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No One Seemed to Care Much When They Left, But Now . . . : DOES SAN DIEGO MISS THE CLIPPERS

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Times Staff Writer

Maybe they didn’t do much to bolster this city’s image, but the San Diego Clippers were always good for a laugh, even if it was a derisive laugh.

As a case study in futility, the Clippers would rank right up there on any list of sad-sack enterprises, but there was never any Lee Iacocca to straighten it all out.

For six seasons, the Clipper operation seemed to lead the National Basketball Assn. in how to get things done poorly, if at all.

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Sadly, no one seemed to care.

By almost any barometer--attendance, talk-show gab, lunch-counter banter--the Clippers were a bust. Few paid to watch the games, and few paid much attention to anything beyond the pronouncements of owner Donald Sterling.

When Sterling yanked the plug and decided to move the team to Los Angeles last spring, the common reaction was a yawn.

To be sure, his action, after three unprofitable and unpleasant years as owner, was decried by a small but loyal coterie of pro basketball fans.

In the main, however, the response was indifference. It seemed that if the price of having an NBA franchise was Sterling’s style of leadership, many fans preferred to do without.

The consequence of Sterling’s desertion is clear: San Diego is unlikely to get another NBA team in the forseeable future.

Now that the Clippers are comfortably ensconced in L.A., a couple of notches removed from their familiar spot at the bottom of the standings, does anyone in San Diego care?

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Does anyone miss the Clippers?

“I do,” said sportscaster Ted Leitner. “There’s not as much to make fun of now.”

Padre outfielder Tony Gwynn, a 10th-round draft choice of the Clippers several years ago, still has a fond place in his heart for the team. He was planning to buy season tickets this year so he could sit with a Padre teammate, shortstop Garry Templeton.

“It’s kind of boring, not having the Clippers around in the winter,” Gwynn said. “So I’ve been watching the Lakers and Clippers on TV.”

To alleviate some of that boredom, a local station, KUSI, is televising 16 Laker games. Program director Bill Moore said he always thought there was more interest in the Lakers than the Clippers, even when the Clippers were in town.

A former season ticketholder, Gary Polakoff, said he was heartbroken by the absence of the Clippers. He has been to four games in L.A. this year.

“I was a real fan,” he said. “At the same time, I have to admit I think it was a good business move for Donald to take the team to Los Angeles. I think he will wind up losing less money there than he would here.”

Although there is a touch of sarcasm in most comments from those who profess to miss the Clippers, there are people who do miss the NBA.

“Yeah, but the Clippers weren’t an NBA outfit,” growled talk-show host Ed (Superfan) Bieler. “There was some indignation among the hard-core (fans) when they left, but there was mostly ennui. Everyone had their fill of Mr. Sterling.”

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Phil Quinn, general manager of the San Diego Sports Arena, elaborated on Bieler’s claim.

“The product under the Sterling regime never was NBA basketball,” he said. “I think the day he bought the team from Irv Levin (in 1981) was the day we lost the Clippers to Los Angeles.

“I can’t say for certain he did things to make the team look amateurish to justify a move, but I believe in my heart that a franchise with a good front office and a respectable product would do well here.”

Not everyone agrees. NBA executives, for example, seem to hold a different view.

“We recognize San Diego is a major market, and we haven’t crossed them off the list, but (getting another team) would be a tough go,” said Russ Granik, NBA executive vice president.

“We can’t ignore the problems that exist there. And not all the problems were of the Clippers’ doing. With the state of affairs that has existed, there’s little chance of San Diego getting another franchise.”

Granik was referring to the long-running dispute between the Clippers and the Sports Arena’s operator, Peter Graham. At about the same time they moved, the Clippers were awarded nearly $500,000 by a Superior Court judge who ruled that the Sports Arena had not been properly maintained.

There are no efforts under way to get another franchise for San Diego.

“You don’t just walk into the store and pick a franchise off the shelf,” Quinn said.

Bob Payne, president of the Greater San Diego Sports Assn., sees little reason for optimism.

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“I think we were always seen as a marginal town, but given a different set of circumstances, I think this would be a darn good basketball town,” he said.

“Frankly, as far as the Clippers go, it became a case of ambivalence with us when we got over the shock of their leaving. Still, I’m a basketball fan, and it’s hard to believe we don’t deserve a franchise.”

The city may get a new franchise--but it may not be an NBA franchise. Polakoff and a group of local businessmen considered pursuing a team in the Continental Basketball Assn. The Toronto Tornadoes of the CBA have even approached the city about moving here and playing home games at Golden Hall, a downtown facility seating 3,000.

“We decided to wait a year, though,” Polakoff said. “Donald did so much damage, we thought we ought to let the ground lie fallow for a year or more.”

The city has suffered no major economic consequences from the loss of the Clippers. The hotels and coffee shops that accommodated visiting teams may have lost a little business, but as John Lockwood, assistant city manager, observed, there were not a lot of fans who came from outside San Diego County to watch the Clippers.

“No private group has contacted me about trying to find a new team,” Lockwood said. “The moving of franchises is something the city can’t control, unless we have a long-term lease, as we do with the Chargers and Padres. If somebody wanted to bring an NBA team here, we would help as much as we could . . . because we think pro sports, like parks and libraries, help make up a city.”

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That belief is shared by San Diego State University sociologist Gordon Clanton, a former season ticketholder who has done some deep thinking on the implications of players and franchises moving on a whim for the economic betterment of a few.

“I made the Clippers a part of my life, and for other devoted fans like me, the move is a real loss,” he said. “I think a team should be owned by the people, like Balboa Park.

“I think all the movement of players and shifting of franchises undercuts the quality of the game. It makes it hard for people to develop the traditional associations . . . you associate a team with a city and player with a team.

“The Clippers had neither of those associations.”

Of course, some people just enjoyed seeing Loyd Free, now World B. Free shoot his 30-foot jump shot.

But World, along with Freeman Williams, Bill Walton, Wally Rank, Jim Brogan and sundry other capable and not-so-capable characters, are now part of the city’s sports history.

Professional basketball, R.I.P.

The sport had a short, inglorious and confusing history in this town.

In the last 15 years, there have been four teams--the San Diego Rockets and Clippers of the NBA, sandwiched around the Conquistadors and Sails of the American Basketball Assn.

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The Rockets inaugurated the tradition--to use the term liberally--with a four-year run, beginning in 1967-68. The Rockets fled to Houston for the 1971-72 season.

After the departure of the Rockets, the ABA had a go at it for three years, but neither the Conquistadors (1972-75), or the Sails, who folded after three games in the fall of 1975, caught the public’s fancy.

In the late 1970s, a transaction involving three cities--Boston, Buffalo and San Diego--resulted in a new franchise for San Diego. Irv Levin, then owner of the Celtics, traded franchises with John Y. Brown, who owned the Buffalo Braves. Levin then took his new franchise out of Buffalo and headed west with the newly renamed Clippers.

The team enjoyed a modestly successful inaugural season in 1978-79, finishing four games above .500 and playing before an average of about 9,000 fans a night at the San Diego Sports Arena. In the next five seasons, the Clippers never bettered .500 and attendance declined by 50%.

Donald Sterling had his reasons for moving the team. Public indifference is hard to overcome. But what of the city’s image?

“Losing the Clippers, I don’t think we’re seen as a loser,” Lockwood said. “Of course, if we lost another team, it would be devastating.”

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Leitner thought it over.

“A black eye?” he said. “Well, we ain’t getting another team. It’s over for this town, as far as the NBA goes.”

Hal Kolker, a former Clipper executive and now a sports marketing expert, put a reverse spin on the topic. “The Clippers gave the NBA a bad name in San Diego,” he said. “They destroyed the NBA’s image in this city.

“They took a team that used to be fun and ran it into the ground. I was emotionally involved, and I miss the Clippers. But I don’t miss their management.”

That’s probably as close as you can come to capturing the general sentiment here.

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