For the first time since 1979, the Lakers’ little brothers (the Clippers) are finally relevant in Los Angeles, thanks to current commissioner David Stern. Since the controversial acquisition of Chris Paul, the Clippers are the hot ticket in town with local television ratings up 150% and prices of tickets on the secondary market up 50% to 75%, all because players and fans now have a reason to believe in their team. Sports Illustrated senior writer Lee Jenkins sat down to discuss the genesis of the story, what he learned, and if its truly, “Finally Hip to be a Clip.”
Lee Jenkins: Whenever you have a long-suffering team experiencing success for the first time, or at least the promise of success, you have the backdrop for an entertaining story. The Clippers have finished with losing records in 29 of the last 32 seasons. They have wasted more draft picks, suffered more torn ACLs and made more curious trades than any team in pro sports. They make the Cubs look lucky. But the Clippers essentially remade themselves last month into one of the most dynamic teams in the NBA, signing Caron Butler, picking up Chauncey Billups, and most important, trading for All Star point guard Chris Paul. I wanted to retrace those steps and show how the Clippers became a credible landing spot for a superstar. With Paul throwing ally oops to Blake Griffin, the Clippers have earned their nickname “Lob City,” but they are producing much more than highlights. The Clippers could realistically contend in the Western Conference, this year and for years to come.
What did you learn about the Clippers that you may not have necessarily known prior to writing the story?
I grew up in San Diego, and when I was very young, the Clippers were competitive. Then something happened and they weren’t anymore, but I couldn’t remember exactly what it was. I learned their downfall began shortly after they signed Bill Walton – a San Diego native – as a free agent from Portland. In those days, Commissioner Larry O’Brien could award free-agent compensation where he saw fit, which is unthinkable now. It’s like the Heat signing LeBron James and having to send Dwyane Wade to Cleveland. O’Brien stripped three members of the Clippers core, and five years later, the team moved to Los Angeles. Last month, another commissioner made another strange decision, only this one actually benefitted the Clippers. David Stern rejected a trade by the Lakers for Paul and approved the deal that sent him to the Clippers.
The Clippers have certainly had their share of difficulties over the years. Do you sense a cultural change within the organization?
For a franchise that has lost as much as the Clippers, it’s strange that so many members of the front office are the same. The owner has been there 30 years. The team president has been there 27 years. Several vice presidents have been there about as long. But three events really changed the culture and paved the way for Paul. 1) The Clippers built a $50 million practice facility that is probably the fanciest in the league and signaled to players that they were serious. 2) They won the 2009 draft lottery and selected Griffin with the No. 1 pick. 3) They hired Neil Olshey as general manager, even though Olshey comes from an unorthodox background. Olshey was a soap opera actor who made himself a workout guru for NBA players. He has a different perspective of the league and has pursued players who really want to be Clippers.
As a West Coast native I am sure you can provide some insight, is LA a divided city right now?
No, Los Angeles is a Lakers city, and it will take generations to reverse. In New York, the Mets would have to overshadow the Yankees for many years to change the dynamic, and the same is true here. But L.A. is a great NBA town, with room for two teams, and both the Lakers and Clippers are selling out virtually every home game. People are talking about the Clippers, even more than the Lakers, because their story is so new and their style so upbeat. The Clippers are a trend with a chance to become much more. The Lakers are still an institution.
That being said, in your opinion, are the Clippers currently the strongest team in L.A.?
They’re very even, and at the end of this compressed season, I think the records will reveal that. There’s a good chance the Clippers and Lakers will meet in a playoff series, and I’d give the Clippers the edge, because the Lakers have no one who can keep up with Paul. The Clippers beat the Lakers in both pre-season games and again in the first regular-season meeting. They are not a perfect team, but given how quickly they were mashed together, they’ve adapted smoothly. Their defense has improved, center DeAndre Jordan has emerged, and they’ve won even when Paul has been injured. Lakers-or-Clippers is the great debate in L.A. right now, and when you review the history of the teams, it’s remarkable that the Clippers are in the conversation.
For the First Time Ever YOU Pick the Cover of Sports Illustrated By Choosing The Best Sports Moment of 2011Posted: December 9, 2011
For nearly 60 years the cover of Sports Illustrated has defined the story of the day in sports. Upon its release, the iconic cover image stirs a spectrum of passionate dialog, debate, celebration, criticism and for those who believe in jinxes, fear. But there has always been one constant in that the cover choice has rested in the hands of the SI editorial team. Today, that all changes. Beginning at 3:00 p.m. EST, sports fans can visit SI’s Facebook page (www.facebook.com/sportsillustrated) to rank the top five sports moments from 2011 drawn from a selection of 15 images which correspond to the editorial staff’s selections for the best sports moments of 2011. The moment that receives the most votes will be featured on the cover of SI’s year-end issue. Voting begins today and will end on Friday, December 16th, the magazine cover that YOU picked will hit newsstands on Wednesday, December 21st.
Why is picking the cover a big deal? Listen to what some of the great athletes who have graced the cover had to say:
“To be on the cover of Sports Illustrated it’s kind of a stamp of approval that you’ve made it,” said Sugar Ray Leonard who has appeared on the SI cover 12 times.
Clippers forward Blake Griffin graces the cover of the Dec. 5, 2011, issue of Sports Illustrated, on newsstands now. It is the fifth time that Griffin has made the cover and his first as an NBA player. For the Clippers, it is their first cover since Darius Miles appeared on the Oct. 31, 2000, issue.
The NBA and its players spent five months flirting with basketball apocalypse. Was it worth it? Speaking with senior writer Lee Jenkins (@SI_LeeJenkins), commissioner David Stern assessed the new labor agreement: “It’s nothing anybody can see when they get back on the court, but we will be a better league over time. The league will be stronger and our fans will like us better if they feel the competition is better.”
Then there is this porn. Blake Griffin dunk porn.
The Clippers’ rookie is the subject of Chris Ballard’s entertaining profile in this week’s iPad issue. Ballard, the author of the artfully crafted “Art of a Beautiful Game”, eschews the more conventional profile route and seeks out the small nation of ballers, scrubs and stars alike, who have been posterized by Griffin, among them Kevin Love, Manu Ginobili, Anthony Tolliver (who shares a particularly amusing tale of his personal posterization) and, of course, the Knicks’ Timofey Mozgov, who carries upon his shoulders this everlasting sorrow. Even the generally laconic Griffin can’t help but delight in his oeuvre. Supplementing the piece are additional video clips of Griffin’s signature dunks and a podcast with Richard Deitsch that offers the excellent story behind an excellent story.
Deitsch double dips this week, yakking with Peter King about his cover story on NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, one of several revealing interviews in this week’s iPad. Video analysis of the Super Bowl from Cris Collinsworth, Boomer Esiason and Phil Simms is included in the issue. And in addition to profiling standout Washington guard Isaiah Thomas, college basketball writer Pablo S. Torre, in an iPad exclusive, interviews Thomas’s namesake, the NBA Hall of Fame guard who has been closely following the arc of the 21-year-old’s career.
Next week will offer plenty in the way of the Super Bowl, in addition to a look ahead to next season. Maybe even some early spring training talk. And in two weeks: the inaugural SI Swimsuit iPad edition.
- Chris Stone