The Clippers' Big Chance

A title would help L.A.'s 'other' basketball team push the Donald Sterling era even further into the past, but if it really wants to change its legacy, it can do so by embracing the causes of its fans.
Joseph Bien-KahnContributor IJuly 13, 2020

"That's who we do it for: the people in the back. We do it for the people in the back."

Point guard Patrick Beverley was holding court with the handful of reporters gathered around his locker in March 2019, just minutes after his Clippers had beaten the Lakers 113-105. "The blue-collar people who don't have a lot given to them. Who work for everything that they deserve. And that's what we're doing right now. We do it for them."

Months before, the Lakers—the NBA's gilded franchisehad landed LeBron James in the latest in their long line of free-agent coups. But it was the Clippers and their band of tenacious castoffs who would eventually be heading to the playoffs. Even with James, the Lakers were still a mess; the Clippers, for the first time in years, were a feel-good story. When the team took two games off the two-time defending champion Warriors in the first round and then landed a pair of hometown stars in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, it felt like things might actually change. Maybe, possibly, L.A. could be a Clippers town.

Ahead of the 2019-20 season, the Clippers looked to parlay those pieces into a new branding opportunity. They hired an advertising agency to create the "L.A. Our Way" campaign, covering the city with billboards with taglines like "Driven Over Given," "Squad Over Self" and "We Over Me." The goal was to put forth the idea that the Clippers were the team of working-class L.A.—the selfless squad for "the people in the back," to use Beverley's framing.

Beverley's words seem especially urgent with 22 NBA teams gathering this month at Disney World as the league attempts to finish a season that was halted in early March. As COVID-19 further exposes the country's racial injustices and tattered social safety net, huge swaths of the nation have stood up to loudly assert that Black lives matter. Many players have been among them, and some, including Clippers shooting guard Lou Williams, have wondered whether the restart in Orlando will distract from this significant moment of change.

While the league has been brainstorming ways to create avenues to protest within the bubble, the challenge is how to move out of the realm of symbolism and deliver tangible change. The Clippers invested in the idea of being the franchise of the "uncelebrated" Angelenos—in the "L.A. Our Way" campaign's accompanying video, as the narrator explains, "We're more than a team; we're a movement." As much as these next few months present an opportunity for the Clippers to win their first title, it also provides an opportunity to finally grab hold of a meaningful slice of L.A., to prove they really are the team of "the people in the back."

The Clippers being anything but the unwelcome little brother was always unlikely, but showing up in L.A. in 1984—at the height of Magic Johnson's Showtime Lakers run—was especially quixotic. It didn't help that owner Donald Sterling was a landlord who apparently saw civil rights as so many windmills to lance. During his decades at the helm, Sterling was known to make life hell for players and was sued for employment discrimination by former general manager Elgin Baylor. Off the court, he settled two separate housing discrimination cases for millions of dollars. The Clippers were perpetually bad, and badly run, and bad to play for and owned by a bad guy. It's no surprise that L.A. never wavered in its love for the Purple and Gold.

30 teams, 30 days: The biggest story from each NBA team ahead of the league's return.

Atl | Bos | Bkn | Cha | Chi | Cle
Dal | Den | Det | GS | Hou | Ind
LAC | LAL | Mem | Mia | Mil | Min
NO | NY | OKC | Orl | Phi | Pho
Por | Sac | SA | Tor | Uta | Was

More than any sport, the NBA is a star-driven league—players have real agency and immense off-court earning potential. And yet, a franchise is defined by its owner more than anyone would like to admit. So while Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan would eventually make the Clippers a genuine contender at a moment when the Lakers couldn't buy a win, the fact that the man signing the checks in Lob City was the same one who allegedly used to bring women into the locker room and say things like "look at those beautiful black bodies" all but guaranteed the Clippers could never be a first-rate franchise.

Ahead of Game 4 of their first-round series with the Warriors in 2014, TMZ released a recording of Sterling berating girlfriend V. Stiviano for posting photographs with Black men and hanging out with Magic Johnson. Eyes turned toward the man who Baylor once said wanted the Clippers to have a "Southern plantation-type structure," and the ensuing dysfunction surrounding him. The Clippers locker room wrestled with whether to sit out in protest; eventually, they decided to wear their warm-up gear inside out to show their disgust with playing for Sterling. Commissioner Adam Silver, who had assumed the job just two months earlier, gave Sterling a lifetime ban hours before Game 5 of the series. Soon after, Sterling, who had owned the team for 33 years, was forced to accept former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's $2 billion bid for his team.

Ramona Shelburne explained in ESPN's 30 for 30 podcast series "The Sterling Affairs" that Sterling bought the Clippers because he wanted to be as famous and glamorous as Dr. Jerry Buss. The idea was delusional, but it was also telling. Somehow, Sterling believed his Clippers could compete with the Lakers in the prestige department, despite one team being the owner of seven NBA crowns to that point in its history and the other posting just four seasons over .500 in its 11 years of existence before Sterling's purchase.

Ballmer, the NBA's wealthiest owner, has said all the right things since taking over. He's invested in making the Clippers a destination franchise—spending on accomplished coaches and front-office talent and paying to build a state-of-the-art arena in Inglewood. Pointedly, he's tried to course-correct the organization's public profile as well, donating millions to fund nonprofits in communities of color, according to the Los Angeles Times. He and his wife, Connie, made a donation to the L.A. Parks Foundation to renovate 350 courts across the city. After an uproar from the Inglewood community about the Clippers' proposed arena plan, the Ballmers pledged to invest $100 million into the community, including $75 million toward affordable housing. The Clippers can never out-glamor or outclass the Lakers, but they can certainly outspend L.A.'s favorite team when it comes to improving the lives of working-class Angelenos. It's a path to become the franchise that truly represents "the people in the back."

Clippers owner Steve Ballmer and his wife, Connie, have pledged to not only refurbish hundreds of basketball courts throughout Los Angeles but also to nonprofit groups dedicated to assisting people of color across the country.
Clippers owner Steve Ballmer and his wife, Connie, have pledged to not only refurbish hundreds of basketball courts throughout Los Angeles but also to nonprofit groups dedicated to assisting people of color across the country.Adam Pantozzi/Getty Images

In the years since Sterling's ouster from the league, there have been many articles, long-form projects and interviews looking back at the moment after TMZ released the tape and the Clippers took the floor for Game 4. For some, the silent protest felt too subtle to match the moment. "There were too many unknowns if we forfeited the game," Matt Barnes explained to Sports Illustrated in May. "Do we sit out until Donald Sterling is gone? There were so many ifs for our team, but we really debated whether to sit out one game or play until he was gone."

Obviously, with so many players weighing the possibility of sitting out the NBA restart, the Clippers' decision is newly relevant. The league has made a point to create space for protest inside the bubble—Silver's May 31 memo to the teams read: "As an organization, we need to do everything in our power to make a meaningful difference."

The question, of course, is what can the NBA do to spur tangible change? How can the league make sure its games are impactful instead of a collective balm?

This moment calls for action instead of symbolism. Many players have already tried, attending rallies and even pledging their salaries toward impactful organizations. But some have started to push back against the league-approved protest messaging they can wear on the backs of their jerseys. The unstated questions, it seems, bubbling around the league are: Can protest within constraints be effectual? Can you disrupt an inequitable system from inside Disney World?

At the end of May, Jalen Rose said on ESPN's Get Up! "I wish America loved Black people as much as it loves Black culture." He was talking about the country as a whole, but the message was especially poignant for those at the top of the NBA's food chain. Ballmer paid $2 billion for the chance to join the NBA. Every day, he and the owners of the 29 other teams profit economically and reputationally off Black culture. They have the collective wealth and collective weight to "make a meaningful difference" in the communities so many of the players come from. Symbolism without systemic change won't cut it.

As Ballmer has already shown, one solution may be to focus on the local and the specific. If the Clippers—a team stained by a racist past and now owned by a man committed and equipped to lift up communities of colorwant to be the team of L.A.'s working class, they should put their immense weight behind the issues that most affect their desired fanbase.

During the massive Black Lives Matter protests throughout L.A. recently, the chant "Jackie Lacey must go!" was a common refrain. The district attorney has lost much of her support in the community by not charging any of the cops behind the more than 340 police-involved killings in her eight years in office. According to the Los Angeles Times, nearly 80 percent of the people L.A. County police have shot are Black and Latinx. Were Ballmer to put some of his financial might behind reform candidate George Gascon, he could directly affect the way Angelenos of color are policed.

Just as pressing is the threat of a coming wave of evictions that will strike L.A. the moment the current eviction freeze is lifted. According to a UCLA study, as of May, almost 365,000 of the area's renter households are in imminent danger of eviction. In the study's forward, Professor Ananya Roy explains, "The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and deepened inequality in cities such as Los Angeles, with the burden of the crisis carried disproportionately by poor and working-class communities, especially those of color." Under Sterling, the Clippers were the NBA franchise most synonymous with renters' discrimination; under Ballmer, they could be the team of L.A.'s tenant class.

While Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Beverley are in Orlando to try to win the Clippers their first NBA title, they and many of their teammates are expected to promote the fight for social justice while there.
While Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Beverley are in Orlando to try to win the Clippers their first NBA title, they and many of their teammates are expected to promote the fight for social justice while there.Harry How/Getty Images

While the "L.A. Our Way" campaign signaled a pivot in the Clippers' strategy for grabbing hold of a bit of their city, it also lit a path on which the team could finally best their in-arena rivals. Instead of taking on the Lakers in the unwinnable arenas of celebrity or history, they'd go after the "uncelebrated" L.A.; they'd try to be "an authentic representative of Los Angeles culture," according to the website of the Battery Agency, the firm that executed the campaign.

If the Koch Brothers (worth around $100 billion) could reshape American politics to fit their vision of limited government and unlimited power for corporations, Ballmer (worth $76.8 billion, according to Forbes) can certainly reshape L.A. politics in his own vision. This is the moment for "Squad Over Self," for "We Over Me"; a moment for action instead of taglines. Even if the Clippers win their first-ever championship in Orlando, Lakers fans will be quick to point out they're still 15 rings behind. But this moment is bigger than basketball; the Clippers should seize it if they want to be the team of the Angelenos in the back.


Joseph Bien-Kahn is based in Los Angeles and has written for the New York Times Magazine, Wired and Playboy. He can be reached on Twitter, @jbienkahn.


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