Friday, May 2, 2014

Notes From a Clippers Fan

The Milwaukee Bucks have been my favorite basketball team since 1990.  I remember the date vividly; it was December 30.  The Bucks were undefeated at home and they were facing the defending Western Conference Champion Portland Trailblazers (owners of the best record in the NBA).  I went with a 13 year-old Teig Whaley-Smith (now Milwaukee County Economic Development Director) and we sat in the top row at center court.  The Bucks hit a ton of threes (maybe a record at the time?) and won.  The Pistons were still the favorites to face the Blazers in the Finals at the time (though neither of them ended up making it), but the energy of that team and that crowd made anything seem possible.

I was thirteen years old on December 30, 1990 and I had been watching basketball for many years before that.  The Bucks were not always my favorite team.  That night clinched my devotion to them.  Before that night, my team was the Lakers.  I was born in California and lived there until I was two years old.  I always supported USC, the Lakers and the Rams (glamor) along with the Warriors and the A's (born in the East Bay) and even UCLA (to think!) because of that.

In August, 1995 I moved to Los Angeles to attend USC.  I knew that the Clippers played a few blocks away at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena.  Both the Clippers and Bucks were down in the mid-90's, but I began rooting for L.A.'s other NBA team.  I liked being able to walk to games.  I liked being able to afford tickets.  (In fact, I remember going to see the 1997 Bulls team at the Sports Arena with a sophomore year roommate who was so dedicated to Michael Jordan that he refused to shave his head for the entirety of MJ's first retirement.)  I loved Bill Walton on commentary and the dedication of long-suffering Clippers season ticket holders like my first screenwriting mentor, Barry Blaustein.

The Bucks have remained my favorite NBA team since December 30, 1990, but for nearly twenty years the Clippers have been my other team.  They've been the local team.  I can attend their games more regularly and chat with friends about them without needing my iPhone to do it.

For the past week the Clippers have been embroiled in controversy.  It has made me less of a Clippers fan.  Of course it has to do with Donald Sterling, but to me it's the reaction to Donald Sterling that is turning me off.

Here are some things to know about Donald Sterling: He won the Elgin Baylor discrimination suit completely.  His settlement with the Justice Department over housing discrimination specifically included both parties acknowledging that Sterling was not guilty.  He has always made it a point to hire women and non-whites, and promote them.  His NBA team has always embraced drawing a multi-ethnic, multi-gender live audience.  He had hallucinogenic advocate Bill Walton as the team's color commentator for a dozen years and the deeply religious, Latter Day Saints member Michael Smith as in the same role for the last dozen.  In short, he embraces diversity.  He wants the whole world to love him and his team.

Donald Sterling has major flaws.  He can be cheap with people who work for him.  He loathes long-term contracts.  He has an appetite for non-age appropriate women.  His speech can be blunt and offensive when his blood is up.  He believes that he should be above the law if he's just following the way the world works.  That last flaw did him in.

The TMZ controversy (and a huge congratulations to fellow wrestling fan Ryan Satin, who was managing the site on the weekend this story exploded) was a precise example of Sterling's fatal flaw.  In the original audio posted on TMZ, Sterling asks his girlfriend to stop posting pictures on Instagram because "they call me".  Who calls him?  That question has not been asked or answered.  My guess is "they" are friends of his.  And my guess is that his friends call him with racist and offensive comments about his girlfriend's relationships with black men.  And he doesn't like that.  He wants it to stop.  What he should've done is tell his friends to stop teasing him about his girlfriend's relationships with black men.  He should've told his friends that it was racist and offensive.  But Donald Sterling believes that he knows the way the world works.  He believed that the practical thing to do was to tell his girlfriend to stop posting pictures with black men because his friends are never going to change.  Sterling was wrong.  The comments were uncouth.

The racial discrimination lawsuit against Sterling was another case of Sterling believing that the world works a certain way.  He believed that Korean apartment tenants didn't like sharing a building with black or Latino people.  He believes that Koreans would pay higher rents to avoid living in the same buildings as black or Latino people.  What he should have done, and what the law says he should do, is tell tenants or all races that it's a public building and that it probably won't end up having 100% Korean tenancy.  But Sterling believed that the practical thing to do was to try to keep his buildings free of black and Latino tenants.  He believed that Koreans are always going to prefer a Korean-only apartment building.  Again, Sterling was wrong.

In some ways the TMZ controversy offered nothing new about Sterling.  We knew that his speech could be blunt and offensive, like the Jack Woltz studio head character from THE GODFATHER.  We knew that he believes that the world works a certain way, and that he just follows the world.  We knew that he loves being admired and loved by people, especially young women.  I didn't find the audio shocking.  I did find the reaction to the audio shocking.  It seems clear that the woman was trying to set him up, but few people seem to be acknowledging that.  It seems clear that his personal view is that he loves being around a diverse crowd, but almost nobody has focused on that part.  It seems clear that his objection to his girlfriend posing for pictures with black men stems from what "they" say to him when they "call".  Sterling didn't handle that topic in the right way, but the reaction to what he actually said was over the top.

The world of the NBA is now engulfed in a mob mentality.  Everyone hates Sterling.  Fans, players, rank-and-file workers and even his fellow owners have joined the mob.  Some of the hate is surely opportunism.  People wanted him out of the NBA and they see this as their big chance.  Some of the hate is just pop culture.  Sterling hate is on the news so people want to feel included.  And a small portion may even be honest disgust.  There may be some people who have followed Sterling's news stories for years, but now feel that Sterling's decision to chastise his girlfriend instead of the racially insensitive "they" who "call" is too much.

My Clippers fandom has waned since 2012.  After years of supporting the team here and there, I finally bought season tickets that year.  They had Blake and EG and Bledsoe and DJ and Aminu.  They had a core of young players who were fun to watch.  My excitement hit a peak when Chris Paul was acquired.  I loved him at Wake Forest.  In fact, he was the only player I would've been happy to see the Bucks draft instead of Bogut when they had the top pick.  Then I watched Paul play everyday.  He is a flopper.  He is dirty.  He berates his teammates.  I was telling fellow Clippers fans and my ticket rep that I wanted a Paul-for-Carmelo trade after the 2012 season.  I thought that Bledsoe/Carmelo/Blake was a great foundation.  Instead the team acquired a bully (Barnes), a choker (Redick) and a Bruin (Collison).  I canceled my season subscription a month ago.

Maybe since I already dislike this Clippers team, my opinion matters less, but I thought the Clippers players' reaction to the Sterling controversy showed a lack of character.  By all accounts he treated the current players well.  He never made racially charged comments to them or treated them or their families differently based on their race.  He built a fantastic practice facility and signed players that the core group wanted to play with, despite having yearly revenues that are nearly as low as the Bucks'.  In short, he was good to them.  His comments on the Deadspin audio to that effect were certainly insensitive.  He framed their employment as a gift; that Sterling was responsible for their wealth rather than the players' having earned it.  They have a right to be mad.  But this mad?  Offering no defense of the guy?  No, "let's hear his side"?  No, "maybe we should learn the context"? Not even a, "he's supported us, but..."?

I'm going to game 7.  I hope it will be the last Clippers game I attend as a season ticket holder.  I hope they lose to the Warriors and I hope almost-Buck Klay Thompson has a great game.  I expect to see a lot of black, but I'll be dressed in white.  I dislike Sterling's philandering and thriftiness and bullying, but I'm wearing white for him.  He was known to love parties where guests dress in white, so it will be my silent (at least, silent in the arena) sign of support.  I like that he kept the team in Los Angeles in spite of overtures from Orange County.  I like that he evolved over the years, and finally learned that top players were worth top money.  I like that he believes in handshakes deals.  And maybe this shouldn't matter, but I like his personal story.  In his era a lot of Jews felt the discrimination that he felt.  He was a great lawyer and couldn't get hired at a prestigious firm because he is a Jew.  My dad's side of the family is Jewish and some of them tell similar stories.  Sterling said, "Fuck you.  I'll open my own practice.  I'll cater to less wealthy clients.  I'll kick your ass in court.  I'll buy as many assets as I can that you can't take away from me.  Condos, apartments and the Clippers.  And I'll run them the way I want to."  Now the NBA is trying to take away his favorite asset.  Well, fuck the NBA.  Fuck the Clippers players, fuck Magic Johnson and fuck the other people who know him as a man, but have joined the mob anyway.  And I'll be the guy dressed in white if you want to say it right back to me.  

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