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Continued: Clippers become thing of beauty

  • Article by: JERRY ZGODA , Star Tribune
  • Last update: January 20, 2012 - 12:19 PM

LOS ANGELES - So many marketing slogans came and went all those years when the Los Angeles Clippers proved themselves the gold standard for how not to run a professional sports franchise.

Who will ever forget Darius Miles staring into the TV camera -- a stark black-and-white image where only the basketball he tossed from hand to hand glowed bright orange -- and saying, "I Believe" with conviction?

Or Baron Davis gesturing and promising his team would "Play Loud" a season later?

Well, uh ... everybody?

But now when the Clippers proclaim they will "Rise Up," they mean it really, literally: Twelve stories high and in full color on a downtown hotel's walls, painted murals of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan loom so much larger than life over Staples Center and a metropolis where previously only one NBA franchise ever really existed.

"I mean, you can't help but look at it," Jordan said.

In a sweeping, unprecedented turn of events, the Clippers suddenly became relevant last month in a market where the Lakers have won 11 NBA titles since moving from Minneapolis and where the Clippers made the playoffs three times since they arrived from San Diego in 1984.

They did so by swinging a seismic trade with New Orleans and the NBA itself to acquire Paul just days after the league stunningly vetoed trading the elite point guard from the franchise it owns to the Lakers, who you might call the Clippers' hometown rival except for one little detail.

"To be a rivalry, it has to be evenly matched," Griffin said. "This one hasn't been."

Reversing history

The Lakers have a history of "Showtime" basketball, of Magic and Kareem and Kobe and Shaq, of Jack and Dyan and Denzel. And don't forget the Laker Girls and all those championship banners, either.

The Clippers?

Cursed by injuries at the most inopportune times, they have a history of owner Donald Sterling heckling his own players, of Benoit Benjamin and Michael Olowokandi, of Penny Marshall and Frankie Muniz and Billy Crystal. And don't forget a boisterous superfan who simply calls himself Clipper Darrell and decided to up and follow his now-favorite team the day he got fired long ago, either.

With the Clippers, when you were talking court success, it probably meant they won a wrongful-termination lawsuit filed by former team executive Elgin Baylor.

But now, all that is changing.

Completely rebuilt in a matter of mad days after a new labor agreement was reached Thanksgiving weekend, the Clippers defeated Miami and the Lakers consecutively last week with a team that now features an MVP contender in Paul, the 2009 No. 1 overall pick and an insanely athletic young star in Griffin, a newly wealthy defensive force in Jordan and recently signed veterans Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler.

Once the half-priced baby brother, the Clippers now reportedly are charging more for prestigious "on the wood" court tickets -- $3,000 for premier games -- than what Lakers fans pay.

That's what they call, after all these many years, expectations, so many that Clipper Darrell emblazoned "50-16" on his team cap this season because that predicted record came to him in a vision one recent morning.

"I know one thing: To keep your faces on buildings you better win some games, right?" Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. "All that stuff is great. It's important to make this organization relevant in a lot of ways, which it hasn't been for a long time. But all those things are talk. You have to win basketball games."

Just when the Clippers beat the Heat and Lakers consecutively and won six of seven games, they went to Utah on Tuesday with Paul out injured and lost by 29 points.

It was a reminder that, for all the star power they've quickly assembled, they really haven't done anything yet.

"That's a gift and a curse," said Billups, who then beat Dallas with a last-second three-pointer Wednesday night before another screaming, sold-out Staples Center crowd. "Like I explained to the guys, you just don't get names and talent and become this elite team. You have to go through some things, man. You can't just expect to be elite already. Not that I'm not expecting to win every game, but just know realistically it's not easy.

"Miami put three of the biggest names in the game together last year, had a great season, didn't win it, though. Didn't win it. But I'm sure they learned from that. They went through it. They feel a little hungrier now, more humble probably. Look at them now and they're ready to go. You've just got to know the process involved with it."

Long way from home

Coincidentally, the Clippers' road to credibility might have started with Miami star LeBron James.

In July 2010, team after NBA team journeyed to Cleveland and made their pitches to the most-awaited free agent since at least Shaquille O'Neal in 1996, or maybe ever.

Heat boss Pat Riley toted his many NBA rings. The Knicks, Bulls and Nets all brought fancy presentations and big-city marketing concepts. The Clippers went, too, but simply sold their sizable salary-cap space, their young core of players and a collection of future first-round draft picks.

James, of course, didn't buy, but his agent Leon Rose listened that day. Turns out Rose also represents Chris Paul, and when Paul finally forced his way out of New Orleans just like James did from Cleveland and Carmelo Anthony did from Denver, both men approved a trade to ... the Clippers?

"Everybody knows that I'm born and raised in North Carolina, East Coast," said Paul, who grew up near Winston-Salem, N.C., and played at Wake Forest. "I'm a long ways from home, so I never would have thought in a million years that I'd be in L.A. My mom and my daddy would never let me go this far, but as you grow older, you learn different things.

"This has definitely been a blessing in disguise, definitely one of the best things that's ever happened. I've loved every minute of being in L.A. ever since I got here."

If he never imagined himself living and playing in Los Angeles, then he probably never envisioned himself painted 12 stories tall there.

Neither did Jordan, who grew up in Houston and now finds an advertising image of himself thrusting a basketball out rising up the walls of the Hotel Figueroa, casting a shadow over Staples Center just like when portraits of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kurt Rambis and James Worthy once hung there.

"They still talk Lakers, Lakers, Lakers in this town," Jordan said. "There's obviously going to be people on the Clipper bandwagon because we have these new players, but those guys over there, those guys are proven. They have more championships. They have Hall of Famer players. We're still a young team.

"We got to keep putting in work so hopefully they don't take it down."

  • WOLVES AT L.A. CLIPPERS • 9:30 tonight • Staples Center • TV: ESPN (830-AM)

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