The Los Angeles Clippers, Day 1 A.D. (After Donald)
The Press Conference
Andrew Sharp: On Tuesday morning, I was on the way to work and listening to ESPN Radio. The hosts were actually talking playoff hockey when one blurted out, “Tonight, all the pressure’s on the Clippers.”
The other host laughed. “Tonight, all the pressure’s on the Clippers, and Warriors, and coaches, and players, and fans, and people at the concession stands. The whole world is watching to see what they’ll do.”
That’s how this game felt at 10:30 PT on Tuesday morning.
Nobody knew what to expect. Would players walk out? Would the fans cheer or go silent? What would Doc Rivers say? Would a playoff game start the healing process for players and fans, or would it show just how wounded everyone really was?
About 30 minutes later, Adam Silver stepped up to the podium in New York City, and with his voice shaking, he told the world that “Effective immediately, I am banning Mr. Sterling for life.”
After four days wondering what the NBA’s options were, we’d all pretty much accepted that no punishment would satisfy us, because there’s only so much the NBA could do. Before the press conference, there were rumors Sterling would be suspended indefinitely and fined $5 million, which sounded about as vague and unfulfilling as we expected. But then Silver went nuclear, banning Sterling, fining him as much as possible, and pushing the owners to force a sale of the Clippers this summer. He did all this knowing it’ll almost definitely end in a lawsuit from Sterling, and also knowing that this was a bigger moment for him and his players and his league to make a statement about what they stand for, and that was more important.
In about 30 seconds, three decades of shame for the NBA turned into a moment that could make any basketball fan proud.
After 30 years ignoring and enabling an accused racist and pervert and cheapskate and all-around reptile of a human being, all of it was over. There was no ambiguity. This was the commissioner telling the world that the NBA is better than someone like Donald Sterling.
For anyone who’d known about Sterling this whole time, it was the ultimate catharsis.
For the Clippers and Warriors and coaches and players and fans and people at the concession stands, it meant something more practical. There wasn’t any more pressure to send some sweeping message with the whole world watching. Silver sent the loudest message possible.
Chris Ryan: I think it was when I saw the guy in the Clippers-branded bowling pin costume standing outside Staples Center, taking pictures with passersby, that I knew this wasn’t going to be the full-throated, cathartic, rebellious night I would never forget. It was two hours before tipoff. As I walked by, the bowling pin sarcastically muttered, “Go Heat.” Los Angeles.
There were three kinds of people outside Staples Center at 5 p.m. yesterday: People protesting, press covering the protesters, and cops. Oh, and Warriors fans.
The streets surrounding Staples were like a sun-baked Speakers’ Corner. There were a few bikers holding a placard that read “NBA — No Bigots Allowed.” There was a guy handing out flyers advertising an upcoming Los Angeles appearance by Minister Louis Farrakhan. There were some people with speakers, orating under the banner of Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. There was a dude holding a “12 Years a Clipper” sign.
There was talk of Sterling’s history of housing discrimination, and one speaker reminded the gathered crowd that it was 22 years to the day of the attack on Reginald Denny. A lady named Leslie selling T-shirts and hats on Figueroa told me she thought there would be riots had Silver not handed down the appropriate punishment. She was wearing a shirt she had made that said “Proud to Be Color Blind” in the design of the Clippers logo. I asked her if she had been a Clippers fan for a long time.
“To be honest with you, I’m a Laker fan.”
It wasn’t that there was nothing to protest, because there was and is. And it’s not that people protesting didn’t do a good job of articulating their grievances, because for the most part they did. But there was something theatrical about the whole thing. Like costumes had been made and halls had been rented, and the show had to go on, no matter what. The problem with this production was twofold: There was a lack of audience — there were more people gathered around an ESPN Radio stage watching Max Kellerman than there were watching anyone from the National Action Network talk. And there was the lack of a real villain. You can blame the former on the temperature or the traffic. Silver took care of the latter.
Ryan: Speaking of theater. Yesterday afternoon, right before the Wizards and Bulls tipped off, TNT showed some footage from Staples Center of workers stenciling the phrase “We Are One” onto a stanchion. This struck me as kind of odd. Silver had handed down his punishment only a few hours prior. Apparently, between Silver saying “banned for life” and 5 p.m. PT, someone somewhere had decided on a catchphrase. A web page went up, a color scheme was decided upon, a messaging plan was put into action.
Again: Los Angeles.
This whole situation went from something to protest to something you could buy and wear in a matter of hours. When I walked into Staples Center, the advertising hoardings ringing the upper deck of the arena were draped in black, the logos covered. Sponsors like CarMax, State Farm, Red Bull, and Virgin America had all withdrawn their support of the Clippers in recent days. I guess when God pulls a sponsorship, he creates a branding opportunity. Someone in the organization had the brilliant idea to turn that fact into a marketing ploy. The ads were covered in black, the Clippers dancers wore black, and black T-shirts with Sterling’s name and “-1” were being sold (not officially, of course). This was a pirate ship, sailing into the playoffs without its dreaded captain. He had been cast overboard. Luckily for the Clippers, they didn’t lose the marketing department in the process.
There was something about the last few days that felt unpredictable. Right up until Silver spoke in New York, people were still speculating which way things would break. One-year suspension? Some kind of slap on the wrist? Would players demand release from their contracts? Would Doc walk? I can’t remember a story that could have gone so many ways.
I’m glad the worst part is over. Sterling is gone. But there was something a little gross about it being sold back to people so fast.
Sharp: I spent the first few minutes trying to gauge everything at the game — the players, the fans, the ushers, whatever — looking for signs of the past four days. There were two key moments that shook me out of this.
First, Draymond Green opened the game by banging with Blake Griffin almost immediately. Green got whistled for two quick fouls, and he made a point of bumping into Griffin on his way to the bench, and Griffin did that thing where he almost responds but then thinks better of it, and you almost feel bad for him just standing there helplessly.
This was comforting on Tuesday.
“Look at that!” I said to myself. “Guys are harassing Blake Griffin again. Just like old times!”
All the sponsors had been covered up, some fans had jerseys turned inside out, and the Clippers cheerleaders were in all black to mark the occasion … But maybe this was just going to be a basketball game?
About 15 minutes later, with the first quarter winding down, we got confirmation.
I have no idea what Big Baby did to get pulled from the game, but as he walked off the court in disgust, he just yelled “FUCK!” at the top of his lungs, and I heard him all the way up in the 300-level press box. It was glorious. The official sign we could all relax.
This was really just a game — full of bad calls, big shots, highlight dunks, Griffin harassment, and Big Baby curses loud enough for the whole stadium to hear. After a week in the emotional spin cycle, it was nice to just be at a regular playoff game. The crowd was loud throughout, and every other fast break or CP3 jumper was an excuse to lose their minds all over again. At least for 48 minutes, the Clippers were fun again.
The most awkward part of the whole night was actually when a hype man for the Clippers took the court and forced the whole stadium to start chanting “We Are One,” which is apparently the branded slogan that’s supposed to show … we all hate racism? Because apparently that needs to be made clear? I don’t know. In a night full of spontaneous outbursts, that was the only moment that felt forced.
Sharp: The coolest moment of the night came midway through the fourth quarter. The Warriors were desperate and went into Hack-a-DeAndre mode, sending 43 percent free throw shooter DeAndre Jordan to the line.
At any Clippers game, Jordan at the free throw line is a complicated experience. All Jordan free throws are preceded by stadiumwide cheers to encourage him. It’s like a gigantic millionaire turns into everyone’s little brother, and all they want is to watch him do well.
When he misses after all that, it’s painful to watch.
When he makes them, the whole place goes delirious.
It’s pretty much basketball in its simplest possible form.
And Jordan made his free throws Tuesday. Most of them, anyway. He went 6-for-8 from the free throw line in the fourth quarter, with all of Staples Center getting a little crazier with every make, and a Clippers win becoming a little more inevitable in the process. It’s a reminder of how stupid and fun sports can be. There’s nothing more basic and mundane than free throws, but Jordan turns them into an emotional roller coaster.
It was so much better than the roller coaster from the past four days.
“You spend emotional energy just trying not to think about it,” Griffin said about the exhaustion since the Sterling tape leaked.
“One of the most emotional things I think I’ve ever been a part of,” Chris Paul added when asked about seeing the fans show up Tuesday night.
Emotion was the buzzword Tuesday, and it makes sense. Everything about the past four days was emotional and exhausting. Watching the outrage mushroom was like watching a natural disaster gain steam.
It left the Clippers players in a weird spot. Some people wanted them to walk out and abandon a season’s worth of work toward a championship. Some looked at guys like Rivers and Paul and said they’d willingly cast their lot with Sterling, so acting blindsided by this was its own sort of hypocrisy. Maybe that’s true, but if it is, 98 percent of the people who were horrified by this story are guilty of the same sin. We all ignored Sterling’s history during Clippers games, especially over the past few years when this team was in the spotlight.
And you know what? I’m not even sure it was hypocrisy to not shout about Sterling during every Clippers game for the past 30 years. It’s just humanity. Or sanity. Criticize the people at the NBA who dealt with Sterling directly, sure. But for the rest of us, we have only so much energy to be angry all the time. There’s a fine line between understanding what’s wrong in the world and letting it define how you see the world.
Substitute “Clippers” for “world” in that sentence, and that’s how we’ve treated this team the past few years. Right up until the past few days.
From Friday night to Tuesday morning, the whole sports world focused its energy on what’s wrong with the Clippers, and we all had to reckon with what Sterling actually represents. It was a painful and educational reminder that blatant racism still exists in this country, and it can fester in subtle ways. Any basketball fan will remember this week forever, and they’ll remember Sterling for all kinds of awful reasons.
I just hope we also remember that guys like LeBron James and David West spoke up immediately and eloquently to condemn Sterling, that announcers all over the league echoed the sentiments on a national platform, that fans were universally disgusted, and that teams like the Warriors considered walking off the court if Sterling weren’t punished severely enough. Then Silver stepped up and made a powerful statement to the world so the players didn’t have to, and we got a Clippers game that was a lot like a Jordan free throw. It could’ve been depressing and uncomfortable, but things worked out and we got pure, stupid joy for three hours at Staples Center.
Now it’s probably time to stop talking about this every minute of every hour, but before we do, one thing was clear Tuesday: The best antidote to people like Sterling is everything the NBA already is.
More on Donald Sterling:
- The Banning of Donald Sterling and Unrest in the NBA Playoffs
- The Owner and the Owned: A Discussion About Donald Sterling
- A Fan’s Worst Nightmare
- How Sports Media Has Handled the Donald Sterling Controversy
- Magic Johnson Tells NBA Countdown That He Wouldn’t Want to Play for Donald Sterling
- The NBA Countdown Crew Discusses the Donald Sterling Controversy
- Baron Davis on Donald Sterling: He Called Me a ‘Bastard’