Not long ago, if a superstar was traded to L.A. and the limo arrived at the Clippers' front door, he would've prayed that it was a mix-up and he'd simply gotten the wrong directions to the Lakers' offices. This actually happened to Chris Paul, except the praying part. In his case, that came with a twist.
Two years after the NBA nixed the Paul trade to the Lakers and then OK'd the one to the Clippers, he's thanking the basketball gods for getting it … right?
"I feel blessed," Paul said.
Really. That's what he said. Blessed. Same goes for Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill and Jamal Crawford, solid and classy veterans who arrived in the last year or two, not kicking and screaming, but jumping and cheering. Same goes for Blake Griffin, who signed up for five more years of Clipper duty last summer, and not by knifepoint (although the $95 million helped). In short time, the Clippers somehow went from abomination to destination, which in NBA terms means a place to be.
"If you talk to guys like Chauncey and Grant, who've been around many different teams, they know how teams take care of their guys," said Griffin. "I wanted to be here. The Clippers have done everything I've asked. Why wouldn't it be a destination?"
This happened because of drastic change. A $50 million practice facility, more competent management and a commitment to winning, combined with the perks that only L.A. can offer, is all but guaranteed to convince Paul to sign a long-term contract extension next summer. Yes, the Clippers have changed, with one very important exception: The signature on the checks. That remains the same.
The most embarrassing owner in the NBA is still in charge, which makes you wonder if Donald Sterling, in his own eccentric way, will find a way to screw this up.
Most people, as they grow older, they get wiser. Sterling, he gets luckier. Because, based on some of his words and actions, there's no way he deserves what he now has, a winning team and a terrific franchise player and person in Paul. That, and a chance to make a run at a championship. For the first time since his bungled reign of ownership began in 1981, Sterling has the most exciting and maybe best team in town, a team that Billups says is "the most talented I've ever been on." And remember, Billups won a championship in Detroit.
These Clippers are giving the franchise a refreshing dose of credibility. Also, because they're packing the Staples Center, they're helping Sterling work toward his next billion dollars. If that's not disturbing enough, can you imagine a scene where Sterling is tearing up while accepting the trophy from David Stern in June? Nothing would be more shocking, or sadder, because Sterling doesn't exactly fit the mold of the lovable but unfortunate owner who's never won a thing.
Really, would you be happy for a guy who has done little besides mismanaged a franchise until now? Shed a tear? Develop a lump in your throat? Feel his pain turned into joy? Or just cringe?
This is the awkward part about admiring what the Clippers are doing right now, because that runs the risk of suggesting that it reflects well on Sterling. Well, not exactly. The quirky Paul trade fell in his favor. His team, once again, was lousy enough to get the No. 1 draft pick, and it was a no-brainer that they used it to take Griffin. Billups was amnestied from the Knicks and mistakenly considered too washed-up by most teams.
If anything, Sterling should be thrilled that his most important players are adopting a don't-know, don't-wanna-know stance about his past, and even if they did, they can't do anything about it, anyway.
Remember, this is man, in a position of power, who was punished by the U.S. Justice Department and investigated twice in the last six years by the state of California on multiple accusations of housing discrimination based on race. Elgin Baylor's lawsuit against Sterling was unsuccessful, but the longtime Clippers G.M. also made a number of alarming racist claims against Sterling and gave us a behind-the-scenes peek at how Sterling does business and treats people. Plus, two seasons ago, in full view of the fans, Sterling heckled his starting point guard, Baron Davis, from courtside.
If this were the '60s, there's no way Bill Russell, for instance, would play for Sterling under any circumstances, even if it meant money and championships, as much as Russell loved both. But these are different times, different players, different levels of tolerance. Ask any of the current Clippers about Sterling and they do nothing more sinister than shrug.
Paul: "He's been great to me."
Billups: "I actually looked forward to meeting him and having the chance to pick his brain about being successful in business. And as an owner, he wants to win and wants to be on top. He's been great."
Hill: "I don't go off perceptions. I always give somebody a clean slate. He's very supportive and given us everything we need to win. As a player that's all you want from your boss. I guess things have happened, but I don't know the truth and it wouldn't affect how I feel about the team or the commitment, anyway."
Players are too focused on the immediate benefits, the money and livelihood and winning, to care too deeply whether the owner is possibly racist and definitely a bit off. And that's understandable. Careers are at stake, and if Sterling doesn't affect them in a negative way, then they won't worry too much. Owners don't connect to the players on a daily basis the way a coach or a general manager does, unless the private charter is late or the check doesn't clear on the 1st and 15th.
And as they said, Sterling is great to them, which is also understandable, since they make him wealthier and now are giving him a legitimate chance to win big.
Anyway, maybe karma has already stuck it to Sterling, keeping him from reaching the Promised Land for three decades now. That's almost Cubs-like, but at least folks want to hug the Cubs.
Make no mistake, there's joy for the players and coaches. Imagine, Vinny Del Negro, all but fitted for a blindfold and cigarette last spring, is now the longest-tenured coach in Los Angeles. Paul is a civic treasure who does wonders for the Clippers on and off the court. Billups might be the most respected player, from a leadership standpoint, in the NBA, while Griffin is thrilling to watch and good to know. They've made the Clippers a destination franchise and, for now at least, the fun and stable team in town.
"I believe in this team 100 percent," said Griffin.
Too bad they're doing all they can to enrich and reward an owner who suddenly finds himself in the right place at the right time. Donald Sterling can't be laughed at anymore, but if he wins it all, that should be enough to make everyone cry.