LOS ANGELES — From bigotry, disgrace, anger and embarrassment to…
It’s the American dream, after all, to go from the bottom to the top, which the Los Angeles Clippers basically did in the time it took for NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s firm gavel to echo across the country Tuesday afternoon.
By nightfall at Staples Center, after so many messages of protest and outrage were once expected, the sentiment was about color, but altogether different.
The Clippers matched their usual red, white and blue with black. Team employees wore black shirts with the team logo, a symbolic blend of the race-based lesson of the day and the normal team identity they were again able to assume with pride.
It was the kind of day that reminds why the sports world is the original reality programming. The script for all this is real, and real crazy.
The afternoon moment in New York of Silver’s historic denouncement and announcement that Donald Sterling and his racism would be banned from the NBA would’ve worked powerfully as the last scene, fade out.
But there was so much more to feel at what amounted to a unification celebration at Staples on Tuesday night.
With these Clippers fans who’d been hiding in the shadows for days, likewise unsure of their identity, these team employees and players all came together in the same room. The place was filled with people who all brought a renewed optimism about the Clippers, the NBA and even American society.
What had been bottled up for all found an outlet.
“When we ran out for warm-ups, it was one of the most emotional things I’ve ever been a part of,” said Clippers star Chris Paul, also the president of the NBA players union. “We have a tough locker room—all of us are tough—but it almost brought tears to your eyes just to feel the support from our fans. Seriously, it was amazing.”
Paul’s team went on to win Game 5 of this first-round playoff series, 113-103, and push the Golden State Warriors to the brink of elimination. For a franchise traditionally woeful from Sterling’s mismanagement and penny-pinching as team owner, this was the Clippers’ most meaningful victory ever.
And to be honest, outside of Northern California, it was hard for anyone not to want the Clippers to get this one. People yearn to feel like things are OK, and them winning felt right—not just in this emotional vacuum, but because they are supposed to be the better team and should be winning home games in this series if free from unfair burden.
For a day, at least, the Clippers were absolutely America’s Team.
“Great day for everyone,” Paul said.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti had taken to the steps of City Hall as part of the players union’s response to Silver’s verdict, and with Garcetti and union reps were Steve Nash and Lakers alumni from the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the gritty Luke Walton.
“When you get this many Lakers to stand up for the Clippers, you know something big is happening in L.A.,” Garcetti said.
Indeed, the Clippers weren’t the other basketball team in town on this day. When you suddenly represent something righteous, who doesn’t want to be a part of that?
It’s why civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, looking serious, showed up at the game.
It’s why one African-American fan, looking ebullient, held in one hand a giant photo of Magic Johnson’s face and in the other a homemade sign on orange poster board with the words: "We here!"
But in Paul’s face, we saw this story go from historic to profound.
Silver’s actions initiated change. Paul’s expressions celebrated it.
The baby-faced assassin always goes hard on the court, to the point where he needs an alter ego (“Cliff”) in his State Farm Insurance commercials to be the nice guy. With a career playoff record of 16-24 entering this season and the pressure of having his best roster and coach yet, Paul didn’t figure to soften any of his edges until he was holding that trophy with the gold ball at the end—a Clippers pipe dream throughout the past.
But here he was, changed. Who cares if Sterling reforms in the remaining years of his life? The lesson in all this isn’t for him; it’s for those of us who derive satisfaction from a villain getting his comeuppance—and trust right from wrong a little more today than we did yesterday.
Paul’s face Tuesday night unleashed the humanity.
He raved with appreciation about the fans, the commissioner, his fellow players and his union support. He was openly grateful toward his co-star, Blake Griffin, when saying good night to him after the game.
Paul said he couldn’t imagine another coach after how meaningfully Doc Rivers wanted to know how the players felt during this saga and really sought to help them.
“Pretty special,” Paul said.
The huge hazel eyes that held back tears in warm-ups weren’t hiding anything or angling toward the work still to be done. Paul was openly sweet, in the moment, totally humanized. He was relieved, happy, proud.
“Now,” Paul said, “it’s about the healing process.”
Surviving danger has a way of bringing us closer to those who shared our stress. To that end, the night’s mantra inside the arena was: “We Are One.”
Yes, evil exists—and sometimes we let it exist among us because, well, it’s easier to ignore it. Yet it can and will be defeated, no matter how much money or power it has or how long it has persisted.
And together we move on, the better for it.
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.
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