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ANALYSIS : Taking a Beating : If People Were Saying Only Good Things About the Clippers, It Would Be Very Quiet

July 25, 1993|SCOTT HOWARD-COOPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Image is everything

--Andre Agassi, noted philosopher

In the midst of their endless summer, the Clippers are once again confronted with something far more threatening than Danny Manning near an open microphone, something even more troubling than another lottery party at Donald T. Sterling's oceanfront digs.

Their image.

Clipper bashing, always in vogue among some factions, has reached new heights, which translates into new depths at the Sports Arena.

The concern the last few months, and maybe the next few, is what to do about it.

Lenny Wilkens and the lost weekend. Ken Norman and the lost starter. Danny Manning and the lost opportunity. Not to mention Larry Brown, Hubie Brown, Ron Grinker, no new arena, no new coach for more than two months. Don't even think about ancient history, such as what went on during the season.

Maybe the problem is that they are in Los Angeles with the Lakers, which, by reputation and success, is a little like comparing Ted Baxter and Walter Cronkite.

Maybe the problem is that the most recognizable player, Manning, their first All-Star since 1986, can't be used as a positive marketing tool, or even for the cover of the media guide. Not after the job he and agent Grinker have done on the organization, not while the Clippers have all but established an 800 number for teams to make trade offers.

Maybe, giving the Clippers the benefit of the doubt, it's because their reputation has dug such a deep hole that reality can't reach daylight.

Or maybe, just maybe, this image has been earned. Whether it is deserved can be debated, but that they have it cannot.

There is another option. Avoiding the topic.

"We don't think of it in those terms," said Andy Roeser, the team's executive vice president for business operations. "The fact is, most people who experience us--listen to us on the radio or watch us in person or on television--enjoy the experience. Our goal is to improve all that any way we can."

But do you think the Clippers have a bad image?

"We don't think in those terms," Roeser said. "We think in terms of the experience we provide."

What does that answer mean?

"The answer is the answer," he said.

*

The suggestion box is the suggestion box.

"You know what I think I would do?" said Joe McDonnell, a talk-show host at KMPC who has been covering Los Angeles sports since 1975. "To solve the image problem, I would trade Danny Manning, Stanley Roberts and Mark Jackson to the Lakers for Tony Smith and Duane Cooper. Then the Lakers would be a very good team again and win 50-plus games for another 10 years and nobody will even notice the Clippers exist."

Among the several experts on marketing, public relations, image making and media coverage of the team contacted for this story, McDonnell, while often defending the basketball operations, is the most outspoken. He once proclaimed on the air that buying Clipper tickets is a great deal because you get two shows for the price of one--the team on the court and the circus in the front office.

But some suggestions are not so outrageous, given the premise that improving the image has to be based on the current makeup, management and home of the team.

A face lift, perhaps. New colors. A new logo. Maybe, to be very dramatic, a new name, possibly providing more of an identification with the city, something the Lakers do not have. Ladies and gentlemen, your Los Angeles Freeways!

The change of colors and logo is something the Clippers are considering now. The name change, too, has been kicked around. Because anything of that magnitude involves league-wide marketing, and that is already under way for this fall, the soonest a change could happen is 1994-95.

Another thought: Instead of Sterling staying out of the public eye and declining interview requests, take the aggressive approach and let the fans get their own sense of the team owner. Al Franken, whose Franken Enterprises has handled promotions for such events as the L.A. Open and the Sunkist track meet during 40 years of operation, points out that the Clipper image will not fully improve until Sterling's does.

"From what I read, there is a lack of real authority there," Franken said. "It sounds like no one even knows who has the authority to do certain things. . . . Obviously, Don Sterling is enormously successful. He knows how to run apartment buildings and make money. But you have to convince people he knows something about basketball."

The Clipper plan has been to put General Manager Elgin Baylor at the forefront and not allow anyone else in management to speak with the media. They figured that would reverse the impression of a fractured front office. Meanwhile, officials from other teams still say they are not sure whom to deal with when they call to talk about personnel.

And Baylor is often inaccessible. When he does return calls, "no comment" is the common response, which does little to communicate the team's thoughts on why, for example, Wilkens slipped away.

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