Skip to main content
Original Issue

The Loss Generation When it comes to sustained ineptitude, no pro team in history can compare with the woeful L. A. Clippers

The Los Angeles Clippers are, without any possible argument, the
losingest team in history. We've crunched the numbers, we've
colored the bar graphs, we've drawn the pie charts. Everybody
suspected all along that the Clippers were the worst team--whom
are we kidding?--but nobody, until now, had ever bothered to
certify their chronic incompetence with actual arithmetic. So
taking what was long just a kind of folklore of futility, we've
done the dispiriting dirty work and can now confirm it: Among
franchises in the four major professional sports, the Clippers
are the most inept ever.

Agreed, this is a horrible thing to announce--as if the
Clippers, and whoever their fans might be, need to be
discouraged any further. We like to accentuate the positive in
pro sports, when court records permit, but there is no longer
any overlooking this magnitude of unrelieved desperation. In
their 22 seasons in Southern California the Clippers have won
barely one third of their games (chart, page 58). Since leaving
Buffalo in 1978 (where, as the Braves, they were pretty bad
too), the Clippers, either in San Diego or Los Angeles, have had
just two winning seasons. They've been to the playoffs only
three times. They've had 13 coaching changes. A dozen last-place
finishes in the Pacific Division. A brief flirtation, in
1997-98, at the Philadelphia 76ers' record-low nine wins in a
season. (L.A. finished 17-65.)

When it comes to protracted prostration, there's never been
anything like it. Other franchises have endured disastrous
spells, have even become catchphrases for failure. The NFL's New
Orleans Saints come to mind, a team that slogged through 12
consecutive losing seasons in the 1960s and '70s, its fans
wearing paper bags over their heads in shame. But even the
Ain'ts won a division title, in 1991. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers
had a nice (bad) stretch, but they still reached a pair of NFC
championship games. The Minnesota Timberwolves seemed capable of
challenging the Clippers, but back-to-back playoff
appearances--and Kevin Garnett--effectively removed them from
the noncompetition.

Even franchises that played so badly as to conjure embarrassment
at their very mentions have all gained redemption, the Clippers
excepted. For sports fans of a certain age, the New York Mets
will always signify comic incapacity. Their first seasons, to
this day, remain a cautionary tale for any expansion team owner.
Yet the Mets overcame that floundering and bumbling beginning to
become a championship team, and in relatively short order. If
you recall, they were amazin'.

Really, scant few teams haven't enjoyed at least a dead-cat
bounce after alarming declines. The Denver Nuggets kept the
Clippers out of Jay Leno's monologues in 1997-98, when they too
chased the 76ers' nine-victory mark. But the Nuggets didn't make
it either and, worse for the Clippers, have since rebounded to
respectability. The Clippers, after that brief respite from
ridicule, rebounded in reverse: The very next season they almost
broke the Nuggets' and Vancouver Grizzlies' mark of 23
consecutive losses, dropping their first 17 games, and, in a
nice bit of self-mockery, appeared on Leno to celebrate their
near-epic failure.

There are other cities where the fans like to characterize
themselves as "long suffering," but none can bemoan a losing
lineage as extensive as L.A.'s. A ground ball through Bill
Buckner's legs may indeed be the work of the gods. Where the
Clippers come from, however, it's just an E-3. Fate might define
a team in some instances, but only in those in which a grounder
through the legs (or its basketball equivalent) is not an
everyday occurrence. In any case, Buckner's Boston Red Sox were
in a World Series in 1986 when destiny reared its ugly head. The
World Series! Against the Mets!

The Clippers, with their sustained flair for failure, are
obviously beyond the grasp of fate. Their helplessness, so
practiced and so dependable, is clearly the work of man,
possibly the work of just one man--we're thinking of Donald
Sterling here (page 60)--although surely no owner could weave a
web of defeat like this all by himself. It's more probably a
team effort, each man doing his worst, nobody's hand really on
the wheel.

Their winning percentage drifts ever lower, no redemption in
sight. They win 20% of their games in one season ('97-98), 18%
the next. Lottery picks every year and the ineptitude continues,
virtually uninterrupted. And somehow the team continues to
exist. There normally is this refuge in seasonal sports: the
idea that there is always next year. But the Clippers seem to
refute the notion that there is always reason to hope, always a
possibility of success. Having earned only nine victories in
last year's strike-shortened season, the team was nevertheless
optimistic about its chances this year. Really. And yet, after a
season-opening burst, the Clippers have reverted to form, with
all that entails (a coaching change, players' promising
defections, a secure hold on last place), oddly at peace with
their destiny.

Part of the problem is that as awful as they may be, they are
not especially clownish. They might reasonably have almost the
same expectation of victory as, say, the Washington Generals,
yet they are unmistakably playing professional basketball. Often
with genuine professional basketball players. Pretty often,
anyway. On a recent night one Clipper, inbounding the ball,
absentmindedly began dribbling upcourt from his sideline
position, cutting out the middle man. But such comical gaffes
are rare. The Clippers' record might be easier to take
(certainly easier to explain) if they really were clowns,
performing one pratfall after another. But watching them play,
you are struck with the indescribably sad thought: They really
are trying!

It can get a little poignant, too, when you realize that a
college player who's known nothing but the highest level of
success (in fact, because he's known it) will be plunged into
the Clippers' black hole of defeat, sucked into a despair that
is unrelenting, quite possibly life-changing. There's karmic
comedy for you--a player becomes the best in the nation just so
that he might play for the worst in the world. Sometimes it's
not so funny, though. Bo Kimble, the Clippers' No. 1 draft
choice in 1990, recently told the Los Angeles Times that he was
nearly driven to suicide by the team's habitual underachieving.
(To be fair, the executives who signed off on his selection and
watched him flop still have to rush past open windows themselves.)

Free agency being what it is, though, most prospects can
engineer an escape and return to a more competitive world with a
portion of their self-esteem and earning power intact. (See
Danny Manning, Loy Vaught.) For the players, the humiliation is
only temporary. For the franchise, it is unending.

Since it now appears that the Clippers can never evolve into
winners--they are steadfastly improvement-proof, to the point
where their condition must be considered permanent (look at the
numbers, man!)--it becomes important to assign meaning to such
ongoing catastrophe. There's got to be meaning to a failure of
such immensity, else this world would be too frightening to live
in. So, consider this: The Clippers must lose so we can be
reminded that there isn't always a light at the end of the
tunnel, there isn't necessarily redemption and there might not be
a next year.

It's a gloomy lesson, but if it prevents us from taking comfort
in our calamity, from presuming success is the natural order of
life, from counting on a cosmic corrective--well, then the
Clippers have been instructive. Remember as you meander through
your own life, your hand not quite on the wheel: It really can
get worse than this.


COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHO UP AND AWAY? Once he's served his time, rookie Lamar Odom may join the long line of Clippers who threw up their hands and fled.


Atop the Bottom 10

In the history of the four major pro sports, only 10 teams have
spent at least 10 seasons in one region and never won a playoff
series*. Among these failed franchises, at week's end the
Clippers had the worst winning percentage, the fewest winning
seasons and the most last-place finishes. --David Sabino


San Diego/
L.A. Clippers NBA 22 .338 (593-1,159) 0 86.4 12

Timberwolves NBA 11 .348 (294-550) 0 81.8 2

Cardinals NFL 13 .365 (70-122-0) 0 84.6 5

Kings NBA 15 .380 (445-728) 0 80.0 5

New Orleans
Saints NFL 33 .391 (192-301-5) 1 84.8 10

St. Louis
Cardinals NFL 28 .480 (186-202-14) 2 57.1 4

Anaheim Angels AL 39 .483 (2,987-3,202) 3 61.5 3

Rangers AL 28 .487 (2,142-2,258) 2 53.6 4

Expos NL 31 .488 (2,388-2,501) 1 64.5 5

Colt 45's/
Astros NL 38 .494 (2,980-3,049) 5 52.6 3

*Not counting the Expos' win in a supplemental division series
necessitated by the 1981 players' strike.