Isabel Bigelow: “Guess what? I’m a witch!”
Jack Wyatt: “Guess what? I’m a Clippers fan!”
— Bewitched (2005)
I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles where everywhere you turned, someone was rooting for the Lakers. The bus that stops outside of my local library — the library where I would volunteer over the summers, reading with elementary school children — displays the metro stop at the front, followed with a flashing “Go Lakers!”
Everywhere I went, so did the colors purple and yellow. In L.A., it just didn’t make sense to be a Clippers fan. For one, the Clippers sucked. Two, the Lakers had a golden legacy: It was the team of Wilt Chamberlain, of “Showtime” and Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and five NBA titles. And in the turn of the century, the Lakers were again reminding people why they were the best.
In the 2001–2002 season, the Lakers won 58 games. Then, in the playoffs, they swept Portland. Before defeating the Spurs four games to one to face the Kings in the Western Conference finals, my friend Jack brought a broom to school. “We’re gonna sweep again, Vivian” he’d say, cackling.
I was already a die-hard Spurs fan, so that defeat against the Lakers was not easy to stomach. But because I was a tween and had no real rebellious streak, I had decided to root for the hometown underdog. I became a Clippers fan in the first year of the Lakers three-peat. My fandom was met with curiosity on one end of the spectrum and outright jeering and skepticism on the other. It just didn’t make sense to root for a team that was playing at the same stadium as the Lakers but only pulling $6 a ticket.
The beginning years of being a Clippers fan became one of learning humility (Lakers fans were cocky as hell during this time) and stoicism not usually found in a 13-year-old (I believed these wins could happen for us, too). I knew entering into this one-sided relationship meant that I would have to get used to losing. It seemed like I had a sense of duty to hold my head up high and gracefully accept that I’d be the butt of any and all basketball jokes. I liked rooting for the underdog, because it showed that I wasn’t someone who jumped on a bandwagon, that I wasn’t privy to loud boastings. Being a Clippers fan also meant that I would never be disappointed, because I could keep expectations low.
The Sterling Era Ends
Shut up and dribble.
— Laura Ingraham
In the beginning, I viewed basketball as a game of winners and losers. Over time, as I learned more about each player — their likes, dislikes, weaknesses, strengths — the game became more nuanced, more interesting. I was rooting for the Clippers, but I was also rooting for individuals to succeed. In early 2013, when I was trapped in a job where I was verbally abused by a racist boss yet starting to get comfortable calling out microaggressions in the workplace and bolstering my confidence by seeking a community of like-minded people of color, it seemed the Clippers were having a racial reckoning of their own.
In April 2014, TMZ Sports released a recording between Donald Sterling — who owned the Clippers from 1981 to 2014 — and his mistress V. Stiviano. In the recording, Sterling made a remark to Stiviano, saying, “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people,” after Stiviano posted a photo of her and Magic Johnson. The recording also included Sterling saying, “You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want…[but] the little I ask you is…not to bring them to my games.”
Sterling already had a terrible reputation as an owner, to the point that in 2009, ESPN called the Clippers the worst franchise in professional sports. Sterling also heckled his own players on the court. Throughout his ownership, the Clippers had the worst winning percentage in all four U.S. major sports leagues. And now, for a team composed of many black athletes, someone who “owned” them was disparaging them not for their ability to play ball, but as people. As naive as it might seem, it opened my eyes to the racial dynamics of players versus owners and also to how players were allowed to be outspoken in the face of racial injustice. A few Clippers players, and coach Doc Rivers, openly called out Sterling’s racist behavior.
Over the next few years, I saw more and more players and coaches (especially Greg Popovich and Steve Kerr) publically protest against the treatment of black Americans, against police brutality, against a racist government. I loved this sport because of its entertainment value, but my admiration for the NBA deepened once players made it a point that their lives weren’t separated on and off the court. They used their platforms to be loud, to be vocal, to be heard.
As I write this, the NFL has passed a ridiculous rule to actively discourage players from kneeling for the national anthem in their protest against police brutality. The NBA is not perfect, but it at least sees its players not as commodities but as real human beings. No one expects them to just show up and compartmentalize their experiences. I had always rooted for a team to win, but now I was rooting for the players to win, too.
I don’t know what to expect from this team anymore. It’s just — we’re in a bad place right now.
— J.J. Reddick, March 17, 2017
The phrase “2015 Clippers/Rockets” still sends a cold chill down my spine and an immediate need to hold back tears. For many, many, many years, Clippers was shorthand for losing. But then the Clippers started getting better. CP3, Blake, D.J., J.J., sixth man Jamal Crawford gelled. They were actually winning games. I couldn’t believe it, but the hometown underdog was actually better than the Lakers for once. And in another small twist, the bandwagon was hitched to my team (but it did drive ticket sales up to a point that sometimes I couldn’t afford to see a game).
And then, in the closest we had ever been to the Western Conference finals — a place the team has never found themselves — the Clippers were leading three to one in the conference semifinals against the Houston Rockets. I could taste the excitement. I would watch each game lying down on my bed because I was afraid that if I moved even a millimeter, I would throw up from anxiety. And then the Rockets won a game. And then another. And then…they won the series, advancing to the finals. The word “upset” didn’t even cover it.
I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say that my heart was ripped from my chest and I could never have hope again. The Clippers may have taught me humility, but for the first time, I realized I also wanted to see what it was like to win, to gloat, to wear a jersey proudly. I didn’t know it in that moment, but looking back, it was clear that the Clippers taught me resilience, heartache, and a hope for a better tomorrow. What was basketball if not a hope that the next game is another opportunity? If we got this close, surely we’ll get even closer in 2016. Instead, it seemed we were heading into a slump.
I like people flying under the radar. I don’t like gigantic egos…For them to want me to come here and maybe think I can help, I’m really flattered.
— Jerry West, June 19, 2017
The idea of blowing up a team cast a shadow and loomed over the Clippers since their 2015 meltdown, and each time someone mentioned it, I would shush them like it was a jinx. I had rooted for these players for a long time, and they felt like family. Trading is natural in any sport, but seeing any of these players in a uniform that didn’t have the Clippers logo emblazoned on it felt unnatural, wrong, and painful. But as the months rolled into full seasons, it seemed inevitable that Doc and the newly hired Jerry West (legend!!!) were going to blow up the Clippers.
And then…it happened. On June 28, 2017, Chris Paul wanted out and was then traded to the Rockets, which felt like 2015 salt on a wound. My secret basketball group on Facebook blew up on both sides. “This low-key could be a good thing,” someone posted. “And Patrick Beverly and Lou Williams are good,” my brother posted. “Don’t worry — it’s going to be fine,” I texted someone else. In July, J.J. Redick was traded to the Sixers. “Can I even listen to his podcast anymore?” I asked in another basketball text group. In January 2018, Blake Griffin was rumored to be — and then was — traded to the Pistons in the same day. I saw the notification on Twitter, put my phone down, and lay on the ground. I was not being dramatic at all. It felt, in all honestly, like the team betrayed him, betrayed us. “What was loyalty?” I texted to my friend Shapan, who was getting ready to record his Clippers podcast. He didn’t answer for a long time, and when he did, he said he can’t even think about it.
We had been loyal for this many years and this is what we get?
The Clippers ended the 2017–2018 regular season 10th in the Western Conference, at 42 wins and 40 losses. My friend Jose texted to ask if I thought D.J. was going to bounce. Selfishly, I just don’t want to see that happen. I don’t know what the future holds for the Clippers in the coming years, but if there’s one thing I learned in the decade and a half of being a fan, it is that you watch for the love of the game.
Like life, there are ups and downs, feelings to think about, strategies to forecast. During this past season, it has become a grim joke between me and my Clippers friends that, as fans, we should be used to waiting by now. Isn’t that the saying? That good things come to those who wait? But I do hope in my lifetime to see them in the finals and maybe even see the buses in L.A. flash a “Go Clippers!” for once.