Don Chaney, existing game to game these days as the Clipper coach, finally received some much-needed support Wednesday night in a game that management privately had indicated the club had to win--or else.
First, support came from a cluster of ushers who applauded Chaney when he arrived at the Sports Arena two hours before the tipoff. Later, he received the same reaction from the crowd of 9,107. Even Clipper executives showed support, in an unusual way for them, by simply remaining silent about his shaky coaching status.
Most important, though, Chaney received support from his players. The Clippers, knowing their coach might be fired if they lost, pulled out a 103-99 victory over the Golden State Warriors, after leading comfortably in the second half.
"I didn't approach this game as a life-saving episode," Chaney said afterward. "Management can make a change if it wants. I can't do anything about it. I don't think one game, two games will make a difference. The pressure will be on me the rest of the season."
Never was the pressure more intense than Wednesday night. The Clippers had decided last weekend to give Chaney one week to turn things around, or he would be fired. There was even talk that a lopsided loss to the Warriors would be Chaney's last game.
But the first game of the first week of the rest of Chaney's Clipper coaching life began on a positive note. Although it was a win that no doubt bought Chaney more time, it wasn't a particularly impressive effort.
The Clippers, inconsistent as usual, overcame a 14-point first-half deficit, rallied and actually staked themselves to a 20-point lead two minutes into the fourth quarter. Seven minutes later, the Warriors had tied it, 97-97, and the Clippers seemed on the verge of losing the game and perhaps Chaney's job for him.
But then forward Cedric Maxwell took over, and the Clippers were able to turn back the Warriors. Maxwell scored the last six Clipper points in the final minute to wrap up the victory, which snapped the team's three-game losing streak.
"Please, no win-one-for-the-Gipper cliches, OK?," Maxwell cracked. "It's obvious we knew what was at stake. It's more personal for me than the other guys, because Don and I go back to Boston. It hits home. Probably, my strong play at the end of the game reflects that. I wanted (the win) for Don."
He got it, but Chaney still isn't secure. After all, it wasn't as if the Clippers (9-17) had toppled an NBA giant. The Warriors (10-20) have lost 10 straight road games, and there are whispers that Coach John Bach's job is not secure, either.
At this point, however, the Clippers will take a win over anyone, even if that win isn't an artistic masterpiece.
"A lot of people will second-guess it, because Golden State came back from a big deficit," said forward Marques Johnson, who led the Clippers with 22 points. "That didn't help (Chaney) too much. But the fact is, we won.
"I definitely don't like Don Chaney being in this situation. . . . I don't know if this game changed much. I think it might have bought him a little more time."
Certainly, the Clippers will receive a more severe test Friday night when San Antonio comes to town. Another win then might make General Manager Carl Scheer and President Alan Rothenberg put away their phone book of available coaches.
The Clippers' main motivation Wednesday had to be the fear of a coaching change, since nearly all the players had voiced support for Chaney. Said Chaney: "When you have this type of situation, two things can happen: (1) the team can just fall apart and give up, or (2) they can blend together. This was a blending situation. We came together tonight."
Not coincidentally, that blending came when guard Derek Smith, out since Nov. 13 with a torn cartilage in his left knee, returned to the lineup. In tangible terms, Smith contributed 10 points, 2 rebounds and 2 assists in 13 minutes. But his contribution to the team's morale probably was immeasurable.
Moments before the game, there were serious doubts whether Smith would play. His left knee had become swollen Tuesday night after practice, and Dr. Tony Daly, the team physician, drained fluid from it Wednesday. But despite considerable soreness, Smith played and even sank a three-point shot in the third quarter.
Junior Bridgeman, starting at off-guard in place of Smith, had his best game of the season. Bridgeman scored a season-high 20 points (10 of 17 from the field) and seemingly reclaimed his jump shot from the Sports Arena's lost-and-found.
Much more unexpected was rookie center Benoit Benjamin's play and new look. Benjamin, who had a barber shave off his Grace Jones-style haircut, had 10 rebounds and a crucial blocked shot on a Purvis Short drive with the Clippers leading, 99-97, and 48 seconds to play.
"Now you guys (reporters) can't say that Ben not only has a Grace Jones haircut, he plays like Grace Jones," Maxwell said, laughing.
Overall, Johnson was the Clippers' driving force with his 22 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists in his first start back at small forward.