Blake Griffin’s injury raises age-old question: Are the Clippers cursed?
‘Anytime they are on the verge of something, here comes the black cat’
PLAYA DEL RAY, California — After the injury-riddled Los Angeles Clippers lost NBA All-Star Blake Griffin to another injury, teammate Austin Rivers is paying attention to the talk about the so-called curse that has dogged the tough-luck franchise.
“They have been saying that for years,” Rivers said before practice on Wednesday. “I remember them saying it two years ago when [former Clippers guard] Chris [Paul] went out. … They said it was going on before I got here. And then when I got here, I would just hear little jokes about it.
“Obviously, it’s still jokes. You can go down to any team and they have injuries. It’s part of sports. It is what it is. The only place where it really applies to me is the past three years in a row with the playoffs. I went out last year. Blake was out. Chris went out. It’s not funny. But it’s like, ‘Jesus, what is going on?’ ”
Griffin suffered a sprained MCL in his left knee and could miss two months. He was hurt in the final minutes of a Clippers victory over the crosstown rival Los Angeles Lakers on Monday after Rivers collided with Griffin while pursuing a loose ball. Rivers said he knew Griffin’s injury was bad when he heard a scream and saw that he was teary-eyed. The good news for the Clippers is it wasn’t a season-ending injury for their leader in scoring (23.6 points) and assists (5.1) per game.
“Me and [Lakers guard] Lonzo [Ball] both are on the ground scrambling for the ball, and Blake’s leg is below us,” said Rivers, who is in his third season with the Clippers. “I felt his leg bend backwards a little bit. I stopped caring about the play and started caring about Blake because I felt me and Zo’s bodyweight on his leg.”
While it is early in this NBA season, the Clippers campaign sans Paul certainly seems cursed so far. Starting point guard Patrick Beverley had season-ending right knee surgery on Nov. 23. Starting forward Danilo Gallinari has missed the past 10 games with a hip injury but is expected back soon. Rookie guard Milos Teodosic also could return soon after being sidelined with a plantar fascia injury to his left foot since late October.
Despite winning three straight, the Clippers are 8-11 in the tough Western Conference. Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who lost his position as president of basketball operations during the offseason, also is expecting heat to come his way because of the team’s struggles.
“When you take the job as a coach, you’re going to be a target,” said Doc Rivers, who is 225-122 in five seasons as Clippers coach. “It’s so easy that when players get hurt and you start losing, it’s the coach’s fault. I’ve been in this rodeo a long time. I know what I can do. I believe in the guys here. It is what it is.
“There is not much I can do about it. Today’s day and time is different than 15 years ago. … So now, you want to place blame right away. Blame me. Blame whatever. That doesn’t bother me at all.”
Talk about the Clippers’ curse often centers on former owner Donald Sterling, who is banned from the NBA for life. Yes, banned. Austin Rivers doesn’t know the entire history of the curse and thinks it’s best that he doesn’t.
“No one takes it seriously, but I know there is a lot of information to back it,” said the 25-year-old Austin Rivers. “I just don’t know all the facts about it. I don’t want to [know]. It would have me thinking all types of stuff. I don’t want to know any of that.”
Just in case Austin Rivers changes his mind and wants a history lesson, The Undefeated has broken down the many reasons that the franchise might be cursed.
On April 29, 2014, NBA commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling for life from any association with the league or the Clippers and fined him the league maximum $2.5 million for making racial comments. Sterling was forced to sell the team he had owned since 1981 and moved to Los Angeles in 1984. Clippers players considered boycotting playoff games during a first-round series against the Golden State Warriors before the ban was announced.
On the Clippers’ misfortunes, former Clippers guard Shaun Livingston said: “Some of that may be karma from the previous owner.”
Silver said Sterling’s racial comments, recorded by the married Sterling’s girlfriend, harmed the league. Sponsors threatened to abandon the NBA, and criticism was coming from fans on social media and from then-President Barack Obama. Sterling also had had discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuits levied against him in the past.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer bought the Clippers for $2 billion in August 2014. Ex-Clippers guard Willie Green said the team banded together during the Sterling situation and was aided by the leadership of Doc Rivers and Silver.
“We had an open discussion about it, and everyone was offended regardless to what the color of your skin was,” said Green, a Warriors assistant coach who played for the Clippers from 2012-14. “They were offended because those were hurtful words to hear. We banded together, always were together, and we just always went out and played.”
The Clippers have never won a championship. The franchise has won 39.9 percent of its games (1,528-2,297) dating to the 1970-71 season, when they were the Buffalo Braves. Only the Minnesota Timberwolves have a worse all-time winning percentage (39.2). The Clippers have made the playoffs 10 times since arriving in Los Angeles in 1984, own two division championships and have never advanced past the second round of the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the renowned Lakers have won 11 of their 16 NBA titles in Los Angeles. The Lakers’ popularity, winning and long list of stars have cast a mammoth shadow that the Clippers can’t get from under.
The Clippers won just 12 games during the 1986-87 season and only 15 during the 1999-2000 season. They missed the playoffs for 16 straight seasons and had 13 straight losing seasons before winning 45 games and falling in the first round of the 1992 NBA playoffs to the Utah Jazz. The Clippers made the playoffs just three times in the 1990s.
The Clippers had a long list of talented young players in the 2000s that included Elton Brand, Andre Miller, Lamar Odom, Chris Kaman, Darius Miles, Corey Maggette, Cuttino Mobley and Livingston. But the only playoff appearance from 2000-10 was a run to the second round in 2006.
The Clippers signed a major free agent in two-time NBA All-Star Baron Davis to a five-year, $65 million deal in 2008 to play for his hometown team. Davis didn’t live up to his billing, as he underproduced as a star, didn’t make the All-Star team, was plagued by injuries and never played in the postseason. A disappointed Sterling even heckled Davis from the sideline. The Clippers traded Davis to the Cleveland Cavaliers before the 2011 All-Star break.
Even with a star-studded team featuring Griffin, Paul and DeAndre Jordan, and a championship-winning coach in Rivers, the Clippers were not able to reach the West Finals in recent seasons. The Clippers became the first NBA team to blow a playoff series lead in five straight postseasons after being eliminated last season, including a 3-1 lead to the Houston Rockets in the 2015 Western Conference semifinals. Injuries certainly played a role in the Clippers’ recent playoff woes.
“They’ve had one of the best teams in recent years with Blake, C.P. and DeAndre,” said Warriors guard Shaun Livingston, the former Clipper. “They should have been to the Western Conference Finals about two or three times. And then you get there, and then you never know what can happen. It’s just one of those things where it’s unfortunate.”
Said Green: “The Clippers have improved from where they used to be dealing with people not wanting to come here. They can at least get free agents now.”
The Clippers’ early days in Los Angeles were marred with losing and major injuries to stars such as Derek Smith, Norm Nixon, Marques Johnson and Kiki Vandeweghe.
Danny Manning, the No. 1 pick of the 1987 NBA draft, played only 26 games as a rookie after suffering a torn ACL that required surgery.
Loy Vaught was a solid forward for the Clippers before injuries derailed his career beginning in the 1997-98 season.
Ron Harper started all 28 games he played for the Clippers after being acquired during the 1989-90 season before suffering a season-ending torn ACL and torn cartilage in his right knee.
Livingston, the fourth overall pick in the 2004 NBA draft, dislocated his left kneecap when he landed awkwardly after a missed layup on Feb. 26, 2007, against the Charlotte Bobcats. He also tore his ACL, PCL and lateral meniscus and missed 101 of 246 regular-season games with the Clippers, but he eventually recovered and went on to win two titles with the Warriors.
“I’ve known for a while about the theoretical curse,” Livingston said. “It is what it is. It’s unfortunate. A string of injuries and happenings have [befallen] the Clippers.”
Ex-Clippers beat writer Art Thompson III, who covered the team from 1998 to 2009 for the Orange County Register, said, “Danny Manning getting hurt. Marques Johnson ended his career here with the back problems. Remember when they had the young guns, Corey Maggette, Lamar Odom and Elton Brand? L.O. once came back from a wrist injury and was just working out and got injured again landing on a ball that should have been moved. Another curse.
“Shaun Livingston is back now, but he never was the player he could have been after blowing his knee apart. I do believe they’re cursed. Look at all the stuff. Anytime they are on the verge of something, here comes the black cat.”
Griffin has been riddled with injuries during his NBA career, including missing his rookie season with a stress fracture in his left knee that was later described as a broken kneecap. The four-time NBA All-Star has played in fewer than 70 regular-season games in each of his seven seasons. Time will tell how long the No. 1 pick in the 2009 NBA draft’s latest injury will keep him sidelined.
“I played with Blake. It was sad to see him get hurt [recently], and hopefully he is able to recover and has a speedy recovery,” Green said. “All the guys know about [the curse]. … That stigma is around the team. Obviously, when I was playing there we didn’t want it to be the running joke. Being on the outside looking in, it’s just hard for the organization to get over the hump.
“To be honest, if it’s not one thing it’s another. Look at this year. It’s evident. Blake Griffin out. Pat Beverley out. I wish those guys the best.”
The Clippers drafted guard Lancaster Gordon with the eighth overall pick in the 1984 NBA draft, and he averaged 5.6 points over four seasons. The Clippers passed on Hall of Famer John Stockton as well as Otis Thorpe and Kevin Willis.
The Clippers drafted 7-foot center Benoit Benjamin third overall in 1985 over Hall of Famers Karl Malone and Chris Mullin, Xavier McDaniel, Detlef Schrempf and Charles Oakley. Benjamin averaged 13.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.7 blocks during six seasons with the Clippers but never lived up to the star expectations.
Reggie Williams averaged 16.8 points over three seasons after being drafted fourth overall in 1987. The Clippers, however, passed on Hall of Famers Scottie Pippen and Reggie Miller as well as Kevin Johnson and Horace Grant.
The Clippers drafted Danny Ferry with the second pick in 1989, but he opted to play professionally in Italy over the Clippers. The Clippers traded Ferry’s rights on Nov. 16, 1989, along with Williams, to the Cleveland Cavaliers for guard Ron Harper, two first-round draft picks and a second-rounder.
The Clippers selected Pacific center Michael Olowokandi with the top pick in 1998 over Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Antawn Jamison and Mike Bibby. Olowokandi averaged 8.3 points and 6.8 rebounds during a lackluster nine-year NBA career and is considered one of the greatest draft busts ever. The Clippers considered drafting Bibby, but his agent told the franchise he wouldn’t play there.
In 2005, the Clippers drafted Russian forward Yaroslav Korolev with the 12th pick over the likes of Danny Granger. Korolev played in 34 games with the Clippers, averaging 1.1 points.
“All the drafts were jacked up. During one draft, they drafted Danny Ferry and he never played for the Clippers. They also drafted Michael Olowokandi, who couldn’t play,” Thompson said.
OTHER NOT-SO-PROUD MOMENTS
- From 1994-97, the Clippers averaged around 9,200 fans at the Sports Arena. Sterling turned down a deal paying $95 million over 12 years for the franchise to move to Anaheim, California, in 1997.
“We used to see rats at the Sports Arena, too. I don’t know how fans bought food at the snack bar,” Thompson said.
- The Clippers had numerous practice facilities, including a gym at Veterans Park in Carson, California, where the basketball court gym had a sewage problem. They also used to practice at L.A. Southwest College in South Central Los Angeles, where their cars often were broken into. Before moving into their current posh practice facility in Playa Vista, the Clippers practiced at a gym in a Manhattan Beach health club, where members would often walk through their practices to get to the parking lot, and members lifted weights and used exercise bikes alongside the players.
“I remember the toilets overflowing and sewage coming down the steps onto the court during one practice at Southwest College,” Thompson said.
- Paul, regarded as one of the NBA’s top point guards, told the franchise last offseason that he wanted to be traded after making five All-Star appearances with the franchise. The Clippers traded Paul to the Rockets on June 28 in exchange for guard Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams, three other players, a 2018 first-round pick and cash.
During a party to celebrate the Clippers’ playoff berth in 2012, Sterling brought Paul up on stage with him. After asking for a round of applause for Paul, Sterling joked, “Why is this guy married? Look at all the beautiful women in L.A.” With his wife in attendance, Paul responded, “Because I love my wife.”
- Former Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor sued Sterling in February 2009 in Los Angeles Superior Court for wrongful termination and discrimination on the basis of age and race. Baylor, who spent 22 years as Clippers general manager, later dropped the race accusation. A jury ruled in favor of Sterling in March 2011. Baylor also said his salary was frozen at $350,000 a year from 2003 until he departed in 2008 while “the Caucasian head coach Mike Dunleavy had a four-year, $22 million contract.”
Baylor also said in a declaration that Sterling used to bring women into the Clippers’ locker room to watch the players while they showered while saying things such as, “Look at those beautiful black bodies.”
- The Clippers moved to the Staples Center in 1999 to become the third tenant behind the Lakers and NHL’s Los Angeles Kings. The Clippers get third dibs on playing dates and often play weekend matinee games with the Lakers playing in the evening. The Clippers have been considering trying to build a new arena in Inglewood, where the Lakers played before moving to Staples Center.
Longtime Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke swears loudly that the Clippers are cursed. He believes Ballmer should give up on Inglewood, move the Clippers to Seattle and change their name and colors. Plaschke also blames Sterling for the Clippers’ curse.
“It’s absolutely real,” Plaschke said. “It comes from all those bad years of ownership from Donald Sterling. His nastiness and the way he ran the operation. They were cursed from the start. They were cursed from him.”
Said Livingston on the Clippers’ curse, “I believe the facts.”