They began the game huddled in a concrete hallway, arms locked, bodies swaying, desperately begging each other to stay united through the storm.
“It’s just us . . . only us . . . we’re all we got!”
They ended the game trudging through the same hallway in single file, heads down, eyes vacant, sighs heavy, their earlier hopes lost in the echoes of the silence.
The Clippers tried. Oh, did they try. One day after being dragged into the center of national outrage with the release of an audio recording containing racist statements purportedly made by their owner, Donald Sterling, the Clippers tried to play through the storm.
They showed up even though they considered boycotting. They staged a silent pregame protest involving their uniforms even though some friends and family members were urging them to be more militant. This group of mostly African American men truly tried to stay focused for a franchise owned by a guy who allegedly had just been heard disparaging African Americans.
But on this saddest of Sunday afternoons, it was all too much. The turmoil of racism won. The distraction of hate prevailed. The stress of trying to be a national symbol of resilience against a centuries-old demon -- while playing a postseason basketball game in the raucous arena of a sizzling opponent, the Golden State Warriors -- was overwhelming.
The Clippers showed up empty. They were never in the game. They were never out of their heads. They trailed by 18 points in the first nine minutes and never really threatened again, losing, 118-97, to tie this series at two games apiece.
“Maybe our focus wasn’t in the right place,” J.J. Redick said. “That’s the easiest way to say it.”
Most of them wouldn’t say it, but during the game they all said it. Sometimes they played with anger, running over Warriors for dumb fouls, pushing the ball too hard for dumb turnovers. Sometimes they played with distraction, allowing numerous open three-point splashes and driving dunks, watching the Warriors make 55% of their shots.
DeAndre Jordan, so dominant in Game 3 here, took only one shot and scored zero points. This was the same Jordan who, after hearing the audio, posted a picture on Instagram that was totally black.
Chris Paul took only nine shots, had nine combined fouls and turnovers. This is the same Paul who, as president of the NBA players’ union, was involved in conference calls and decisions deep into Saturday night.
Sometimes the players yelled at each other. Sometimes they didn’t even look at each other. Not once did any of the Clippers seem totally comfortable wearing the Clippers uniform, which would explain their silent pregame protest in which they dumped their warmups at center court to reveal red shooting shirts that were turned inside out so the Clippers logo was not visible.
“It was something some of the guys decided they were going to do, to show we’re all in this together,” Willie Green said. “But whatever it was, it didn’t help us win the game.”
The players also wore black wrist bands and black socks, and Paul even wore black sleeves. But the Clippers moved so slowly, it was as if the symbols were heavy weights, which maybe they were.
“I knew about it, I didn’t voice my opinion; I wasn’t thrilled about it, to be honest,” Doc Rivers said.
The Clippers coach acknowledged his team played distracted, and claimed responsibility for not fixing it.
“I’m not going to deny that we had other stuff. . . . I know what’s going on, I get it,” Rivers said. “But we still have a job to do, and we didn’t do our jobs tonight and I think it starts at the top and starts with me.”
The distractions actually did start with Rivers, before the game, when he was asked if he could continue working for the Clippers if the NBA allows Sterling to continue running the team.
“Don’t know yet,” he said. “I’m just going to leave it at that.”
The distractions continued during the game, from fans chanting “Sterling sucks!” to the actual appearance of Sterling’s estranged wife, Shelly, who sat courtside next to the seat vacated by her husband, whom the NBA has ordered to stay away from all playoff games.
Then there were the two fans sitting high in the arena holding signs mocking the purported Sterling rant against African Americans attending his games. One of the signs read, “I brought a black guy 2 the game” and the other sign, held by an African American, read, “I’m black.”
Finally, there is little doubt the Clippers also saw a pregame tweet that showed a photo of Paul on a mock movie poster that read, “Chris Paul starring in, ’12 Years a Clipper’ . . . A film by Donald Sterling.”
It is into this sort of social abyss that these players have so unfairly been tossed.
Said Green: “Any time you have something like this, you get a lot of phone calls, people texting. . . . As tough as it is, we have to try to stay focused on our task.”
Said Rivers: “They’re getting pulled in so many directions, so we have to figure out how to pull them in one direction.”
During halftime, former NBA player Kevin Johnson, the mayor of Sacramento who is assisting the players’ union in this matter, said the Clippers will be back moving in one direction only if Sterling receives the harshest possible treatment, and only if the issue is settled before Game 5 against Golden State at Staples Center on Tuesday night. Johnson intimated there could be several forms of protest from several groups if such a resolution if not reached.
“This is a defining moment for all of us,” Johnson said. “Everyone is paying keen attention to what these sanctions are and what they look like over the next couple of days.”
Those next couple of days promise to be just as maddening, beginning Monday, when the Clippers are doing the strangest thing for a team whose season now boils down to a best-of-three series against a fearless opponent.
Believe it or not, the Clippers are not practicing. That’s an obvious attempt by Rivers to avoid a third consecutive day of media circus, but at what cost to the adjustments this team must make?
Once the Clippers arrive at Staples Center on Tuesday, it promises to be even more interesting, as the team is worried it will be the target of boos against that name on the front of the shirt, boos against racism.
“We’re going home now, and usually that would mean we’re going to our safe haven, and I don’t even know if that’s true, to be honest,” Rivers said.
Paul displayed the same tentativeness, saying, “I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about what it is going to be like. . . . Our fans have been amazing all season long . . . but it’s tough.”
It’s tough. It stinks. It’s not right. But that’s why, on Tuesday, here’s guessing those Clippers fans will be cheering louder than ever. They will be cheering for the players, cheering for their professionalism and class, cheering for a team that deserves a fair chance to win, cheering against an owner who must, must lose.