The trouble with the Los Angeles Clippers is, they don't live down to your expectations. You want to paint them as ridiculous, a burlesque of a professional basketball team. But then forward Loy Vaught introduces himself, the picture of professional dignity, and he says to you sincerely, "Be kind."
The trouble with that is, the Clippers were 0-15 after losing 103-95 to the 3-13 Minnesota Timberwolves last Saturday night, and you have all these jokes prewritten, like how Clipper guard Pooh Richardson should be called Losie the Pooh. But then you speak to Timberwolf center Sean Rooks, a member of the 13-69 Dallas Mavericks last season, and he shakes his head and says of human nature, "It's amazing how people want to kick you when you're down." Suddenly you feel smaller than Tiny Archibald.
The trouble with the NBA standings is, they don't make a critical distinction. "These players are losing," Clipper coach Bill Fitch says of his roster, which reads like a Who's He? of pro hoops, "but they are not losers."
The Clippers have historically been a laugh riot, an organization famously described as having "big ears and a girlfriend named Minnie." So you ask Billy Crystal why he's a Clipper season-ticket holder, and Mr. Saturday Night considers the query as if for the first time. (This'll be good.) A giant question mark hangs in a cartoon balloon above his head before he finally answers with upturned palms. (Here it comes.) "I don't know," says Crystal, a reflective smile giving way to a grimace that hints at something darker. "I...I don't want to talk about it."
If he doesn't want to talk about it, imagine how chatty the Clippers themselves must feel. "People think they can say anything to you in public," says starting forward Tony Massenburg, a journeyman who played in Barcelona last year. "In restaurants they'll ask, 'When are you gonna win a game?' What are you supposed to say? You can't go off; you can't get an attitude." So the Clippers beat on (and get beat upon), boats against the tide.
It is Friday, Dec. 2, 29 days into the season, and the Clippers are practicing at their facility in Carson, Calif. "I have yet to experience winning in the NBA," says rookie Eric Piatkowski, as if confessing some transgression during a 12-step program. (Piatkowski actually was drafted No. 1 by the Indiana Pacers and 15th overall, but then was traded to the Clippers in a deal that also brought Richardson and Malik Sealy to L.A. in return for guards Mark Jackson and Greg Minor.) "But if our center was healthy," Piatkowski adds, "we'd be a .500 team. I really believe that."
Seven-foot, 300-pound center Stanley Roberts ruptured his left Achilles tendon in the Clippers' final home exhibition game, one year after rupturing his right Achilles tendon. In addition, point guard Gary Grant will be out until at least late this month with a mangled left knee. It is precisely such luck that may aid the Clippers in breaking the league's alltime-worst season record of 9-73, established by the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers. The Miami Heat holds the record for most consecutive losses to start a season, with 17 in 1988-89, the team's first year in the league. The Clippers' 16th and 17th games were at home on Monday against the Charlotte Hornets and on Wednesday against the Milwaukee Bucks. Perversely, their 18th—the possible record breaker—is on Friday against the crosstown Lakers in their storied Forum. In L.A. the Lakers are Gallant, the Clippers are Goofus.
Nonetheless, a funny thing is happening on the way to the Forum. The popular tide may be shifting, all but imperceptibly, in favor of this Clipper ship. Among the 6,685 fans allegedly in attendance at the Clip Joint last Thursday night to see loss number 14 (93-84 to the Pacers), 2,000 were invisible, while another five supporters bagged their heads like grocery produce. However, the rest of the demicrowd was wildly enthusiastic, especially when starting center Matt Fish was on the floor. "The fans here yell, 'Feed the Fish!' " says the piscatorial pivotman, an NBA rookie (averaging 5.7 points and 4.1 rebounds at week's end) but a veteran of "four or five" CBA teams. "I have a hook shot that they're calling the Fish Hook."
Fish is the proto-Clip, a 6'11" lefthander and accomplished pianist from Washington, Iowa, who accepted a Division I basketball scholarship before ever starting a high school game. A North Carolina-Wilmington recruiter saw Fish at a clinic before his senior season, flew him down and signed him on the spot. "I'd never seen a beach before that," says Fish. "I never went to an NBA game until I played in one in the preseason."
At various times last season the Clippers had, in addition to Jackson, NBA stars Ron Harper, Danny Manning and Dominique Wilkins, none of whom cared to stay. Only two seasons ago, under coach Larry Brown (now with Indiana), the Clippers won 41 games and made the playoffs. But for the better part of 14 years now, skinflint owner Donald T. Sterling has imbued his Clippers with all the dignity of those rotary nose-hair clippers. Yet with this current team he has unwittingly assembled a club to love: The Fish That Saved Los Angeles.
And now the Clippers are also a global phenomenon, whistled for hanging on the Pacific Rim. They opened this regular season with a pair of games against the Portland Trail Blazers in Yokohama, Japan, after a pair of exhibitions in Mexico City. On an all-Asian L.A. radio station this season, seven Clipper games will be broadcast in Mandarin Chinese. (Significantly, there are no L's in that language.) In the Clipper front office Andrew Gonzalez answers the main switchboard. "Where is the Los Angeles Sports Arena?" the unruffled Gonzalez says, politely repeating the caller's question. "It's in...Los Angeles." The caller is phoning from Australia, where it is 3:15 in the morning. He wants to purchase Clipper tickets.
Which brings us to Saturday night at the Sports Arena, the NBA's own Land Down Under, and a tilt between the league's two worst teams. The Timberwolves won one game during the first month of this season, providing new coach Bill Blair with some faux-positive thoughts. "We try to get them to play on an even keel," says the blameless Blair, a respected 13-year NBA assistant. "In November there weren't a lot of peaks and valleys: It was valleyin' every night."
How brown was his valley? The Wolves lost by 30 points to the Houston Rockets in the home opener, by 33 to the Cavaliers in Cleveland and by a landmark 38 points in Minneapolis to the struggling 76ers, the most lopsided loss in Minnesota's six-year existence. A local columnist who refers to the Wolves as the Trembling Timber-chihuahuas received an indignant letter from the owner. Of a Chihuahua.
Still, the Wolves, behind 19 points each from Christian Laettner, Isaiah Rider and Doug West, and nine assists by Winston Garland, led the Clippers by as many as 20 points before handily winning. It was a game widely regarded as the Clippers' last, best hope for a victory before they would break the record. Which, make no mistake, it was. "Otherwise," Fitch acknowledged afterward, "SPORTS ILLUSTRATED and ESPN wouldn't be here, as if this were a Game 7."
"Absolutely no one," says Vaught candidly, "wants to be the first team to lose to the Clippers."
In Saturday's ticket-holding crowd of what—3,500, maybe, out of in announced figure of 6,196?—was star-crossed sports agent Arn Tellem. He has only 12 NBA clients, but half of them are Timberwolves or Clippers. Among these are West, the losingest NBA player of the last five-plus seasons, and Rooks, the losingest NBA player of he last two-plus seasons. Then there is Richardson, the former Timberwolf and current Clip. "Pooh has been on a long and winding road through the underbelly of he NBA," says Tellem, who is a former general counsel for the Clippers. "Right now, he's passing through the...."
Let's just say that the agent makes an unpleasant anatomical analogy. Still, it is one that suggests light at the end of a tunnel. Richardson, who attended UCLA, co-owns a deli in the Valley ("The hot pastrami, man—it's sweet!" he says) and has long aspired to play professionally in Los Angeles. "My friends are here," he says. "I know they'll show up through thick and thin. They were telling me yesterday, we gotta switch to black shoes to break the streak. But we just gotta keep playing through it."
In the meantime life doesn't necessarily have to be something that rhymes with Fitch. Twenty-four years ago Fitch endured a similarly epic season-starting 15-game losing streak as coach of the Cavaliers. "Neither streak was fun," says Fitch, who only regrets that basketball hasn't kept pace with developments in medical science. "At least now, when you go to the dentist, that's painless."
Yet the 60-year-old Fitch, the fifth winningest coach (844 victories) in NBA history, came out of retirement for this team. He won a title with Larry Bird in Boston, still has not won a game with Matt Fish in L.A., but, admirably, professes no preference, neither Fish nor fowl. "I missed the teaching," says Fitch, when pressed to explain himself. "I missed the camaraderie and the competition. Playing the games. All of it. Coaching can be like teaching a subject. At the end of the season we'll know which of these guys can play."
Until then, as the Minnesota game made clear, the Clippers may make any number of records go timmm-berrr. "If somebody had told me I'd have to go through what I did in 1970 again, would I have taken the job?" says Fitch. "No. But if somebody told me I'd lose 82 games this season and make the playoffs next year, then I could stand it."
Of course, there is always this imponderable possibility: What if he loses 82 games this season and doesn't make the playoffs next year? What could possibly beat in this man's breast, allowing him to endure that? "I love the game," says Fitch, his sentiments more sincere than any ad campaign. "It has been a great part of my life. I guess that after a while basketball gets to be a...a narcotic."
Isn't that a funny thing—the only funny thing—about these Clippers? That an old coach can take what a poet wrote and put a poignant new spin on it? Think about what Fitch is saying, and maybe even learn from it: 'Tis better to have lost and loved than never to have lost at all.