In a lot of ways it’s the Lakers, not the Dodgers, who have long been our Yankees; the Clippers have never been our Mets. The scrappy Mets somehow remained lovable through all the losses. The Clippers weren’t lovable, at least not to me. I didn’t blame it on the fact that they were from San Diego—after all, the Lakers still carry their Minnesota origins in their name. I didn’t blame it on their lack of championship titles or star power—I often root for the underdog, and I haven’t loved a Laker since Magic left (Kobe’s a ball hog). I blamed it on Donald Sterling.
There was always something distasteful about Sterling, who bought the Clippers in 1981. Lakers owner Jerry Buss was slick to be sure, accompanied by his passel of pretty ladies at every game, but he never came across as a billionaire boor. Sterling fought off lawsuits that accused his rental company of discrimination (against potential tenants who included African Americans and families with children). Elgin Baylor, the team’s former general manager, cited the front office’s “Southern plantation-type structure.” Sterling was stingy with his team, and it showed. Then there were those god-awful ads he regularly took out in the Los Angeles Times. So poorly designed that they recalled hostage demand notes and self-aggrandizing to the point of parody, they promoted many organizations that declared him, yet again, humanitarian of the year.
When Sterling was banned for life from the league in 2014 amid revelations that he had asked his mistress not to bring black people to games, I wasn’t surprised. I was hopeful. Hopeful that L.A. was now free of one of its most odious public figures, hopeful that the team could rebuild itself, hopeful that I might even come to like the Clippers. In May I pulled over in a parking lot at an In-N-Out to hear the last minutes of Game 7 in the first-round series, which pitted the team against defending champs the San Antonio Spurs. When Chris Paul dropped in a layup to clinch a win, the improbable happened: I was rooting for the Clippers.
In our July issue writer Paul Brownfield reconstructs the team’s tumultuous season, from former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s $2 billion purchase last August to its spectacular wins—and, ultimately, spectacular loss—in a bid for the championship. More than that, the story focuses on the team’s future. Brownfield was given access to the advertising agency whose job it is to rebrand the Clippers and to Ballmer, who despite being so effusive on the sidelines is notoriously press shy. The story shows that beyond an open checkbook, Ballmer’s biggest asset is something that was clearly missing in Sterling’s DNA: the ability to love his team with the intensity that only a true fan can muster.