THE NBA / MARK HEISLER : The Clippers: A Team Only An Owner Could Ruin


Only one question remains in Clipperdom:

Who has the movie rights to this season?

We’ll call it “Buffalo Chips,” the saga of a brave organization’s battle to win while retaining its amateur standing.

Of course, this is the NBA, where everyone is allowed and, indeed, aspires to be professional, so you can see what a challenge our heroes face.

How about the last 10 days?

Ron Harper pops off. They suspend him. Danny Manning wears a sweatband with Harper’s No. 4 around his ankle. Manning plays his last Clipper game while Donald T. Sterling, Elgin Baylor and Andy Roeser sit in the front row, going over Elgin’s notes on trade proposals during the game while the P.A. system plays appropriate tunes like “Free, Free, Set Me Free” and “Already Gone.” Someone retains a sense of humor, a handy thing among the Clippers.


Manning is then traded for Dominique Wilkins.

Of course, the Clippers acted happy. First they pretended they could sign Manning, now they’re pretending it doesn’t matter. Since they’ve just exchanged a 27-year-old for a 34-year-old who can become a free agent, too, it can’t be counted as a coup.

At least, the Clippers can sign Wilkins. At his age and salary--$4 million--there won’t be many bidders for next season.

Of course, they’ll have to pay through the nose for his 35th, 36th and 37th years, but that’s the direction they decided to go. I’d have taken one of the offers with young players and No. 1 draft choices, since the present cast isn’t close to competing for a championship. Morale suffers in the absence of hope, a lesson the Clippers might have learned this season but didn’t.

But let’s not quibble about small things.

If they’re ever to rise above the joke stage, the organization must create a new atmosphere to replace the current one as the NBA’s Siberia.

Some suggestions for Sterling:

--Sell the team. This is Clipper fans’ real fantasy but a non-starter. Sterling claims never to have sold anything in his life.

--Move it to Anaheim. Amazing as it is, someone still wants the Clippers. Actual attendance would do a lot to cheer the players up, rather than the present practice of padding the count by 1,500 to 2,000 a game. This won’t happen soon since Donald features himself an L.A. kind of guy, but it’s still the way to bet after the Clippers are forced to acknowledge that the window of opportunity has closed on their necks.


--Professionalize it. See if this sounds familiar: Put your trust in your people or hire new people you can trust; establish a hierarchy; withdraw from operational involvement.

You would never suspect an organization that functions so poorly could be made up of so many capable, people. Baylor, the general manager, is a good basketball man. Roeser, the head of the business side, is a bright guy.

The roster of former Clipper executives reads like a who’s who of sports administration: Alan Rothenberg, the well-connected lawyer who now runs U.S. soccer; Arn Tellem, now a heavyweight agent whose client list includes Bo Jackson; the widely respected Carl Scheer, and Harley Frankel, who worked on Bill Clinton’s transition team. As Clippers, they were reduced to voices competing for attention in the asylum choir, victims of the owner’s genius for avoiding any tough choice until he has to convene an 11th-hour ad hoc committee.

It’s the Clipper front-office people you feel for. The players are well compensated. The fans can change channels. Clipper employees smash their heads against the walls of their Little Shop of Horrors every day in the belief it can make a difference. They’re up to 12 years (two cities, three GMs, eight coaches, 10 50-loss seasons) under Sterling and counting.

The Donald protests he’s a good businessman and this morass doesn’t reflect on him.

The weight of evidence supports the first claim--he made a fortune from scratch so he must have done something right--but not the second. He’s the franchise’s one constant in 12 farcical years.

In business, his tenacity served him well, but in basketball, it kept him from learning from his mistakes. He won’t even acknowledge he’s in charge. He’s merely the kindly paterfamilias, forever forgiving his bungling charges.


The Clippers rose by sheer weight of lottery picks and lost them all.

Like Moses, Manning led them through the desert but wasn’t allowed to enter the Promised Land.

He left them as he found them.

In last place.


Manning for Wilkins:

The Clippers held a fire sale. The customers jammed the doorways and climbed all over themselves trying to get in on it.

The Hawks aren’t out of the woods. They have to sign Manning, and despite his good manners, they’ve never been on his short list. Short-term, this figures to disrupt their miracle season because teams need time to adjust to major changes. Manning and Kevin Willis are both low-post players who will have to learn to work together.

However, the Hawks were in a bind, too. They didn’t want to spend $5 million a season to tie their young roster to the aging Wilkins. Now they can pursue Manning with an edge--they alone can offer big money up front.

If they lose him, they will have his $3.25-million slot to pursue Horace Grant et al., and can get on with their rebuilding program.


Orlando, still believed to be Manning’s preferred option, can open a $1.6-million salary slot this summer, enabling the Magic to offer a $21-million, seven-year contract with a one-year termination clause, then re-sign him next summer.

Manning’s friends say privately what they’ve said publicly: He will make his decision on where he wants to be and would take the short money for a year.

Utah’s Jeff Malone and a No. 1 pick to the 76ers for Jeff Hornacek.

How is Chicago’s Jerry Krause going to explain this one?

Bull players ripped him for not upgrading Michael Jordan’s old No. 2 guard position. Now the Jazz beats him to Hornacek, a fine player who can also play the point, giving up only sagging Malone and a draft choice, now projected as No. 20 overall.

Malone was unhappy, on the outs with Coach Jerry Sloan and had so irritated Karl Malone, the Mailman vowed privately never to play another game with him.

You’ve got to hand it to the Jazz. They make a mint, they talk poor-mouth, and every time the posse closes in, they think of something.


The Bulls’ Stacey King to Minnesota for Luc Longley.

On the other hand, Krause wasn’t idle.

Chicago reporters will miss King, who popped off as if he were a real player, when he wasn’t threatening to set records for having two-foot set shots blocked.

The gentle Luc will look impressive in layup lines alongside another 7-foot non-contributor, Will Perdue.

The Bucks’ Frank Brickowski to Charlotte for Mike Gminski and a future No. 1.

Mike Dunleavy gets rid of the mercenary free-agent-to-be Brickowski for a pick and takes Gminski, whom he’ll cut when his contract runs out at the end of the season, leaving a $2-million salary slot.

If this is the Hornets’ big move to get a power forward, let’s just say Brick’s no Horace Grant.



The Brat Pack rides again: Christian Laettner cursed Timberwolves assistant Bob Weinhauer last week, upset that Weinhauer had told Marlon Maxey he had messed up a play. Laettner has cursed at two Minnesota assistants, two referees and has been suspended twice. . . . Said Weinhauer: “This is very disappointing but not surprising. What this does is show he has no respect for anybody.” . . . Said Timberwolves General Manager Jack McCloskey: “(Laettner) is definitely not easy. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy but I didn’t think it would be this hard.” . . . This year’s No. 1 pick, Isaiah Rider, has missed four practices--two excused, one unexcused, one to shoot a commercial--which Coach Sidney Lowe forgave. Rider has been told he will be suspended for the next one. . . . Pals again: The Nets signed power forward Derrick Coleman to a $30-million, four-year deal making him the NBA’s highest paid player ($7.5 million to Larry Johnson’s $7.4 million). The cost is high and the player is prickly, but after losing Mookie Blaylock, Chris Dudley and Terry Mills in budget crunches, the Nets finally wised up. . . . Oops: The report that the Lakers offered Elden Campbell, a No. 1 pick and either Doug Christie or Anthony Peeler for Coleman was groundless. It’s impossible under salary-cap rules.