Not far from the birthplace of the Black Panther Party and black berets and Huey Newton, they held a stirring national protest in Oakland and a basketball game broke out, if that's what you wanna call a contest played by a Clippers' team unwilling to Win One For The Donald.
Taking a cue from their leader, Chris Paul, the players wore their warm-up tops inside-out to hide the "Clippers" logo and name, took to the court wearing black armbands and socks and sported a game-long snarl. Something unprecedented was in the air at Oracle Arena -- defiance, disappointment, unity -- and yet something was missing. Namely: A good reason for the Clippers to put forth a collective effort and take control of their series against the overmatched and undermanned Warriors.
"It's all about the guys in that locker room," said Paul, circling the wagons and shutting out the man who signs the paychecks.
Placed in the uneasy position of working once again for a boss whose racist tendency flared spectacularly over the last few days, the Clippers are clearly uninspired and flatter than a supermodel. And you can't blame them if that doesn't change this week and they get bounced in the first round. If Donald Sterling truly doesn't want black people coming to Clippers' games, then mission accomplished, because the players didn't show up Sunday. Not even the token white guy in the rotation, J.J. Redick.
Hell, if it was going to be like this, why didn't the Clippers just boycott the game and force Sterling to pay the $1 million fine?
They lost Game 4 by 21 points, and after previously vowing to stick together, there's the feeling that their season is quickly coming apart. The players are human and therefore the task of working up a sweat to win a game, knowing that each victory puts more dollars into Sterling's pocket, must be killing them, or at least it should, anyway.
"We're going home now," said coach Doc Rivers wearily as the series shifts to L.A., "and usually that would mean we're going to our safe haven, but I don't even know if that's true, to be honest."
Yes, it was quite a scene all weekend, coaches and players and owners grabbing their pitchforks and torches, except much of it was built on a hypocritical soapbox that should've collapsed from all the BS and human rush to be righteous all of a sudden.
Put it this way: Had Rivers and Paul, too smart and dignified not to know about Sterling's history, chosen not to take his money last summer, the Clippers wouldn't even be here in the playoffs.
And put it another way: Elgin Baylor and a group of poor blacks and Latinos are wondering where all the fuss was years ago when they took Sterling to court for saying they smelled and compared them to animals while the same basketball world simply snored.
So the swell of collective outcry, while admirable on certain levels for its intensity and fury, had the whiff of a charade as well. Seriously, you had fellow NBA owners who harbored Sterling for decades suddenly getting all huffy and tossing around the word "disgusted" like Sterling tosses around, um, some other words. You had players who take Sterling's money now talking about him being banished from the league, or else. You had Michael Jordan, who once refused to support a black political candidate running against a white former segregationist, suddenly tearing into Sterling as he once did a double-team. You even had one superstar, Kobe Bryant, say he couldn't play for Sterling and yet he seriously contemplated the very thing several years ago when he and the Lakers were on the outs.
You had Magic Johnson execute an eloquent take-down of Sterling and state how he'll never attend another Clippers game while Sterling is owner, but Magic rarely if ever goes to see The Other L.A. Team anyway.
You had NBA commissioner Adam Silver, feeling his first bit of heat on the job, talk about taking swift action when he and his former boss, David Stern, took no action while they were a tandem and Sterling was embarrassing the league.
You had the NAACP condemn Sterling after shamefully -- shamefully! -- giving him not one, but two lifetime achievement awards and making plans to honor him next month.
You had Sterling's wife say she doesn't condone the type of views heard on the audiotape leaked by TMZ and meanwhile she remains married to the man, which makes her either weak or naïve or just protecting her future jackpot.
There were so many self-serving agendas and phony responses and instant militants flying around last weekend that it's a wonder you and I weren't whacked in the face by shrapnel. Anyway, rather than boycott a game and make powerful history in the process, the Clippers decided to play on for a man who probably considers himself their massa.
Well, all right, then.
For those who say this mess is all on Sterling and his fellow owners, why can't those who work for Sterling accept a small share? Specifically, Rivers and Paul? They're the face of the franchise and two superstars who had their choice of where to work and whom to work for last summer. Paul was free to sign anywhere while Rivers, after forcing his way out of Boston, could've either taken a year off to do TV or pretty much named his next team to coach. Without those two, the Clippers would've reverted back to being the saps they've been during most of Sterling's crummy 19-year ownership.
But, what do Rivers and Paul do? They "legitimize" Sterling. They give him a chance to win a ring. They ask Sterling where to sign. They align themselves with a cold sore whose entire stretch of racist history could've been uncovered in 30 seconds by a child with an internet connection and Google. Rivers and Paul don't deserve anywhere near the scorn that should be directed toward the L.A. chapter of the NAACP -- those sellouts who allowed a once-proud organization to be bought by Sterling -- yet Rivers and Paul are smart guys. They're leaders in their professions. They don't suffer fools. They're good people who reflect well on the league and the game and their communities. The easy answer is they wanted to get paid, but they could've gone anywhere and made good money. Why Sterling?
I spoke with Paul briefly about his boss during training camp in 2012, well before this latest crap-storm. Here's our conversation:
Me: "Have you met Sterling?"
Paul: "Of course."
"What do you think of him?"
"He's OK. I don't know him too well. But we've spoken."
"He has a reputation."
"I don't get into that."
Another time, I discussed Sterling a bit more in-depth with former Clipper Grant Hill, another smart guy, Duke grad and all.
Me: "What did you think about Elgin Baylor's lawsuit against Sterling?"
Hill: "I really don't know much about it. Sometimes you've got to know the details and there are two sides to everything. It got tossed out, right?"
You see, that's the thing. Say what you will about his poor track record as a general manager, which really shouldn't even matter in this case anyway, Baylor is one of the most important figures in NBA history. He came along in the 1960s when the world wasn't ready to elect a black president. He saw and experienced things that Blake Griffin doesn't. If nothing else, Baylor deserved at least the support of today's players and the benefit of the doubt in his lawsuit, especially when explosive details like Sterling discussing the penis sizes of his black players came to light, among other things. So what happened? Crickets, that's what. We never heard Jordan's outrage or Charles Barkley's hot take or Magic putting Sterling on blast. None of that.
What, was TV and the internet not around six years ago? Why did Baylor walk that journey alone? Why did the poor blacks and Latinos not hear a single peep from league owners when they were systematically shut out of Sterling's apartment buildings and won a record settlement?
It's fashionable to pile on Sterling right now, and so the voices, suspiciously muted in the past, are loud and angry. About time. Bigots like Sterling are doubly dangerous because they hire and fire people and create policies and affect livelihoods. He has no place in the NBA or anywhere else, for that matter. But getting rid of Sterling won't be a simple process. Legal issues and league bylaws and whatnot will interfere, and these fine-print details are partly why he has survived this long in the first place. Since 1982, every team in the NBA has changed hands at least once, except one. The one owned by Sterling.
We'll see what action is taken by Silver. But realistically, barring the unexpected -- Rivers quits, Paul demands to be traded or a family coup wrestles the team away -- the only person who can force Sterling to sell is Sterling. Which means, despite all the protests and backlash, change is squarely in the gnarly hands of a caveman who doesn't realize the world has changed.