LOS ANGELES—Being a Los Angeles Clippers fan has never been a simple or easy proposition. Tuesday was certainly no exception.
Fans and protesters alike showed up to the Staples Center ahead of the Clippers' Game 5 showdown with the Golden State Warriors—L.A.'s first home game since TMZ and Deadspin published audio of longtime team owner Donald Sterling making racist remarks to ex-girlfriend V. Stiviano. Hours earlier, NBA commissioner Adam Silver slapped Sterling with a lifetime ban and a $2.5 million fine in addition to urging the league's 29 other owners to vote in favor of stripping Sterling of the franchise he's controlled since 1981.
Those segments of Clipper Nation who attended the game were largely unified in their support for the commissioner's stern ruling and in their opposition to Sterling's views. Few of those who came were shocked to hear about Sterling's latest transgression given his well-established track record of questionable practices and reprehensible views, though that didn't make his comments any less despicable in their minds.
If there was any surprise to be had among Clipper Nation, it was in Silver's swift administration of stiff punishment.
"I thought, at most, he'd get a year or two ban," said Sergio Vasquez, a current season ticket-holder. "When the new commissioner brought the hammer, I was happily surprised. I was thinking about turning my season tickets in. I'm glad it happened. I think it's about time."
Garcia wasn't the only one who received the situation optimistically.
"At the beginning, we were extremely upset," said Ivan Tonoko, who came with his sons, Chris and Travis. "But now, in retrospect, I'm actually glad that those comments were made because it exposes the prejudices that we have to deal with in today's society."
Like so many of those who came to downtown L.A. for Game 5, the Tonokos deliberated over whether or not to come and, if so, how to show their support. Some wore their Clippers colors as they normally would have. Others dressed in all black.
Leo Ryan simply chose to turn his Blake Griffin Jersey inside-out. "I haven't spent money on the Clippers in years since I heard that he's a racist slumlord and that's part of who he is," said Ryan, a San Diego native who had season tickets until 2006. "He's been a sick man for a long time. As a Mexican-American, I can't stand for that. I can't support that. I didn't spend a dime on them."
Most who did spend their money, though, did so in support of the players, without any pronouncements in favor of Sterling.
"No, not at all," said Jake Grossman when asked if Sterling's remarks caused him to reconsider his attendance. "Actually, it was just the opposite. I wanted to come and support the Clippers. Even if there was a boycott, maybe I would've been the only one in the stands."
Luckily for the Clippers, Grossman and his son, Jason, weren't the only ones who came. But the feeling around the Staples Center and L.A. Live hardly resembled that which would normally accompany such a pivotal playoff game.
"This is a completely different atmosphere, said Miguel Garcia. "It almost doesn't feel like a playoff game."
Not that the fans didn't do what they could to change that. The Clippers faithful greeted their team with a standing ovation as they took the court for pre-game warmups.
Perhaps the demonstrations around the arena had something to do with the unusual tenor. The National Action Network drew a crowd of protesters, fans and curious media members alike in front of the L.A. Convention Center before the game. Representatives from Famous Stars and Straps, a clothing company founded by Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker, passed out T-shirts imploring the Clippers to "Clip Him"—him being Sterling, of course—from a parking lot on Figueroa Street.
In the eyes of Clippers fans, the crisis Sterling caused may well be an opportunity for bigger and better things in the future of the team and the city.
"Now it's time to heal, turn over a new leaf and move forward," added Garcia. "Hopefully, we can do that and have a long run in the playoffs. The city and the fans deserve it."
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