By Seerat Sohi
Despite the constant #brand experiments and commodification of our favorite teams, spectator sport remains a deeply personal connection between a team, its players -- their twists, toils and triumph -- and its fans.
So amid playoff dominance, buzzer beaters, MVP speeches, last ditch attempts at relevance and gut-wrenching eliminations, the Los Angeles Clippers are life-affirming; honest and vital to the experience in a mostly crappy way. Their plight is the offspring of unfortunate coincidences, making for a pretty well-constructed antithesis of victory.
Bad fortune is often a veil, though, for institutionalized dysfunction: when something out of your control shapes who you are relative to everyone else. In the NBA, that's either location or ownership. Enter the Donald Sterling Era, underscored by incompetency, cheapness and of course, discrimination lawsuits. The Clips caught some breaks along the way -- Blake Griffin, namely, and that New Orleans was owned by the NBA while shopping Chris Paul -- but even in the thick of the Clippers' most successful season, Sterling made himself prominent. No amount of talent could have clouded Sterling's racist tirade and the ensuing media storm.
A couple of nights ago, with the guy who ruined everything banned for life and forced to sell the team -- finally, it seemed, out of the picture -- the Clippers looked ready to turn a new leaf. They were 2-2 against the No. 2 seed Oklahoma City Thunder, leading 34-25 after the first quarter of Game 5. Against MVP Kevin Durant and all-around firecracker Russell Westbrook, the Clippers were the ones showing off marvelous pluck.
Unfortunately, just as soon as the Clippers got out from under the Sterling fog, good ol' ill fortune -- the real thing -- kicked in. If luck be a lady, the Clippers are 29-year-old virgins. The whistle dealt the Clippers a few bad blows during a crucial juncture -- the final minute of Game 5 -- and they lost. The stretch was about as gut-punchy as gut punches get.
Referees exist in a part of the game that players can't control, but the best teams secure themselves with good decisions so their fate isn't determined by whichever way the wind blows.
The Clippers, on the other hand, ran Jamal Crawford around screens for the larger part of possessions, fracturing their offensive flow and leaving Chris Paul and Blake Griffin standing around. Paul fouled Russell Westbrook on a three-point shot after turning the ball over while attempting to draw three free throws from 80 feet out -- Paul's second turnover of the quarter. He needlessly ran the shot clock down multiple times down the stretch. Griffin, after dominating for three quarters, went 0-4 in the final twelve minutes.
The Clippers aren't battle tested. They're still learning the difference between playing to win and playing not to lose. Certainly, they aren't a franchise familiar with the idea of 'making your own luck.' For fans of the Clippers, the meltdown was par for the course. As far as narrative goes, this is the one they've always been stuck in. Yet again, they were given a reason to keep holding their breath in the face of seemingly good circumstances.
The Clippers don't have to stay stuck. They're still writing their own book. In the end, the goal is predetermined for all 30 teams. Long-standing playoff teams like the Atlanta Hawks aren't a paragon of consistency to most of us. The Hawks are considered to be in NBA purgatory, despite the fact that they have likely maximized their potential. It's only the journey that varies in difficulty. Given a truly extraordinary performance -- and yes, luck -- the Clippers can survive.
This is what our experience of sports on what only appears to be a level playing field does. We begin to ask what is unfair and unimaginable because most of us don't want to feel biting realism in an imaginary arena. In earnest, we want to believe that some things can be fair. We want to believe in the power of perseverance above all else. We want glory; heady, sweaty and romantic. If sports mirror our economic system, why simulate its broken, realistic version?
If we allowed ourselves the experience of digesting our favorite teams honestly, it might distort some of the things we appreciate about sports. But imagine just how much more we would relish and appreciate their triumphs.
Some teams just keep losing, though. No redemption, maybe a few silver linings. That's the less romantic part of The American Sports Dream: It isn't built to come true for everyone, no matter how much we want it to.
The Clippers' opponent, the Thunder, have momentarily escaped the ill fate of most small market franchises. They're the exception that underscores the rule's dream, encouraging the rest of the world to expect greatness out of those not equipped to deliver it.
Give David Simon a primer on Clippers history and he'd end up rewriting The Wire, but their journey is also indicative of a different truth: The fact that before you win, you have to lose. Over and over again.
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Seerat Sohi is an NBA writer for the ESPN True Hoop Network, living in Edmonton, Alberta. You can find her work at Hardwood Paroxysm and Clipperblog or by following her on Twitter at @DamianTrillard.