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Original Issue


They have no center. Their point guard didn't start in his
senior year in college, was cut by a CBA team and is three
inches shorter than his girlfriend. Their top frontcourt reserve
has the worst shooting motion in the NBA. Their leading scorer's
good for only 14.2 points per game. Their shooting guard shoots
40.4% from the field. Their most talented player gets 16 minutes
a game.

They are the Los Angeles Clippers. The defective, dysfunctional
Clippers? The same confused, comical franchise that is on its
18th head coach and third city and has played in just 32 playoff
games in its 27-year history? Those Clippers?

Well, no. These Clippers, despite glaring inadequacies, were
25-30 and the owners of the seventh-best record in the Western
Conference at week's end. With as many wins as the Bucks and one
fewer than the Bullets, L.A.'s other team is finally gaining
some respect. "It's been a long time since we've won this
consistently," says Clippers point guard Darrick Martin. "When
they're laughing at you every night on SportsCenter, there's
only so much you can take. We're not a joke."

No, they are 12 seemingly anonymous, gritty players of near
equal ability. Those who play well, play. Those who are hot, get
the shots. There's no telling which five Clippers will be on the
floor in the final minutes of a close game. "You come to the
arena ready to play because no matter how little you played the
night before, you might be in there at crunch time," says
swingman Eric Piatkowski. Nine Clippers have led the team in
scoring at least once this season. Martin scored 38 points in a
win over Utah on Dec. 30. Three games later, in an 87-80 victory
at Toronto, he played only 19 minutes, none down the stretch.
But instead of moping, he led cheers from the bench. That's the

"We're a bunch of guys who are trying to create an identity for
ourselves," says forward Loy Vaught, whose 14.2 scoring average
would be the lowest by a team scoring leader for a nonexpansion
franchise since Bobby Wanzer's 13.1 for the Rochester Royals in
1954-55. "We can't afford huge egos. We're humble guys who are
trying to carve a niche. We have great determination."

That was clear last Friday night, when the Clippers played a
sloppy game against Toronto and had every chance to lose but
still won, 94-92. Last year, two seasons ago, most any year in
franchise history, they would have lost that game. Says Raptors
forward Popeye Jones, "They're talented, and they compete."

Especially the smallest Clipper, the ambidextrous Martin, who
can shoot as well righthanded as lefthanded. At 5'11", he had to
switch to a smaller jersey earlier this season "because you
couldn't see half the 1 and half the 5. They were stuffed in my
shorts. My family, my teammates, my girlfriend told me to get a
new uniform." Martin's girlfriend is Marissa Hatchett, a 6'2"
pro volleyball player. "When we go out, she's like this," he
says, hunching over to be shorter. "No heels, my rule," he says,

After starting most of his first three years at UCLA, Martin was
benched his senior season. He went undrafted in 1992, was waived
by the CBA's Oklahoma City Cavalry and wound up playing for
Magic Johnson's traveling all-star team in '92 and '93. In the
1994-95 season he starred for the CBA's Sioux Falls Skyforce and
played 34 games for the Timberwolves, who then cut him loose. He
was signed by his hometown Clippers in September 1996. In
December he became a starter. The Clippers have since gone
18-16, and he has averaged 14.0 points and 5.4 assists per game.

"It's been a hard road, but I don't lack confidence," Martin
says. "I know God wouldn't bless me with this much talent, then
not let me use it. I needed a chance."

Vaught's first real opportunity came in 1994-95, and for three
years he has been the team's most reliable scorer and rebounder.
He is the closest thing the Clippers have to an All-Star, but he
doesn't mind anonymity. He spends his free time drawing and
painting (charcoal sketches, oils and watercolors) and writing
poetry. "I like to be diverse; I'm not the Basketball Jones
kind," he says. If there's an NBA game on TV, he wouldn't watch
it. "I'd probably watch Melrose Place," he says, smiling.
"That's good and bad. Coach [Bill] Fitch wishes I would watch
the game."

Fitch wishes the Clippers had a center. What they have is 6'11"
rookie Lorenzen Wright, a power forward who has to play center
because Brian Williams, last year's starter, wanted more money
than the Clippers were willing to pay. Another pivotman,
7-footer Stanley Roberts, has missed most of the season with an
injured back. "We have one rule," says Fitch, "don't tell
[Wright] that he's not a center."

Wright is often replaced by Charles Outlaw, he of the ugliest
shooting form in the league. Outlaw, who is righthanded, shoots
the ball from the left side of his head. On release, his right
wrist is curled instead of flat, and his right elbow is crooked,
instead of straight. The 6'8" Outlaw is a career 48% free throw
shooter, but he's shooting 55% from the line this season. He can
play all three frontcourt positions, and he's an active
rebounder, a tenacious defender and a relentless runner. "If I
had to have a heart transplant, I'd want his heart," says Fitch.

"I don't know how many wins we'd have without him," Piatkowski
says. "Everyone on this team wants to be on the floor when he is."

The Clippers' most skilled player, swingman Brent Barry, would
love to be on the floor more than 16 minutes per game. He's one
of the few Clippers who can shoot the jumper on the break or
take the ball to the hoop and slam, but Fitch uses him
sparingly. Barry played 10 minutes last Friday in the victory
over Toronto and not at all in Sunday's 109-107 overtime loss to
the Nuggets.

Wright, on the other hand, saved the Toronto game by blocking
Damon Stoudamire's shot in the final seconds, thrilling his
father, Herb, who moved to L.A. from Memphis after Lorenzen
signed with the Clippers last year. Herb is paralyzed from the
waist down, the result of being shot, in 1983, by a youth whom
he had kicked out of a Memphis recreation center where Herb was
running a summer basketball program. He attends every Clippers
home game. "I have to give him pointers," Herb says of Lorenzen.
"We take care of each other."

The players' fathers are an interesting mix. Two-guard Malik
Sealy's dad, Sidney, was a bodyguard for Malcolm X. Piatkowski's
father, Walt, played for Fitch at Bowling Green. "That was 1917,
right after the war," Fitch says. Barry's father, Rick, is one
of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History.

Despite their improved play, the Clippers are averaging 8,799
fans at the Sports Arena (lowest in the league). Of course,
making the playoffs for the first time since the 1992-93 season
could help create interest in the team.

"That's our goal, the playoffs," says Martin. "When we play in
pickup games at UCLA in the summer, guys from around the league
tell us, 'Oh, you should feel what the electricity is like in
the playoffs.' Well, we want to know that. We want to say,
'We've been there, too.'"

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Vaught, the Clippers' leading scorer at just 14.2 points per game, isn't hooked on hoops. [Loy Vaught in game]



Jazz coach Jerry Sloan gave forward Chris Morris the heave-ho in
the fourth quarter of Utah's 110-99 victory over the Knicks on
Feb. 25, ordering him to the locker room and getting security
guards to escort him there. Moments before, Morris and Sloan had
exchanged words after Sloan yanked the reserve forward for
indifferent play.

With a 106-100 overtime win against Boston last Friday, the
Pistons finished February with a 10-3 record, the fourth
consecutive month that they have had at least 10 wins.

Who lit a fire under Elden Campbell? Since moving from power
forward to replace the injured Shaquille O'Neal at center,
Campbell has averaged 23.6 points and 9.7 rebounds. He scored 34
points in a Feb. 5 victory over Chicago and a career-high 40 in
a double-overtime loss to New York on Feb. 23. Campbell was
averaging 12.3 points and 7.9 rebounds before the move.

"I know how to dial room service and where to get the morning
paper. What else is there?" --Recently acquired Nets center Joe
Kleine on getting acclimated to New Jersey.