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Meet Carl Lahr, the man who put the wind in the Clippers' sales

Carl Lahr sold for the Clippers during their darkest days — literally. When Lahr joined the team as a ticket salesman in San Diego in 1981, the folks who ran the San Diego Sports Arena wouldn’t turn on the lights during the day, so Lahr would have to show potential ticket-holders their seats in the dark.

“I did a lot of feeling around,’’ he said.

Carl Lahr sold for the Clippers on their journey to Los Angeles — literally.

Three days before the team’s first Los Angeles news conference in May 1984,  even though the team offices were still in San Diego, Lahr was ordered to rent a moving van, fill it with office furniture, drive it north, and park it outside the Los Angeles Sports Arena as a smoke-belching testament that the team was actually moving.

 “It was a ruse,’’ Lahr said. “In case any reporter wanted proof, we could open the back of the van and show them we were here.’’

Carl Lahr sold for the Clippers through nearly 2,000 losses, a crumbling arena, a crummy owner and a lingering curse he refuses to acknowledge. He sold for the Clippers when nobody was buying, everybody was laughing, and somebody was always suing.

Has anybody in Southland sports ever had a tougher job? Has anybody survived such a job for longer?

This week marking the 35th anniversary of Carl Lahr’s tenure with the Clippers, it is perhaps time for somebody sell for him, sell for a legacy that includes mopping sewage in flooded arena bathrooms to placing T-shirts on arena seats to filling those seats such that the Clippers now are among league leaders with 235 straight Staples Center sellouts.

Lahr rarely gives interviews. He has always believed the team was the story, and it was his job to be invisible. He said he would rather praise the efforts of many unsung employees who toil in sports front offices everywhere. But, after some prodding, he couldn’t deny his resilient role in Clippers history.

 “I haven’t seen everything, but I’ve almost seen everything, and I’ve seen some things twice,’’ Lahr acknowledged with a laugh.

His official title is Senior Vice President, Sales and Service, but his role is that of mentor, teacher, sage and the constantly smiling guy whose wardrobe includes a rotation of six red-white-and-blue dress shirts.

“Carl brings his never-ending desire to be better, his pioneering spirit and fresh optimistic energy,  to the Clippers every day,’’ said Gillian Zucker, Clippers president of business operations. “To do that after 35 years is remarkable.” 

Lahr, 58, leads the Clippers in continuous service — a longer stretch than even Ralph Lawler — and ranks third among all NBA executives in that category. Unofficially, he leads the league in praise from folks for whom his longevity under difficult circumstances induces quiet awe.

“When he walked through the door, I thought, ‘Here comes Richie Cunningham,’’’ said Dick Christman, who was the Clippers’ public relations director when the red-haired Lahr was hired. “Who would thought 35 years later he’d be there? Who would have imagine how popular the Clippers would become during that time? It’s just amazing.’’

Thirty-five years ago, it wasn’t exactly “Happy Days.” Lahr began his job in San Diego with no desk, only a box of belongings that he would move to the desks of co-workers who were out of the building. He moonlighted as a security guard. He worked out of a green 1976 Gran Torino.

Today, he has an office with a fifth-floor view of the downtown skyline, down the hall from the office belonging to the billionaire owner, surrounded by nearly 100 co-workers who bustle around with the excitement of a successful basketball product that nearly sells itself.

“I feel so lucky, so fortunate, to have hard-core committed owner, a championship coach, entertaining players,” he said.

The thing is, he felt the same way for all those years when he had none of those three things, when the owner was Donald Sterling and the coaches were crazed and the players were Benoit Benjamin and Michael Olowokandi.

“I never lost the faith, you can’t lose the faith,’’ he said. “I always say, once a Clipper, always a Clipper.’’

Who else has ever said that? If there were a play written about Lahr’s career, it would focus on the incredible lengths he would stretch to find and sell hope through the decades of smoldering Clippers wreckage.

Call it “Depth of a Salesman.”

After growing up in suburban Philadephia and earning a journalism degree from Penn State, Lahr came to San Diego to seek his fortune in professional sports. His handwritten note got the Clippers’ attention, and he began working for them on June 1, 1981, shortly after Donald Sterling purchased the team.

 With bleak facilities and little interest in the team, Lahr eventually learned to work the edges, doing things like opening the Clippers’ office on Saturdays during the San Diego Sports Arena swap meet so folks could wander inside to add tickets to their purchase of a Velvet Elvis.

“You had believe that, ‘I’m working hard, I’m exhausting every possiblity, and one day it’s going to pay off,’’’ he said.

They thought it might pay off when the team moved to Los Angeles in 1984, but it only got tougher. This was not only a Lakers town, but a Lakers town during the peak of the Showtime era. The Lakers played in the Fabulous Forum, the Clippers played in the crumbling Sports Arena. The Lakers were cool, the Clippers were invisible.

This led Lahr, who was now the sales boss, to institute a policy that the Clippers maintain today. He would not sell against the Lakers. He would not even mention the Lakers. Ad agencies would pitch campaigns that unfavorably portrayed the Lakers, and he turned them down. He would, instead, sell NBA basketball, the NBA experience, the family feel of cheering for an underdog team.

“We were so careful, we trained the sales people, you don’t say anything about the Lakers, we respect them too much, don’t put us versus the Lakers,’’ Lahr said. “We sold a family experience, a sharing experience, we sold the other teams, we sold basketball.’’

And those many times it didn’t work? Like the one day they held a baseball promotion at the Coliseum and fewer than a dozen people signed up and it was canceled? Carl Lahr just kept selling.

He has dealt with rats in their Sports Arena office, he has driven a forklift through the Sports Arena bowels, he was in charge of the Clippers’ first dance team even though he knows nothing about what they do, and once in San Diego he actually left the arena during a game to direct traffic. But always, Lahr kept selling.

“When we were terrible, when we never won, when nobody wanted to talk to us or do business with us, Carl was always there with a positive attitude convincing us we could build a great organization,’’ said Michael Arya, who worked under Lehr for five seasons and has since become a successful ticket sales consultant. ‘’He always believed it could happen, and eventually it did.’’

It only happened, of course, after Sterling was blessedly kicked to the curb, and if you’re wondering how Lahr survived the Sterling purge, the answer is found in perhaps the most fortunate part of his career.

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All those years working for Sterling, he never really dealt with Sterling. He was shielded from the owner by then-president Andy Roeser, and saw Sterling only at games.

“People would say, ‘How do you work for him?’’’ Lahr said of Sterling. “But most people in our office didn’t even know him, and never even dealt with him.’’

It is a one of the ironies of the Sterling regime that during all those years the owner embarrassed himself, the Clippers’ front office was continually stocked with loyal employees who truly believed in an underdog mission that had nothing to do with the elitist owner. One recent NBA study found that the Clippers were among league leaders in employee tenure, a statistic that can be found in Lahr’s eternally sunny disposition.

“Lately it’s been easy to be enthusiastic, but Carl was leading the ship when it wasn’t so easy,’’ said Leslie Murata, promotions manager and 20-year employee. “During our dark, dark days, when we didn’t know what kind of future we had, Carl’s positive attitude was huge in helping us get through it.’’

Remember the stories about Coach Doc Rivers addressing the Clippers’ staff in the wake of the Sterling ban? It should be no surprise that Lahr addressed them first.

“I wasn’t as eloquent as Doc, but I just told them, we’re going through some clouds of uncertainty, I have no idea how longer we have to get through this, I have no idea how turbulent it’s going to be, but I know this, when we get to other side, the sun is going to be shining and we’re going to be in a much better position,” Lahr said.

During a recent interview in his office, Lahr picked up the “Tigger’’ figurine on his desk — ‘’I’m a Tigger, not an Eeyore,’’ he said brightly — and glanced back out his window with an amazed little chuckle.

“This was my dream job,’’ he said. “And it still is.”

Thirty-five years after rummaging around in obscure darkness,  basking in the cascade of sunlight from a downtown sky, the salesman forever sold.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter: @billplaschke

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