The Los Angeles Clippers will make you crazy, but that's what you get for choosing to root for them.
Until Blake Griffin and Chris Paul donned the red, white and blue, being a Clippers fan was no easy task. And considering I grew up in New York City, with no rational reason to pull for a perennial cellar dweller, NBA life was never easy.
"James Dolan" was always a curse word in my household. Surprisingly, that had little to do with the New York Knicks and more to do with his work at Cablevision. So, naturally, at the ripe age of eight years old, I had to pick a new NBA team.
Then, I came along my basketball savior: Eric Piatkowski, who could shoot like no other in the classic NBA Live '98. (And even continued his dominance into becoming one of the most underrated Kobe Bryant NBA Courtside players ever. I'll stand by that.)
So, I started playing with the Clippers, became attached to the digital versions of Isaac Austin, Brent Barry and Lamond Murray and never looked back.
But then, something awful happened, as I followed the team from a 3,000-mile distance with no Internet, NBA League Pass or nationally televised games: My team was awful. I mean, we're talking really, really bad.
The Clippers went 17-65 in 1997-98 under the yet-to-be-involved-in-a-lawsuit Bill Fitch. I started to do my homework. I had chosen to leave the Knicks because of their owner and had likely picked the only team with an even more despicable owner.
Dolan may not be a savvy businessman, but Donald Sterling was something beyond that. He was as unlikable as unlikable comes. (If you're unaware of Sterling's history of poor ownership, scandal and sleaziness, this tweet from Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal serves as a nice microcosm.)
So now, I was stuck rooting for a basement dweller and couldn't switch. But at least my team had the No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft.
I remember sitting down, eight years old and watching the 1998 NBA draft, my first one as a newly minted Clippers fan. I couldn't wait to see who the next great Clipper would be. Little did I know at the time that, "next great Clipper" was an oxymoron.
That guy turned out to be Michael Olowokandi, someone who, even when I was the ripe age of eight, confused me as a first pick.
What the heck was Pacific University, and why was there a college in the middle of an ocean?
I was eight. What the heck did I know? But my reaction wasn't all that far off from everyone else's. From Sports Illustrated's 1998 draft recap:
Those in the know thought there was no way Elgin Baylor could pass on Arizona's Mike Bibby -- a savvy point guard with NBA bloodlines -- and take a chance on Michael Olowokandi -- a soccer player who has been playing competitive basketball for only three years.
On Wednesday, June 24, Michael Olowokandi completed a remarkable transformation into a serious hoops commodity as the Clippers decided on the 7-foot-1 Nigerian instead of Bibby.
Remember how emotions swing when you're that young? I went from boasting to confused to crying to forgetting about it all in a 10-minute span. It was like I was trying to replicate an episode of the yet-to-be-created Real Housewives of Atlanta.
That was my life as a basketball fan for more than a decade. Somehow, as fans, we never mature to a much better place than we were at when we were little children. There's something about sports that can do that to us, especially when you become too comfortable rooting for a team that has accumulated more dust in the NBA's basement than any other.
At some point, probably after the Lamar Odom-Darius Miles-Quentin Richardson years (aka the Van Wilder team) of the early 2000s, I came to the conclusion that I'd never see the Clippers win. In real life, the tortoise doesn't actually beat the hare.
So I waited through the Elton Brand years, hitting an all-time high during the 2005-06 postseason. But that's all it was. Just one season.
I trudged through the mud of the Baron Davis era, only to come out of it with my shoes dirtied enough to see the Clippers send away a first overall pick (one that ended up being Kyrie Irving) just to get rid of Davis before his contract expired.
Watching the Clippers used to be a routine, a habit, something along the lines of flossing or getting a hernia examination.
It's uncomfortable for everyone. No one enjoys it. But you've got to keep going.
Maybe in that way, it was more of an addiction than anything else. Maybe I wasn't a Clippers fan. I was just a Clippers addict.
But can an addiction transform into something healthy? Was Neil Olshey nothing more than basketball methadone?
Olshey was the general manager who turned everything around. He was the man who drafted Griffin first overall (though that was very much a no-brainer), the one who accumulated the assets to trade for Chris Paul (which was very much a present-brainer).
In that first full Griffin year, we saw a glimmer of hope.
He played 82 games after coming off a major knee injury that sidelined him for all of what would have been his rookie season. He garnered Rookie of the Year honors. All of a sudden, this young, athletic, incredibly exciting team had a real future.
The Clippers could throw out a 22-and-under lineup of Eric Bledsoe, Eric Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. They were drafting well and compiling assets, something we hadn't seen back when Elgin Baylor, who made just one mid-season trade in his final 14 seasons as Clippers GM, was running the team.
Once Olshey pulled off that Paul deal, the Clippers viewing experience completely changed. This went from a 32-win team to a competitive franchise, a playoff mainstay.
Has there ever been more hype around a meaningless preseason game than there was for those two Clippers-Lakers contests returning from the lockout? Has any fanbase ever collectively yelled as loud during a 19-point exhibition win than the Clippers fans did on Dec. 19, 2011?
As Bill Dwyre of the LA Times wrote, "It didn't mean anything, and it meant everything."
Expectations for the Clippers used to be that there were none. Fans went through the motions. But since Paul, it seems like the goal progresses every year. The Clippers keep upping the ante, just as Paul told Bleacher Report in August of 2013:
A lot of people this year are like, "Man, it's cool to be a Clipper" and stuff like that, well, we want, we need to win. It's not about just changing the culture and saying, "OK, they're a better team," and stuff like that.
It's not like Clippers fans don't get frustrated with this team anymore. It's just a different type of aggravation, the kind you get when you see an A student get a B on a paper, as opposed to when the worst pupil in the class gets another D.
In the Internet age, we need instant results in every aspect of our lives. That's why, during the first two years of the Paul era, we perpetuated a narrative that said Griffin can't shoot or the Clippers are flash over substance, even though this team was still somewhat of a project.
Of course Griffin couldn't shoot. He was just 22 or 23 years old. What big man can knock down jumpers consistently at such a young age? Even Karl Malone was a 55 percent free-throw shooter over his first two NBA seasons before sinking more than three-quarters of his attempts for the rest of his career.
Now, with every 18 footer Blake drains, a few Angelenos board the Clippers' ship. The Clips are never going to surpass the Lakers in popularity, but for the first time ever, there's actually going to be an extended period in which they're the better team in LA.
This was never supposed to happen. Just ask eight-year-old me.
Players progress, though. People progress. Apparently, teams do too, but in this day and age, we don't always allow the evolution to complete before we judge.
After that 109-105 Game 1 loss to the Golden State Warriors on Saturday night, it seemed like the trepidation began. Fans and media alike hit somewhat of a panic.
One loss—one close, hard-fought playoff loss—and we were already jumping out of our chairs, yelping about how the Clips may as well be losing to the Memphis Grizzlies again. For the first time ever, we've adjusted expectations to the highest level possible, and one measly playoff loss turned us into that eight-year-old kid once again.
So, as I sit through the playoffs, my mere goal is to avoid "revertigo" as my expectations grow. We should hold a team led by Doc Rivers, Griffin and Paul to a higher standard. And now, after so many years of rooting for the short fifth grader, who would come home to Mom with a bruised nose and broken glasses, it's cleansing to have faith in a team that actually deserves to win.
Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.
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