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The season is over, but the Clippers have arrived
The Clippers say no. I say yes.
The Clippers will spend the summer wearing a grimace. Folks will spend the summer wearing their jerseys.
The Clippers will bemoan the loss of an opportunity. A city will celebrate the discovery of a basketball team.
With a 127-107 loss to the Phoenix Suns in Game 7 of the NBA Western Conference semifinals Monday, the Clippers' season ended.
But something else, something far more enduring than a single night of basketball, was born.
A connection, between a long-forgotten basketball team and Los Angeles' long-forgotten fans.
A pride, in something historically undermanned and outrageously mismanaged.
A belief, that if you wait long enough, even fool's gold can become Sterling silver.
Isn't that what sports is all about, the nightly buzz over the eternal feeling that everyone has a chance?
The Clippers suddenly, surprisingly, flooded Los Angeles with that feeling this spring, from the corners of Brand to the edges of Cassell, and it will not soon subside.
"We are no longer a footnote in our town," said Elton Brand late Monday. "This is now also our L.A."
It is indeed, and a Game 7 loss on the road to a team that mindlessly outscored them 45-0 from the three-point line will not change that.
"This hurts, but we shocked the world, 100% of the world, everybody but us," said Sam Cassell.
The season is over, but the fresh exhilaration that wrapped itself around this city's basketball crowd is not.
We will not soon forget the sight of fans wearing Clippers jerseys through the malls, or the sound of fans talking Clippers strategy on the beach, which I actually heard last week, louder than the roar of the surf.
We will not soon forget the feeling of Clippers fans shaking down a Staples Center they can finally call their own, then going on the road with red and blue chests puffed out to silly proportions.
On a flight from Southern California to Phoenix on Monday, at least 30 people wore Clippers jerseys, inspiring the flight attendant to welcome "the fans of the Clipper women's softball team."
She was immediately corrected, and apologized for her mistake, claiming she didn't know much about sports.
Who would have thought anybody would ever feel it necessary to apologize for teasing the Clippers?
And then we saw possibly the two most unlikely two words to ever appear together on a T-shirt, "Clipper Nation."
When the playoffs began, folks laughed.
By a month later, what was once a Third World country now appears to be a burgeoning superpower.
"The season ended a month ago, and, until tonight, we were still playing," Cassell said. "Anybody around here ever believe that was going to happen?"
In their 22nd season in Los Angeles, the Clippers have finally arrived, and they're not going anywhere.
"This should be your shining moment," someone said to owner Donald Sterling on Monday night.
"A championship would be my shining moment," he said.
That won't be such a wild notion if this team stays together, if Mike Dunleavy is given a contract extension and Cassell and Vladimir Radmanovic are re-signed, joining the returning core.
"If they keep it get together over there, they are just going to get better," said the Suns' Raja Bell. "Playing games like Game 7, you learn and you grow."
Indeed, for a Clippers team that had never ventured this far before, Monday's night Game 7 was just too big.
It was bigger than a Clippers defense that didn't trust itself under pressure, allowing the Suns to shoot 60% on often uncontested shots.
Said Cuttino Mobley: "It all comes down to who's going to sacrifice. I'm not going to start nothing, but you've got to sacrifice."
Mobley was probably talking about an inside Clippers presence -- read Chris Kaman -- that did not outrebound the smaller Suns and that produced only eight second-chance points.
Elton Brand heard the quote but refused to point fingers.
"I'm not going to belittle my teammates," Brand said. "But I will say there is no excuse for the defense that we played."
Kaman heard the quote, and shrugged.
"I didn't feel that way, I felt we all worked hard tonight," he said. "We just didn't get it done."
Brand scored 36 points with nine rebounds, carrying the team on his back even with several Suns on his back.
The Suns couldn't stop him, but the Clippers couldn't stop anybody.
Steve Nash, rejuvenated by three days' rest, scored 29 points with 11 assists.
"The whole season everyone has second-guessed us," Nash said. "We are trying to live up to our expectations."
Shawn Marion, who said every part of his body hurt after Game 6, felt good enough to score 30 points, including five three-pointers.
"Can you believe him, swishing the ball from out there like Reggie Miller?" Cassell said.
Statistically, the Clippers were supposed to lose this game, as 82% of the road teams these situations do.
But hopes were higher because, after 21 years of papering Los Angeles with losses -- only one winning season during that time -- these Clippers were different.
They were better than the Lakers during the regular season.
They were better than their first-round Denver Nuggets opponent.
And, face it, they were mostly better than the Suns in this series.
They had one game stolen from them when Cassell was benched for most of the fourth quarter. They lost another game despite leading by three points with 3.6 seconds remaining.
This final one wasn't close. But this series was every bit of seven games close.
And now ...
"We cannot be a one-shot wonder," Cassell said. "We cannot be Milli Vanilli. We have to be the Jacksons."
Monday night, the Clippers and their thousands of new fans could take heart in one sound that will last until next season.
When the crowd at US Airways Center were chanting "Beat L.A.," they weren't talking about the Lakers.