These are strange times in the City of Angels, where the once-moribund Clippers have the sixth seed in the Western Conference -- and home-court advantage in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
For proof that this is a surreal experience for people in this town, just take note of the streamers that are released before playoff games. Watch as the normally laid-back fans get out of their seats to do the wave in the second half of a blowout win against the Denver Nuggets on Monday night. Listen to the reaction of longtime Clippers fan Darrell Bailey after guard Cuttino Mobley banked in a three-pointer from half court at halftime of the Clippers' 98-87 victory.
"We're going to the Finals!" said a straight-faced Bailey, aka "Clipper Darrell," who starts up cheers and dances in his loud blue-and-red suits during games. After so many horrific years, the Clippers are finally giving their fans a reason to believe in something -- other than the promise of another high lottery pick.
On Monday night, the Clippers took control of Staples Center, with its purple seats, nine Los Angeles Lakers championship banners and eight retired Lakers jerseys hanging above and no apparent signs that the Clippers exist, with the exception of their removable blue-and-red court.
"It's euphoric. You're up 20 points, the crowd is on their feet, they're screaming and you're at home and you see that NBA playoff logo out there. It's a great experience and it's well worth the wait," said Clippers forward Elton Brand. It took Brand seven seasons to finally reach the playoffs -- shorter than the average span between Clippers' playoff appearances (they've had three since the team moved to Southern California 28 years ago). The current players are aware of the franchise's playoff history -- or lack thereof. It's so brief, it's hard to forget. "I looked at our postseason stats, and we had a half a page," Brand said with a laugh.
But the Clippers are looking to add to that history while slowly moving away from their history as one of the most dreadful franchises in professional sports. The team with the worst won-lost percentage in NBA history entering this season won 47 games, advanced to the playoffs for the first time in eight years and has a 2-0 lead over the Nuggets as the first-round series moves to Denver Thursday night.
The Clippers already won a playoff game for the first time in 13 years, and if they defeat the Nuggets, they will win the franchise's first playoff series since 1976 -- when the team was known as the Buffalo Braves -- and match the team's postseason win total in Los Angeles (four).
The Clippers' successful run this season didn't come from out of the blue. It started with a trade in 2001 that brought Brand, the overachieving, underrated power forward who became the building block the franchise desperately needed.
It continued two years later with the hiring of Mike Dunleavy, the confident coach who was finally able to win over a notoriously frugal owner -- Donald T. Sterling -- and persuaded him to spend to win. And it truly came together with the arrival last offseason of point guard Sam Cassell, the loudmouth veteran who provided a confident swagger and helped lift a young and talented group over the hump. "They needed some help," Cassell said. "I'm what the doctor ordered."
In addition, the Clippers have drafted well (Chris Kaman and Shaun Livingston), and they signed Mobley to a five-year, $42 million deal last summer. But Brand, a consistent double-double machine throughout his career, is the centerpiece. Dunleavy said retaining Brand was the main concession he needed from Sterling to become coach. When asked why he signed with the Clippers, Mobley said, "Elton Brand." Cassell ranks Brand -- who made just his second all-star appearance last February -- among the best power forwards in the league. "He's up there, with Kevin [Garnett], Tim [Duncan] and Dirk [Nowitzki]," he said about Brand, a dark-horse candidate for the league's most valuable player with averages of 24.7 points, 10 rebounds and 2.5 blocks this season.
The Clippers nearly missed out on Brand twice. The Washington Wizards came close to acquiring Brand from the Chicago Bulls for the top overall pick in 2001, but the potential trade crumbled. Brand said he has sometimes wondered what his career would have been like if he had gone to Washington. "I did, a few years ago," Brand said. "There were definitely talks about going there. That was kind of intimidating about maybe going to play with Michael Jordan. Who knows if I'd still be there or not?"
After the Wizards deal broke down, the Bulls reached out to the Clippers. Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf called Sterling and told him they'd be willing to trade Brand. When Clippers General Manager Elgin Baylor heard the news, "I said, 'You've got to be kidding me.' I was shocked."
The Clippers sent the second overall pick -- which later became Tyson Chandler -- and Brian Skinner to Chicago in exchange for Brand, and "we've been happy ever since."
Brand was a part of some exciting, entertaining and awful teams his first two years in Los Angeles, teaming with Corey Maggette, Lamar Odom, Michael Olowokandi, Darius Miles, Quentin Richardson and Andre Miller. But Brand said those teams failed because the players in the past were motivated by individual agendas. Sterling often drafted talented players then let them walk in free agency. The Clippers "didn't sign people," Brand said. "It's just the facts, it's the truth. So guys were auditioning for other teams."
That all changed when Sterling hired Dunleavy as his coach in July 2003. Dunleavy remembers the reaction when he took the job. "I had a lot of people tell me, 'Why are you doing that?' " he said. "They joked to me: 'Good luck. You'll see that practice facility. You'll sign free agent players. That's not going to happen.' But I was confident with my conversations with Mr. Sterling and I believed him."
Sterling literally bought into Dunleavy's plan, which included keeping Brand and Maggette and making a run at Gilbert Arenas in free agency. The Clippers missed out on Arenas that summer and failed in their attempts to sign Kobe Bryant a year later, but it was obvious that the franchise was moving in a positive direction. The Clippers finally secured a solid back court by signing Mobley from Sacramento and trading for Cassell, who was apprehensive about joining the team. "I asked Mike, 'Are they serious about winning?' If they're not serious about winning, I don't have a year or two to be [messing around]," said the 36-year-old Cassell, who has two championship rings from his days with the Houston Rockets. "We're just a bunch of guys trying to change the whole culture of this organization."
The payroll has topped an un-Clippers-like $50 million. But for those who think that Sterling has lost his mind with his uncharacteristic spending, the Clippers still rank 26th in payroll -- the lowest of every other playoff team except the Bulls -- and they remain one of the more profitable teams in the league. Brand is the only player on the roster earning more than $10 million ($13.1) and 11 of the 14 players on the roster earn less than $3.2 million.
Cassell will be a free agent when the season ends and the fear in Los Angeles is that he will leave to pursue another championship, possibly with the crosstown Lakers. "I don't know," Cassell said. "Only thing I can say is I'm going to be playing somewhere next year. I hope it's here."
The Clippers have an option for next season on Dunleavy, which they plan to pick up unless they can sign him to an extension this summer. To keep this from being a one-year wonder, the Clippers will have to make some tough decisions, but Baylor said Sterling has opened his checkbook in recent years.
"I don't go back and dwell on the past," Baylor said. "We just knew the direction we wanted to go, the people we wanted on this team. I talked to the owner and we sat down. He's been great. He said, 'Whatever you need, just do it.' And that's the way it's been done. We did everything we could to improve this team."
And it began with Brand. "Hey, I'm here for the long haul," Brand said.