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Sterling Doomed to Repeat Himself

Donald T. Sterling

Sterling World Plaza

Beverly Hills, CA

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Dear Donald,

I have seen the future. Unfortunately, it looks exactly like the past.

Not that it comes as a surprise, after 22 farce-filled seasons, but this would be your all-timer. If you mess this one up, it will stand as your monument.

Even I didn’t think you could miss this time, with these young players who vowed to start a new Clipper tradition, turned a laughingstock into a hot property, ran attendance up to 18,000 a game, and, according to sources, might have made you as much as $12 million in profits last season.

Not that you did anything to deserve it. The gods dropped these guys in your lap, although the way it’s heading, it’s obvious now it was another of their cosmic jokes.

The young Clippers were not just good but spectacular. People everywhere loved them, not only here. Sales of your apparel, which once piled up in warehouses and had to be given away to quilt makers, rocketed into the NBA’s top 10.

Lamar Odom and Darius Miles jerseys were among the top 10 individual sellers. D and Q -- for those over 30, that’s Miles and Quentin Richardson -- starred in their own Spike Lee-directed Nike spot. Kids copied their forehead-fist thing.

This wasn’t mere show, though, but the real deal. Young and exuberant as they were, the young Clippers were remarkably levelheaded, with the notable exception of Odom.

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More to the point, in a first for Clipperdom, they loved it here. They loved playing as teammates, even if, like Q and Corey Maggette, they vied with each other for minutes. Almost to a man, they said they’d take less money to stay.

To this point, you hadn’t had to do anything, which is, of course, why things proceeded so smoothly for three seasons.

The young players were all on rookie-scale contracts that tied them up for five years -- three guaranteed, the fourth at the team’s option, the fifth as restricted free agents with the team holding the right of first refusal.

Finally this summer came your turn. Michael Olowokandi, a four-year man, was a restricted free agent. Elton Brand, a three-year man, was eligible for a long-term extension.

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Odom, Maggette and Andre Miller were all three-year men too, even if no one had illusions that you’d even talk to any of them.

Odom had things to prove. Maggette was a rare athlete and a demon worker but would just have to wait his turn.

Miller, however, was another hard-nosed leader, your point guard of the future and you had just given up Miles to get him. That would have made him a priority anywhere else. Of course, this isn’t anywhere else, or anywhere at all.

Negotiations went nowhere, as they usually do in Clipperdom, even with the players seeking sub-maximum deals.

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Even your ultra-loyalists in the front office concede that Olowokandi asked for $85 million, $10 million under the maximum, and Brand for $75 million, less than the $80 million that players chosen below him in the ’99 draft -- Houston’s Steve Francis and Phoenix’s Shawn Marion -- got.

It wouldn’t even have blown your budget.

Giving Olowokandi $85 million would have meant bumping him only from his current $6 million to $9 million. Brand’s extension wouldn’t kick in for a year so you could have signed them, traded your No. 1 picks -- who won’t play for a while in any case -- and had a $42-million payroll, $600,000 lower than your present payroll.

One might argue the wisdom of signing Olowokandi, who developed slowly and still has problems with consistency, although this season’s numbers -- 16 points, 13 rebounds, 3.3 blocks a game -- suggest he’s still coming fast.

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However, the only question about Brand is: Do you want to just sign him or adopt him too?

If Olowokandi is a growth stock with a big upside, Brand is like one of those bonds they sold in the early ‘80s that paid 15%. You bought it for $2,000, put it in your IRA, came back in 10 years and it was $8,000.

Brand delivers 20/10 a night and as intangibles go, he’s the mother lode. Invariably positive, he practices hard and comes ready to play. His high school coach in Peekskill, N.Y., noted that in three of Elton’s four years, the entire team had a 90% scholastic average, which hadn’t ever happened before or since.

Unfortunately, your preferred alternative, to wait until the last moment, or for someone else to set the price -- remember when you gave Tyrone Nesby, of all people, $9 million, because the Spurs offered that? -- sent a message to your players:

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If I wouldn’t sign anyone, not even Elton, what makes you think YOU have a future here?

I know you don’t understand this, but young players are preoccupied with their futures and need a signal. Unfortunately, they didn’t like the one they got.

At the moment, the atmosphere around the Clippers is gloomy, going on funereal. People say what they are obliged to on the record, but there’s no escaping the reality. As one official said, “He killed the team.” Meaning you.

Having seen this before, I know you will spend the season insisting that you’ll sign both players next summer. It’s possible but it’s a longer shot than it was this summer, when you didn’t have to bid against anyone else. Business turns personal and there’s no business like Clipper business.

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On one hand, you have talented young men who can go on whim, because they’re rich and there’s no question of whether they’ll get richer, only from whom they’ll choose to accept the money.

And on the other hand, there’s you.

Actually I blame myself (note to readers: not really but play along): All these years, I should have been putting it into the only terms you could understand.

It’s as if you woke up one day and, instead of having $500 million worth of buildings along the Wilshire Corridor, you found that you owned all of Malibu.

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And then, instead of holding a party that lasted the rest of your life, you said: “Wait a second, let’s not pay the mortgages and see if the banks foreclose!”

Remember Danny Manning?

Swore to leave from the day he arrived. Walked into the office with his agent at high noon, July 1, 1993, the moment his original deal was up, to sign a one-year qualifying offer, which would make him a free agent upon expiration.

Meanwhile, you knocked down Elgin Baylor’s trade, sending him to Miami for Glen Rice and, despite mounting evidence, continued to insist in your inimitable style that Manning would stay (“Mark, what can we do to keep Danny?”).

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At midseason Baylor finally persuaded you to move Manning. Unfortunately, the deal you picked was for Atlanta’s Dominique Wilkins, another impending free agent, whom you let walk away that summer.

We’re back into that twilight time, when everyone can see what lies ahead, except you, even if it takes years to unravel.

Brand, Miller, Maggette and Odom can be locked up through next season, Q and Keyon Dooling through the 2004-05 season, so their bodies will be here.

However, without belief, the one thing they need from you, this thing won’t fly. You think their bad start this season is about injuries?

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Try, instead, depression.

Not that this will make any impression at this late date, but people will really be unhappy with you this time, because they love this team. This is a breach of faith across the board, with your players, coaches, fans, employees, broadcast partners and advertisers.

This is genius, upside down. You won’t make the commitments that your competitors make and you are reviled but you won’t sell, or move, or learn from your mistakes, or listen to advice, or bow to any pressure, be it from David Stern himself.

It’s too bad you got it completely wrong because one thing I’ll give you, you’ll never back away from doing it your way.

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This is your defining moment ... and the word that’s emerging, finally, is “hopeless.” They should run your picture alongside it in the dictionary, with a little word balloon above your head that says, “I just want to win.”

It has been fun having this team around. It just might not last very long. Heavenly shades of night are falling on Clipperdom once more.

You do take the cake. Of course, then you sit on it.

Still in awe after all these years,

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Mark Heisler

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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No November Reign

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The Clippers are off to another slow start, 1-4 overall and 1-3 in November. Since the franchise moved from Buffalo to San Diego for the 1978-79 season, the Clippers have not had a winning November except for 1992-93, the last year they made the playoffs. A look:

*--* Season Rec 1978-79 6-9 1979-80 7-8 1980-81 7-9 1981-82 2-10 1982-83 3-11 1983-84 4-12 1984-85* 5-11 1985-86 2-12 1986-87 3-11 1987-88 4-8 1988-89 6-8 1989-90 4-8 1990-91 6-8 1991-92 7-10 1992-93 7-6 1993-94 6-6 1994-95 0-13 1995-96 7-8 1996-97 6-10 1997-98 2-13 1998-99** 0-12 1999-00 4-10 2000-01 5-10 2001-02 7-8 2002-03*** 1-3

*--*

*-- Franchise moves to Los Angeles; ** -- Month of February (lockout); *** -- Through first four games.

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