I am a Los Angeles Clippers fan. I root for a team that has made the playoffs twice in 30 years and is regularly the butt of basketball jokes. I regularly get asked why I’m a fan of a team that makes the history of the Cubs look illustrious. Believe it or not, it was by choice.
The day that I became a citizen of Clipper Nation (I call it Clipper Village) started out no different from any other. It was a normal January day in 2003. My dad had gotten tickets to the Clipper game that night, which wasn’t unusual. I’d been to a number of games, most of which the Clippers lost. Despite that, I was still excited to go to the game with some friends.
We got to the Staples Center early since one of the fathers proposed we eat at the arena restaurant. It’s one of those places where you can pay an inordinate amount for ordinary food, but adults want to eat there because it makes them look like members of high society.
Halfway through dinner, a prominent-looking man walked into the restaurant as I was watching the players warm up on the court. I had no idea who the man was, but he was clearly important based on the reaction of the adults at our table. It turns out the man was Donald Sterling, the man who bought the Clippers in 1981 for $12.5 million (the franchise is now worth $297 million). He’s made money off of a team that perennially loses by never investing that much in them. The so-called Clipper curse has a name — and it’s Donald Sterling.
None of that mattered to me back then, though. He was walking around the restaurant aimlessly when he spotted us. For whatever reason, he decided to talk to the four little kids eating dinner. He asked us our names, ages and how we were doing. It was extremely awkward, until he said something that got me very excited.
“Kids, tell you what,” Sterling said. “If the Clippers win this game, I’ll let you guys go into the locker room afterward.”
My friends and I looked at each other in disbelief. All of a sudden, I had a rooting interest. The win wasn’t going to be easy, something my dad made I sure was well aware of. In addition to the Clippers being, well, the Clippers, they were playing a very capable Sacramento Kings team. At the time, the Kings featured Mike Bibby, Chris Webber and Vlade Divac. They regularly challenged the Lakers in the Western Conference.
The game was a battle despite the talent disparity. The Clippers kept the game close, even while playing little defense. The pace was frenetic and exciting, which is exactly what a little kid wants to see. Elton Brand and Lamar Odom, the young talent that was supposed to take the Clippers to the next level, combined to score 58 points in a shootout that the Clippers ended up winning, 112-107. The excitement from that game is something I can still feel to this day.
After the improbable victory, my father somehow tracked down Donald Sterling so he could make good on his promise. Sterling was reluctant to let us in, a sign that even he didn’t think his own team would pull off the win. My dad wasn’t going to take no for an answer though, and my friends and I were soon being led through the bowels of the Staples Center en route to the Clippers’ locker room.
Sterling led us inside to the dismay of Clipper head coach Alvin Gentry. My friends and I were standing on a huge Clipper logo in the middle of the room while looking at the monstrous players getting dressed all around us, the same players that just won a game my dad said they couldn’t. It was sometime during this awe-induced stare that I knew I was a Clipper fan.
My brief stay in the locker room was characterized by a number of weird looks from players. The experience was as confusing for them as it was fascinating for me. The best moment was seeing Darius Miles come out of the shower with a towel on, only to see a group of kids half his size standing in the middle of the locker room. I’ll never forget the shock on his face.
There are many times when I find myself wondering why I root for a team that loses more than 50 games every year. Then I remember back when I was a little kid standing in the middle of that big Clipper locker room.