A stage at the front of a packed south Los Angeles gymnasium was decked out with Clippers logos and television screens displaying the faces of the two guests of honor.
But for a moment Wednesday afternoon, all anyone saw was a pair of doors.
Soon, a Clippers duo unlike any other in the team’s history ducked to walk through, the crowd anticipating their entrance unleashed a roar and a franchise that has long operated in the NBA’s shadows emerged into a moment perhaps no one could have predicted one month before.
All eyes remained on Kawhi Leonard and Paul George throughout the rest of an introduction that was part news conference, part pep rally and came 19 days after the Clippers signed Leonard as a free agent and stunningly traded for George from Oklahoma City. The team’s president of basketball operations, Lawrence Frank, called the day a “landmark moment,” and its owner, Steve Ballmer, professed his excitement before backing it up with a scream.
“We’ve got the guys who I think will be perfect to put together with Paul and Kawhi to really give us the chance to do the only real thing we want to do,” Ballmer said. “We’re only here for one reason. We want to win it all.”
Eight years after Indiana drafted Leonard and traded him to San Antonio in part because its roster already featured a promising young all-round wing in George, the pair of Southern California natives, now top-10 NBA players, celebrated the reunion that has sent the Clippers all-in on a pursuit of the franchise’s first championship.
“This seems like it was destiny,” George said.
Having already won two championships, in San Antonio and Toronto, Leonard used his free agency to identify the suitor that offered him the best chance of claiming another. The Lakers already had a superstar duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The Raptors offered a nucleus that just hoisted the championship trophy in June.
Already impressed by the Clippers’ no-nonsense sensibility that he felt reflected his own, Leonard committed after learning the Clippers were on the verge of trading a massive haul of draft picks, along with two starters, to Oklahoma City in exchange for a fellow all-NBA running mate in George.
“The front office was very transparent, they want to win,” Leonard said. “Just the opportunity for us to build our own, to make history — they haven’t been to a final, haven’t won a final — that was something big and exciting for me to make my decision.”
Leonard and George climbed the stage together, laughed together and posed together throughout the day.
There seems to be little debate about their potential playing alongside one another. Jerry West, the Clippers consultant and Hall of Fame executive, is a tough grader when it comes to talent but beamed at the thought of unleashing the long-armed wings.
“I don’t know if there is, in the whole league, two better players that play both ends of the court,” West said.
When the celebrated tandem will take the court together remains a question without an answer.
George underwent surgery on a partially torn tendon in his right shoulder in May and followed that with a procedure to fix a labrum tear in his left shoulder in June. George didn’t commit to a return date when asked Wednesday, but the chance of him being available for opening night has been called unlikely by multiple people with knowledge of the situation.
“I’m at a great point right now in my rehab,” George said. “So it’s take our time, look forward to returning whatever that day is, just being 100% healthy.”
A quadriceps injury caused Leonard to miss nearly the entire 2017-18 season in San Antonio. After being traded one year ago to Toronto, he created a plan to limit his regular-season workload to stay fresh for the postseason. The strategy paid off with Toronto’s first NBA championship and the second Finals MVP honor of Leonard’s career, even after he suffered a leg injury late in the postseason.
Still, his approach to the regular season could change with the Clippers.
“This year coming up I feel like I’m going to be at full strength,” he said. “The goal right now is to play a season. We’ll see what happens.”
There is no guarantee the Clippers will have an extended amount of time with their new superstar duo. Each can opt out of his contract after two seasons to become a free agent in 2021. But the possibilities of what could happen until then left the Clippers buzzing at Green Meadows Recreation Center.
“Sometimes you get great Christmas presents in the middle of the year,” West said. “That’s what we got.”
A few minutes later, Leonard and George passed through the pair of double doors again, this time on their way out. As they ducked into waiting cars, fans hopeful of catching a glimpse roared again.