Still think L.A.'s other team is a joke? A savvy G.M. (with help from David Stern) made the Clippers instant contenders. More impressive: Now stars want to join the club, not flee
In the spring of 1979 it was cool to be a Clipper. Point guard Randy Smith drove to the San Diego Sports Arena in his Rolls-Royce and tailored polyester suits. Shooting guard Lloyd Free—soon known as World B.—rapped at house parties when no one knew what rap was. Seven-foot Swen Nater danced with teammates at discos and coach Gene Shue bought drinks after landmark victories. The Clippers won 43 games that season, the franchise's first on the West Coast after eight years as the Buffalo Braves. Every possession was a fast break, and practices started as late as 7 p.m., which allowed players to sleep in and still hit the beach or the golf course.
"It was the best," says Nater. "No one wanted to leave." In the summer of '79 lawyer William Kunstler, who represented leaders of the Black Panthers, summoned Shue to a farm outside Portland. Kunstler also represented the Trail Blazers' tie-dyed center, Bill Walton, who grew up near San Diego and was a free agent. The Clippers signed Walton to the richest contract in NBA history, $1 million per year. They also acquired forward Joe (Jellybean) Bryant, who arrived from Philadelphia toting a baby boy named Kobe.
The Clippers believed they could contend when they opened training camp in the fall of 1979. But on the first day, in the middle of an outlet drill, Shue called three players into his office: Smith, the team's second-leading scorer; Kermit Washington, the leading rebounder; and Kevin Kunnert, the backup center. In those frontier days of the NBA, commissioner Larry O'Brien could award free-agent compensation when and where he saw fit, and the Clippers were growing too potent. O'Brien stripped them of all three players. Washington spent the next two weeks in his apartment and nearly retired in protest. "It destroyed the franchise," he says.
A year later David Stern became the league's executive vice president, and free-agent compensation was outlawed. The Clippers, unable to heal Walton's chronic foot injuries, began a pattern of desperate trades and reckless draft picks. They moved to Los Angeles in 1984, the same year Stern was promoted to commissioner, just in time for a Lakers dynasty. While Showtime reigned, the Clippers flailed, suffering through 29 losing seasons in 32 years.
Last month, after a 149-day lockout that was supposed to level the NBA's balance of power, Stern vetoed a trade by the league-owned Hornets that would have sent All-Star point guard Chris Paul to the Lakers. Six days later he approved a deal that brought Paul to the Clippers instead. Stern explained that he preferred the Clippers' offer, loaded with young players and draft picks, but to old-timers it was a karmic makeup call. "The dream is alive," Walton beams, "32 years late."
The franchise hasn't been to the playoffs since 2006, but it is cool to be a Clipper again, with Paul launching lobs that appear headed for the concourse and power forward Blake Griffin soaring to stuff them. The team is selling out every game, local television ratings are up 150% and prices of tickets on the secondary market are 50% to 75% higher, according to L.A. broker Barry's Tickets. Actor Colin Hanks, Tom's son, considered buying Clippers season tickets with friends so his one-year-old daughter could relate to an underdog. But he stalled for a couple of days, the Paul trade was consummated, and then he was shut out. "I hear about it every day," says Hanks. "My friends are like, We had the golden ticket!"
The Clippers were 9--5 at week's end, and in one glorious 48-hour stretch this month they vanquished the Heat and the Lakers while a man at Staples Center known as the Clipper Stripper peeled off eight L.A. jerseys in rapid succession. Griffin gushed that it felt like the playoffs. "I've never been to the playoffs," countered center DeAndre Jordan, a second-round pick in 2008 and the longest-tenured Clipper, "so I don't know what it should feel like."
He will find out soon enough. Though the Clippers attract casual fans with their rim-abusing ally-oops, they are much more than Highlight Clips. They blend the guile of point guard Chauncey Billups and small forward Caron Butler with the hyperactivity of Griffin and Jordan with the transcendence of Paul. "You just feel the pride when you put on the red, white and blue," says Butler, without sarcasm. Six weeks ago, Butler was a Maverick, Billups a Knick, Paul a Hornet and apathy a Clipper.
How in the World B. Free did this happen?
The architect of Hollywood's latest overnight sensation knows from experience there is no such thing. Clippers general manager Neil Olshey is a 47-year-old former actor who grew up in Queens, studied at The Neighborhood Playhouse in Manhattan and landed roles on soap operas Loving and All My Children. He moved to L.A. in 1993, on the advice of then Law & Order star Jerry Orbach, and quickly booked commercials for Coke, Visa, Honda, JCPenney and Burger King. Living off the residuals, Olshey had more free time than he could handle, so he volunteered as an assistant basketball coach at Artesia High in Lakewood. He hadn't played varsity hoops—he was cut as a high school freshman—but he was a fixture at CYO games in New York City and intramurals at Le Moyne College in Syracuse. He preferred gyms to sound stages and started bagging auditions for substitute-teaching gigs at Artesia.
Olshey spent most of his time with a sweet-shooting Artesia forward named Jason Kapono, and when Kapono moved on to UCLA in 1999, Olshey trained him at night for free. Two years later agent Arn Tellem hired Olshey to conduct larger workouts at St. Monica High, attached to Olshey's church, and the Santa Monica gym became a haven for NBA players in the summer. One was Mike Dunleavy Jr., whose father was coach of the Clippers. After several trips to St. Monica's, Dunleavy Sr. offered Olshey a spot on his staff in 2003. As director of player development he observed players' work habits. A lot of them fattened up over the off-season and didn't arrive until two days before training camp. "Their goal was to come [to the Clippers], produce and move on," Olshey says.
At the time, the Clippers practiced at the Spectrum Club in Manhattan Beach, next to housewives on treadmills. But in the summer of 2008 they moved into a $50 million basketball Taj Mahal a mile from the beach, with 42,500 square feet of courts, weights, saunas and film rooms. The facility was open to opposing teams, so prospective free agents would check it out and wonder why the lowly Clippers had the plushest digs in the league. It made no sense, unless the club was suddenly more committed than anyone thought, and perception just trailed reality.
In 2009, when the Clippers won the NBA lottery, the facility echoed with the cheers of long-suffering staffers. Olshey, having become assistant G.M. in '08, called Dunleavy in Barcelona, where he was scouting. "Come home," Olshey said. "We got Blake Griffin." The G.M. still remembers what Griffin's mother, Gail, said the first time she came to visit: "Now I know my son will be in a good place."
The Clippers were selling more than bricks and mortar when their top executives flew to Cleveland in the summer of 2010 to meet with free agent LeBron James. Olshey, who had been G.M. for all of five months, pitched James on Griffin and what they could accomplish together. But Griffin had never played in an NBA game, having undergone knee surgery in his first season, and James could not gamble on a wild card when a sure thing was waiting in Miami. The trip was no bust, though, because it provided Olshey an audience with James's agent, Leon Rose of CAA Sports. CAA had plenty of premier clients. Maybe Olshey could score another one.
Olshey met with New Orleans general manager Dell Demps at the Chicago predraft camp last May and again at the Las Vegas Invitational in November, while former players and G.M.'s were lobbying for Olshey's job. Clippers owner Donald Sterling let Olshey's contract expire in the fall of 2011, a death knell for executives in most organizations. But not this one. Sterling's disdain for long-term contracts is surpassed only by his aversion to pink slips. President Andy Roeser has been with the team 27 years, all without a contract, and several vice presidents have been in place nearly as long. Iconic play-by-play man Ralph Lawler started in San Diego, where he doubled as the team's real estate agent.
In this case Sterling's loyalty, often part of the Clippers' problem, was part of the solution. After the lockout, Demps let Olshey and his lieutenants call Paul. A free agent after this season, Paul had made it clear he would leave the Hornets, but there was no reason to believe he'd sign long-term with the Clippers. Olshey, director of player personnel Gary Sacks and coach Vinny Del Negro were astonished when Paul picked up the phone and rattled off minute details about their roster, draft picks and salary cap. "I get it," Paul said in the middle of the two-hour conversation. "There are a lot of places I can go where they've won and I can help them win again. But building our own tradition and our own history would be huge." He thought of the Clippers as Wake Forest, his alma mater, forever in the shadows of North Carolina and Duke.
The Clippers knew they would have to surrender two of three major assets—Jordan, shooting guard Eric Gordon and the Timberwolves' 2012 first-round draft choice, which they had obtained in a trade. Paul said he needed them to keep Jordan, who reminded him of Tyson Chandler, his old pick-and-roll partner in New Orleans. The Clippers also asked Paul to rank three small forwards on the free-agent market, and he picked Butler first. On Dec. 8, Butler agreed to a three-year, $24 million contract, choosing the Clippers over the Bulls, Spurs and Nets. "[Butler] wanted to be here," Olshey says. "That was inspiring for us." But hours later Demps informed the G.M. that Paul was being traded elsewhere.
Stern's intervention was the kind of big break that happens in Hollywood, but never to the Clippers. While Paul threatened a lawsuit against the NBA, Rose encouraged Olshey to reengage the Hornets. Paul would not immediately sign a long-term contract with the Clippers, but he would guarantee that he'd stay with them for two years, exercising his option for 2012--13. The Clippers negotiated with New Orleans deep into the night on Dec. 11, and when Olshey woke up the next morning, he had 17 text messages congratulating him. But the trade dissolved again. Olshey and Del Negro told players it was dead, and the Clippers won a waiver bid for Billups—who had no interest in joining them. "I wouldn't have done this three years ago," Olshey told Billups on the phone. "I wouldn't have hijacked you and brought you somewhere dysfunctional. But it's different now. Give us a chance."
With a deep tan and a quick smile Olshey retains an actor's charm. He was with Billups at the orthopedist's office the next morning, for a physical, when Demps called to renew talks. Two hours later a deal was done: Paul was coming for Gordon, center Chris Kaman, forward Al-Farouq Aminu and the Minnesota draft choice. Players were on buses at the time, completing a community relations tour, and when they returned to the practice facility, Griffin and Jordan shoulder-bumped in the parking lot. "Lob City!" Griffin blurted, spawning a cottage industry of message tees.
Del Negro had two weeks to integrate three new starters. "What's your favorite play set?" he asked them when camp opened. The Clippers were assembled faster than the 2010--11 Heat, and they adapted faster too. Through Sunday, Griffin was averaging 21.1 points and 11.4 rebounds, Paul 18.0 points and 8.4 assists, but that was expected from two probable All-Star starters. The defense has stiffened, Jordan has emerged, and Billups sank a game-winning jumper against the Mavericks on Jan. 18. Olshey, who also added rebounding savant Reggie Evans, is the front-runner for executive of the year. He lives in Manhattan Beach, just a few blocks from Kapono, a reserve with the Lakers, who are jostling with the Clippers for control of Los Angeles and the Pacific Division. "I was skeptical of all this," says Billups. "But you look at the facility, the coach, the guys on the team, they're serious. They don't want to be the same old Clippers anymore."
They have come to similar crossroads before, when Larry Brown guided them to the playoffs in 1992 and '93, and when Elton Brand carried them to the second round in 2006. The talent level is much higher this time, but Griffin and Paul are both due to be free agents after next season, so it could all evaporate again. Or, the unthinkable could occur. The Clippers could re-sign both stars, attract a generation of L.A. fans and maybe even seize something that for three decades was hopelessly out of reach: the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
"I WOULDN'T HAVE DONE THIS THREE YEARS AGO," OLSHEY SAID WHILE SELLING BILLUPS ON L.A. "I WOULDN'T HAVE ... BROUGHT YOU SOMEWHERE DYSFUNCTIONAL. BUT IT'S DIFFERENT NOW."
Photograph by JOHN W. McDONOUGH
GRIT AND GLITZ Paul, Griffin and Jordan (from left, in white, banging with the Heat) lead a team that's more than a collection of Highlight Clips: They play with an intensity that should resonate in the playoffs.
ANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (OLSHEY)
LEADING MEN Before getting a two-year promise from Paul (top), Olshey (left) showed he meant business by getting Butler (5) to huddle up with the Clippers.
Photographs by JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
[See caption above]