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The Past Is History

March 06, 2006
March 06, 2006

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March 6, 2006

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The Past Is History

Forget every nasty crack you've ever heard about the Clippers. Led by All-Star forward Elton Brand, the team once known as the worst franchise in sports is erasing decades of futility

Among franchises inthe four major professional sports, the Clippers are the most inept ever....There's got to be meaning to a failure of such immensity. So, consider this:The Clippers must lose so we can be reminded that there isn't always a light atthe end of the tunnel, there isn't necessarily redemption and there might notbe a next year. -SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, April 17, 2000

This is an article from the March 6, 2006 issue Original Layout

As you can see, SIhas not always been kind to the Los Angeles Clippers. Then again, kindness isnot necessarily warranted when a franchise has had just one winning season inmore than a quarter century and its employees liken playing for it toincarceration, as Ron Harper once did. But now it's time to say nice thingsabout the Clippers, a good young team led by a good-hearted young powerforward, Elton Brand, who has suffered long enough. So the moment has come togive Brand his due and, in the process, exorcise a few of the Clippers' demons,as recorded in these pages.

... [the Clippersare] on the verge of becoming a low-end sideshow, the kind of grotesquecuriosity you might find in a jar of brine next to the three-headed goatembryo. -March 23, 1987

See? It beganearly. In 1981 Beverly Hills real estate mogul Donald Sterling bought the team(which was then located in San Diego) at the suggestion of his buddy LosAngeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss. At his first home game, in October 1981,Sterling sat courtside, shirt unbuttoned to his navel. As the clock ran out ona 125-110 victory over the Houston Rockets, he sprinted across the hardwoodwith a glass of wine in hand and leaped into coach Paul Silas's arms. Thatwould be the high point for a while. With the exception of a brief respiteduring Larry Brown's tenure in the early 1990s, the Clippers suffered onewoeful season after another. A move up the coast to Los Angeles in '84, tocompete head-to-head with the Lakers for fans and media attention, hardlyhelped. It was ugly.

Until this season.Aided by the off-season trade for confident, playoff-tested point guard SamCassell and the signing of free-agent shooting guard Cuttino Mobley, theClippers are at long last contenders. At week's end they were 31-23, thefranchise's best start since 1976, when it was the Buffalo Braves. Mostimportant, the Clippers have Brand. The 6'8", 254-pound All-Star is havinga revelatory season. At week's end he was averaging a career-high 25.5 pointsand 2.6 blocks, along with 10.3 rebounds. His 52.4% shooting from the field isall the more impressive considering that 70% of Brand's shots this season havebeen jumpers, often against double-teaming defenses. "He's one of the topthree players in the league, especially now that he can knock down thatjumper," says Golden State Warriors assistant coach Mario Elie. "I getmad when they don't talk about him for MVP."

Despite their ownsuccess and the Lakers' recent struggles-the Clips were four games better inthe standings through Sunday-the Clippers have yet to supplant the Lakers asL.A.'s team. They're still deficient in star power, for instance; the Clippers'most famous fans, in precipitously descending Q rating order, are BillyCrystal, Penny Marshall and Frankie Muniz. And though their average attendanceof 17,120 is up more than 7,000 since 1996, enough vestiges of the old Clipsremain to keep Angelenos from fully investing themselves emotionally. In arecent game against Golden State, Cassell drove the lane and lobbed a pass tocenter Chris Kaman that bounced off Kaman's forehead. Later coach Mike Dunleavyturned to his bench, intending to insert reserve forward James Singleton, butended up sending in Vladimir Radmanovic, who'd joined the team just thatafternoon in a trade with Seattle. "James didn't have the right shortson," Dunleavy said. "He wore his practice shorts instead of his gameshorts, so I had to put Vladdy in. It was good for Vladdy, I guess."

You want to paintthem as ridiculous, a burlesque of a professional basketball team.

-Dec. 12, 1994

Ridiculous? Brandremembers when he would pull up to a restaurant and be asked by the parkingattendant if he was a Laker. When he'd identify himself as a Clipper, theattendant would tell him there was no valet parking. "Those articles about[us] being the worst organization ever, it was like a joke," Brand says."People would say to me, 'Why do you want to play with the Clippers?' As ifthe team wasn't an NBA franchise, and in L.A. Why wouldn't you want to playhere?"

The 26-year-oldBrand has endured more than his share of grief as a pro. After two fabulousyears at Duke he was drafted by the Chicago Bulls as an undersized powerforward. He excelled in two seasons with a team that went a combined 32-132before being traded to the Clippers for the rights to Tyson Chandler, plusBrian Skinner. In Brand's first four seasons in L.A., the Clippers were131-197.

In 2004 Brand'swoes appeared to have ended when, as a restricted free agent, he signed asix-year, $82.2 million offer sheet with the Heat. But, shockingly, Sterlingmatched the deal. (Says Clippers forward Corey Maggette, in something of anunderstatement, "At the time the Clippers weren't known for, you know,paying people.") Dunleavy, who'd just been hired, broke the news to Brand."I talked with him on the phone and said, 'Just get over it. You're notgoing anywhere. You're the anchor for this team in the future. Someday you'llthank me.'"

That day has come.But then again, that day is every day with Brand, who may dole out morepleasantries than any other professional athlete. He greets reporters by name,holds open the locker room door for security staff, jokes with ushers. Teamvice president Elgin Baylor calls him "a perfect gentleman," andCassell says he's "a hell of a good guy." For Mobley, Brand wasn'tmerely one of the reasons he came to L.A.: "He was the reason." Brandhas a charitable foundation in his name and has started a learning center forat-risk teens in his hometown of Peekskill, N.Y., that's run by his old highschool coach, Lou Panzanaro, who once said, "One day I'd like to be asmature as Elton was when he was 14."

It was thatgood-guy persona that gave shock value to a story that has bounced around theInternet for years about an e-mail exchange between Brand and a Duke grad.Upset that Brand had left the school early for the NBA, a female Blue Devilsfan sent him an outraged e-mail expressing "disgust" at his decisionand telling him, "You will not be considered part of the Duke family....You have by no means proved yourself worthy of that title." Brand'spurported response: "Thank you very much, for reminding me of the reasonwhy I left Duke. People like you cannot and will not ever understand mysituation. I'm sure Daddy worked very hard to send your rich self to college.While real people struggle.... Never being considered a part of your posh groupof yuppies really hurts me to the heart...."

When the exchangesurfaced on the Web in 1999, Brand denied that he'd been involved. Now, handeda copy of the exchange, he admits, "Yeah, it's real. But [my response] gotchanged up a bit over the years. It was funny, though-half the people who readit hated it, and half said, 'Yeah, you tell her.'"

The Clippers' blackhole of defeat [creates] ... a despair that is unrelenting, quite possiblylife-changing. -April 17, 2000

These days Brandlives in the Hollywood Hills with his fiancée, Shahara Simmons, a New Jerseynative whom he met at Duke. He lives 10 minutes from his mother, Daisy, whoraised him in Peekskill after his father left when he was a child. Mother andson have an exceptional bond. She attends every Clippers game, even going onthe road when Elton is on the sidelines with an injury to "support theguys." Occasionally she tries to give him advice, to little avail."He's a coach person," she says. "Whenever I say something, hegoes, 'Well, Coach says to do this.'"

She relates thiswhile sitting behind the bench in Oakland-she'd flown up from L.A. thatafternoon to watch her son play the Warriors. She points out something abouther son that only a longtime observer would notice. "I see some happinessin his stride," she says. "C'mon, he's human. The losing would get toall of us."

She points to herson on the court. "Doesn't he look happy?"

[The Clippers are]a red, white and blue emblem of defeat and disaster.

-March 9, 1992

Brand is warming upfor the game against Golden State, flipping in 15-footers. This is a newelement of his game, along with a slimmer frame-at Dunleavy's request, he lost18 pounds last summer and is noticeably quicker. On this night he struggles,shooting 5 of 18 from the field, but he still pulls down 15 rebounds, employingall the tricks that have allowed him to excel against bigger players. He useshis legs to create space, tips the ball to himself, dives for loose balls. Heleads a late rally, but the Clippers fall 88-81. Regardless, Brand is, asalways, professional and approachable in the locker room afterward. Kaman, theteam's blond goofball center, asks how Brand plans to travel to Houston, whereBrand will play in his second All-Star Game.

Kaman: "Youflying private?"

Brand: "No,commercial."

Kaman (stops tyinghis shoes, looks up, dumbfounded): "You're kidding. You're not reallyflying commercial?"

Brand (shrugs):"Yeah, what can I say?"

Kaman shakes hishead. A Clipper finally becomes a star, but he won't act like one? But thisgets at the essence of Elton Brand. He doesn't act like he's better than anyoneelse, despite the fact that he is undoubtedly better than most.

If there is alesson in this turnaround, just as SI suggested six years ago that there wasmeaning in the team's failure, perhaps it is this: These Clippers are winningbecause hard work and good character are rewarded, and redemption is possible,but not always easy. So yes, Clips fans, there is a next year. And, right overthere-can you see it?-that glimmer might indeed be the light at the end of along, long tunnel.

Then again, itmight just be James Singleton with a flashlight, looking for his gameshorts.

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

A Playoff Clip

OF THE FIVE activeNBA players averaging better than 20 points and 10 rebounds a game for theircareers, Elton Brand is the only one not to have made an appearance in thepostseason. That should change this year.

PLAYER, TEAMYRS.PPGRPGPOSTSEASON GAMES
SHAQUILLE O'NEAL, Heat
The Diesel took Orlando to the NBA Finals in 1995, collected three championshiprings with the Lakers and led Miami to the Eastern Conference finals lastseason.
1426.511.8171
TIM DUNCAN, Spurs
Paired with David Robinson, Duncan won titles in '99 and 2003, then led SanAntonio to its third championship last season without the Admiral.
922.312.1105
CHRIS WEBBER, 76ers
Webber had the Kings on the cusp of the Finals in '02 before Sacramento fell tothe Lakers in seven games in the conference finals. He's made the playoffs innine of 12 seasons.
1321.610.164
KEVIN GARNETT, Timberwolves
Garnett (above, with Brand) made seven straight first-round exits before goingto the conference finals in 2004. Last season he failed to make the playoffsfor the first time since '96.
1120.311.247
ELTON BRAND, Clippers
The closest Brand has come to the postseason was in 2002, when the Clippersfinished five games out. "It's gratifying," he says of being a playoffcontender this year. "It's vindication for hard work and sticking withit."
720.110.40


SI.COM

More pro basketball coverage, including Chris Ballard'sInside the NBA, at SI.com.

"He's one of the TOP THREE players in theleague," Elie says of Brand. "I get mad when they don't talk about himfor MVP."
PHOTOPhotograph by Greg Nelson NEWERA
After years of hard times in Chicago and L.A., Brand finally has reasons foroptimism with the Clips this season.
PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH BIGHELP
No longer on his own up front, Brand can count on Kaman to provide support--anda few laughs.
PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH  RINGTONE
The arrival of Cassell, who won two titles with Houston, has brought achampionship vibe to the Clippers.
PHOTOANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES