The Clippers will celebrate the 35th anniversary of their announcement that they were moving to Los Angeles next month.
The team’s playoff run likely will be over by then but for the first time since the Clippers moved here fans might finally be ready to embrace them as one of their own.
The road to acceptance has been long and bumpy for the star-crossed franchise without much acclaim before 2012. They arrived in Los Angeles from San Diego uninvited and unwanted during a golden age of sports in this city defined by championship runs for the Lakers, Dodgers and Raiders.
On May 16, 1984, the Clippers held a news conference at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena to announce the team would be moving to Los Angeles from San Diego.
“We think that Los Angeles has a population that is more than sufficient to sustain an interest in two professional basketball teams,” said Alan I. Rothenberg, the president of the Clippers at the time. “We tried to come here two years ago, but fate wouldn't allow it to happen. But we're ready to sell tickets. We're the Los Angeles Clippers.”
They might have been ready to move to Los Angeles and sell tickets but L.A. wasn’t ready to buy tickets or accept them.
From 1976 to 2011, the Clippers franchise had four postseason appearances, three winning seasons and one playoff series win. During the same stretch, the Lakers went to the playoffs 35 times, the NBA Finals 16 times and won the championship 10 times. It would have been impossible for any other NBA team to challenge the Lakers’ popularity during this period, let alone the team Sports Illustrated named the worst franchise in sports history.
There was nothing about the Clippers that represented Los Angeles. They were a team born in Buffalo as the Braves in 1970 and moved to San Diego in 1978 where they were re-named after the famous sailing ships that passed through San Diego Bay. They were owned by Donald Sterling, whose reputation as a notoriously cheap owner was only surpassed by accusations of being racist and sexist.
They shared the Sports Arena with USC before moving to Staples Center as the arena’s third tenant behind the Lakers and Kings. They were a nomadic franchise that spent their first eight years in Buffalo, the next six years in San Diego and many thought they’d leave Los Angeles after nine years for Anaheim to move into “The Pond” with the Mighty Ducks.
But here they are, 35 years later and they’re finally a team Los Angeles can put its arms around and embrace. The Clippers’ 31-point comeback win over the Warriors, the largest in NBA playoff history, was just another example of this team’s heart and refusal to give up when most counted them out. They are a team full of players with a chip on their shoulder. They are just the fourth team in league history to win more than 45 games without a current or former All-Star player.
While the Lakers are a team in disarray — looking for direction after missing the playoffs six straight years and having the worst combined record in the league during that time — the Clippers are a picture of stability after eight consecutive winning seasons and seven playoff berths.
They have the wealthiest owner in professional sports in Steve Ballmer, one of the most accomplished coaches in Doc Rivers and one of the most respected front offices led by Jerry West, Lawrence Frank, Michael Winger, Trent Redden and Mark Hughes. Ballmer has not only built a foundation for sustained success, he wants to build a new arena and fan base that will grow with the team.
Ballmer and the Clippers Foundation have donated nearly $100 million to community programs in the Los Angeles region since buying the Clippers in 2014. He made a commitment to refurbish 350 L.A.-area basketball courts and is halfway toward that goal. The Clippers know they aren’t going to flip longtime Lakers fans that were raised on championships but they want the next generation of fans to narrow the gap between the fan bases.
The Jr. Clippers program, for example, has more than 120,000 participants, which leads Jr. NBA programs. That’s up from 27th in the league two years ago. These are kids between the ages of 6 and 14, who only remember a Los Angeles where the Clippers, not the Lakers, have been the best basketball team in the city.
The Clippers might never surpass the Lakers as the most popular team in Los Angeles but 35 years after moving here, they are finally a team L.A. can proudly say represents the city.
Watching Blake Griffin try to play through injury this postseason and Chris Paul do the same last year had to give Clippers fans flashbacks. As much as they wanted both players to end their careers in Los Angeles, the team is in a better place now and moving forward with the potential to sign two players to max contracts this summer.
Teams that trade superstars usually come out on the losing end of those deals but it’s hard not to call the Clippers winners for both deals. When you factor in the moves they made following the trades of both players, the Clippers essentially traded Griffin for two first-round picks, two second-round picks, Wilson Chandler, Landry Shamet, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Garrett Temple, JaMychal Green and Ivica Zubac.
They basically traded Paul and Jamal Crawford for Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell and Danilo Gallinari.
It helps having a front office that knows what they are doing.