdressers under one roof. Every time Cage walks through the lobby, women he has never seen before come up and ask if they can "do" him. Cage says he is already "done."

At Chicago Stadium, Bulls coach Doug Collins is in a sweat before the game because he fears his team is not taking the Clippers seriously. No coach likes to lose to the worst team in the league, particularly when he's struggling to make the playoffs. "I'm scared to death of this team," Collins said of the 10-44 Clippers. "There will be no big shots for them tonight, they're not going anywhere, so what have they got to lose? They've got good players. Mike Woodson, Larry Drew and Darnell Valentine are all quality guards; Michael Cage is one of the best rebounders in the league; and Benjamin could be one of the best centers in the NBA if he ever makes up his mind he wants to play. But they've got a lot of other distractions. When you have players coming and going all the time, never knowing who you're going to have from one day to the next, then you've got chaos."

The Clippers hit their first two shots and appear to be ready for the Bulls, but then comes the chaos. Chicago responds with a run of nine points, and by half-time the Bulls" lead has stretched without much struggle to 17.

Sterling, who is making his first road trip in years with the team he owns, has brought the entire Chicago branch of his family, as well as his wife. Shelly, to the game. When Sterling bought the team in 1981, he had his picture plastered on billboards all over San Diego, but as his stewardship of the franchise grew increasingly controversial, the owner became more and more reclusive. "I have nothing to say to the media," he advises a reporter who has not yet asked him a question. "As long as we're building, I don't talk. Everything I say to you is off the record. I don't have a low profile, I have no profile."

The Clippers look even worse in the second half, and they lose 114-80, even though the Bulls play none of their starters in the fourth quarter. It is the Clippers' 20th loss this season by 12 points or more and their sixth by 30 or more. "It's like plugging a dam with your fingers," says the beleaguered Chaney. "You stick your finger in one hole, and it starts to leak someplace else. It's embarrassing. I don't like to walk out of here and have people laughing at us. It's tough for me to sleep at nights when we play this way." There will be no sleep for anyone until after a bus trip to Milwaukee that takes two hours and seems like four.

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 4

Michael Cage looks like a black Atlas, and he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. He also carries the weight of the Clippers in his gut. "I've got a sour feeling in the pit of my stomach," he says. "All this losing has been coming down on me, man. I don't sleep well, and I've been having a lot of headaches this year. Maybe it's because I've been thinking too much about the way we've played. People look at us like we're a joke, but it's not funny. Sometimes I'll just sit by myself and say, How did we get this way?"

The reason they got this way has a lot to do with misguided management. The Clippers are owned by one lawyer (Sterling) and administered by two others (team president Alan Rothenberg and general counsel Arn Tellem), which may help explain why they are currently involved in seven major lawsuits, making them one of the most litigious franchises in the history of sports. You can call them the Clippers or the Flippers, or you can just call them L.A. Law.

Coincidentally, all of the Clippers' litigation is handled by the law firm of Manatt, Phelps, Rothenberg, Tunney & Phillips. It was Rothenberg who insisted on going to court to try to void the Clippers' 1984 trade of Terry Cummings, Ricky Pierce and Craig Hodges to the Milwaukee Bucks for Marques Johnson, Junior Bridgeman and Harvey Catchings, after it was revealed that Johnson had had a drug problem several years earlier. There is also a suit pending against Cage, filed two years ago by an Italian team, mainly because the Clippers failed to make their first-round draft choice a serious offer until he had slipped off to Italy to see what he could make in lire. Cage eventually signed with a team there—an agreement that led to legal problems when he subsequently signed with the Clippers. "I'm still bitter about what happened then, and three years later I still have this dark cloud hanging over my head," Cage says. "A lot of guys on this team are really bitter because of the way they've been treated. After this franchise negotiates with a player, what they end up with is damaged goods."

The Clippers are overmatched by the Bucks at the Mecca but play hard and are about to draw to within four points late in the game when starting forward Rory White tries to dunk the ball on an uncontested layup, and it bounces almost to midcourt. Milwaukee scores going the other way.

In the second quarter of this 110-100 defeat, the Bucks fielded a lineup of four ex-Clippers—Cummings, Pierce, Hodges and Bridgeman—a reminder that bad teams always seem to make the worst trades. In 1982 Cummings was the Clippers' hope of the future—just as Benjamin is now—but Cummings wanted to be back in the Midwest near his family, and he didn't like playing with Bill Walton, who was making his comeback from foot surgery. Sterling blames then-coach Jim Lynam for complaining that "every time he told Terry to go left, he went right" and for insisting on a trade. Lynam might well blame Cummings, who obviously wanted to jump ship and "did not play with the heart he's shown in Milwaukee," according to a former Clippers official. The same could be said for Walton, the fiery redhead who was such an important part of Boston's world championship last season, but who showed little fire when he last played for the Clippers in 1984.

THURSDAY, MARCH 5

"Players have left the Clippers and done better, and it's not because they've suddenly become better players," says Valentine. "Some guys don't play well in difficult circumstances. You can take a good player and put him on this team, and things just get worse. He doesn't blossom. Some guys get traded here and they feel that because we're losing, they can just use this as a showcase to get traded to a better team. We have some players who play very intensely and others who don't put forth any effort at all. When you play for the Clippers, you feel like you're coming over on one of those boats from Cuba with all different kinds of people on it. There's just no pedigree with this team."

As the Clippers' flight to Boston taxis onto the runway in Milwaukee, the pilot comes on the intercom to greet the passengers, then adds a special welcome to the Los Angeles Clippers, who are seated in first class. Behind the curtain in the coach cabin, strangers actually look at each other and laugh. When the flight arrives at Logan Airport, an hour late, trainer Mike Shimensky informs the team that all their luggage has been lost.

FRIDAY, MARCH 6

Coach Chaney, who played for the Celtics on two championship teams, is not exactly overjoyed to be returning to Boston Garden with a team like the Clippers. "We've collected guys off the streets to play for us this year," Chaney says. "Sometimes I look out on the floor at all these no-names and I can't believe my eyes. I'm literally working myself to death trying to win with mediocre players." Chaney believes that the franchise is finally moving in the right direction under the guidance of general manager Elgin Baylor, who has traded away older players like Maxwell and Kurt Nimphius for first-round draft choices. "You look to the future and you see the light at the end of the tunnel," Chaney says, "but you're still walking in the tunnel."

In its own inimitable fashion, the Clippers' front office told Chaney that the coaching job was his through the end of the season, just as trial balloons appeared with Hubie Brown's picture on them. "Even if we go on a tear and win the rest of our games, I don't know whether my job can be saved," says Chaney, whose nickname, appropriately enough for a man coaching this team, is Duck. "I'm not worried about getting another job, but if I'm not with this team next year, I'll never get a chance to redeem myself. That's what really gets to me. I'm not a loser."

So enfeebled is their offense that the Clippers, down by 21 points to the Celtics in the third quarter, are actually assessed a 24-second shot-clock violation. Then White spring-loads another one of his projectile dunks, and L.A. loses 132-111 to the Celtics, who are playing without an injured Larry Bird.

SATURDAY, MARCH 7

Rubbery-legged and dazed after three losses in four days, the Clippers are blown out 115-93 in Madison Square Garden by the 19-41 New York Knicks. Dailey sets the tone for this one by fouling Patrick Ewing, the Knicks' 7-foot center, in the backcourt with four seconds left in the first quarter. Benjamin, who hasn't pushed an opposing center all season, allows Ewing to repeatedly humiliate him inside with thunderous leather shampoos. Tim Kempton, whose mother is a New York City police officer, comes in to relieve gentle Ben and puts on such a ferocious show that he fouls out in just over a quarter.

The Sunday wakeup call for the Clippers' flight back to L.A. is at 6 a.m. But even after they wake up, the nightmare just goes on and on.

FIVE PHOTOSLANE STEWARTThe Clippers' trip exposed them to some Chicago Stadium gloom (left) and (right, top to bottom) a defeat, Mom Dailey's greeting, another grim bus trip and for White, an in-flight peek at a snap of his new son. THREE PHOTOSLANE STEWARTThat solitary figure checking out of a hotel in Milwaukee (center picture) is Benjamin, who's also shown going for the ball (bottom) in—naturally enough—another L.A. loss. FOUR PHOTOSLANE STEWARTRoad scenes (top to bottom): a cruel scoreboard in Boston, Woodson looking skyward—for help?—Sterling in a brave pose and Valentine having a popping good time. THREE PHOTOSLANE STEWARTIn the Big Apple (top to bottom) the Clippers fell to the Knicks, Cage sought repose at the hotel, Chaney suffered on and Drew added an ankle sprain to a long list of team injuries.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)