Column: The Clippers’ championship drive just got hijacked by a stupid bird

New Clippers mascot Chuck the Condor flexes as team owner Steve Ballmer stands in the background during halftime of a game on Feb. 29.

New Clippers mascot Chuck the Condor flexes as team owner Steve Ballmer stands in the background during halftime of a game on Feb. 29.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

It’s taken more than three decades, but the Clippers have finally become a serious basketball operation with strong ownership, credible leadership, and real championship aspirations.

So what’s with that Froot Loops reject?

The Clippers have become an entertaining team with two of the best leapers in basketball, colorful guys who can fly, birds of a different feather known simply as D.J. and Blake.

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So do they really need an ornithological nightmare named Chuck?

Fears of longtime Clippers fans were realized Monday when, entering the most important stretch of this very serious season, their Staples Center sky was cluttered with a floating representation of the bad old days.

Their championship drive has been interrupted by the addition of a cheesy mascot. Literally. He looks like a refugee from a children’s restaurant. His name is Chuck the Condor, but it should be Chuck E. Condor.

He was brought down from the ceiling at halftime Monday night to thunderous music and blank stares from Clipper Nation, which, as usual, shared one voice.

“What the . . . ???”

He’s supposed to be a California condor, which makes total sense because the name “Clippers” has long summoned the image of a large bird that lives on rotten carcasses. Or not.

His name is Chuck because, um, who knows? Maybe because Darrell was already taken?

With an oversized blue beak and frighteningly huge eyes, he looks like a son of Toucan Sam. Yet with a helmet, cape, and knee and elbow pads, he could also be Evel Knievel, which summons memories of a report last year that the Clippers were seriously considering a mascot bird named Seagull Knievel. So, yeah, it could have been worse, although you wouldn’t know it from the Internet, which has spent the last 24 hours raining down its disdain.

“Anybody know a therapist east of La Brea who specializes in coping with the new Clipper mascot?” tweeted comic Morgan Murphy.

“Elton Brand didn’t die for this,” tweeted rapper Vince Staples.

It’s only a mascot, nothing more than a fun thing for kids and a revenue spike for the team’s stuffed animal concession, and it probably wouldn’t be worth more than a sentence if it worked for almost any other sports team in any other town. But this being Los Angeles, and these being the Clippers, it becomes a story for the reason outlined by 15-year season-ticket holder JoLai Draper.

“I think it just gives people another reason to call us a joke,” she said.

It does, and that’s not fair, because the Clippers have never been less of a joke. They have spent a tumultuous season clinging to the fourth seed in the Western Conference despite the continued absence of star Blake Griffin. They could have crumbled when Griffin punched out assistant equipment manager Matias Testi, but they didn’t. They could have folded when it became clear that their two big off-season acquisitions, Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson, were busts, but they’ve only gotten stronger.

When Griffin returns from injuries and suspension, the Clippers could have the best chance of anyone in the West of dethroning the mighty Golden State Warriors. These days their fans watch them for the pure basketball, and were mostly stunned Monday when the Clippers acted like they still required an awkward sideshow.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh . . .” Draper said. “And I saw it and thought, ‘Why do we need a mascot?’”

As clear as the “213” on Chuck’s chest — are they still even giving out that area code? — there are several reasons the Clippers do not need a mascot.

First, with the notable exceptions of the Kings’ Bailey and the Ducks’ Wild Wing, Los Angeles’ biggest pro sports teams do not do mascots. In a town where there are entertainment characters on every street corner, including a whole bunch of them in Disneyland and Hollywood, the fans don’t really want to see plush toys on their playing fields and courts.

Bailey, a 6-foot-4 lion, was embraced from the start because he was born from the memory of late scout Ace Bailey, who died in the 9/11 attacks. Wild Wing works because he actually looks like the logo at the center of the Ducks’ inaugural jerseys. But the Dodgers and Angels are two of only three baseball teams without official mascots — the Rally Monkey doesn’t count because it’s not a costumed actor running around the field — and the Lakers are one of only three NBA teams still without mascots.

Second, the Clippers don’t need a mascot because they already have a mascot. He starts cheers, he leads dances and, as everyone breathtakingly witnessed Monday, he dunks. His name is Steve Ballmer.

“They’ve got a mascot, it’s the owner,” said Robin Salzer, a season-ticket holder since the team moved to Los Angeles 32 years ago. “They need more Ballmer and less bird.”

The mascot was Ballmer’s idea, but Ballmer lives in Seattle, he is not in daily touch with his fan base, and somebody with an understanding of the Los Angeles sports culture should have talked him out of it.

Gillian Zucker, the Clippers’ president of business operations, would not agree to a phone interview for this story, but instead offered an e-mail statement, writing, “After experiencing first-hand during last year’s playoffs the impacts other team’s mascots had on the crowd, Steve was determined to bring the same to Clipper nation.”

Yet I covered last year’s playoffs, and Clippers fans were just as loud as those in San Antonio and Houston, and without the help of some second-rate scavenger.

“Chuck will charge up our fans just as he did in his debut,” Zucker wrote. “We’ll now get to see him perform his crazy stunt slam dunks, hug families on the concourse, delight kids and create amazing moments around town.”

The concourse and kids’ stuff works. The other stuff does not. With the introduction of Chuck the Condor, one of basketball’s most whistled teams should be assessed yet another technical fowl.

Follow Bill Plaschke on Twitter @billplaschke