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Laughs Remain on Them

September 21, 1993|JIM MURRAY

The good thing about the Clippers is, they are only one player away from championship caliber.

Michael Jordan.

Otherwise, it's not a team, it's a sitcom. Mack Sennett would have loved them. They are like a silent movie comedy. The Keystone Kops. They go running through the most calamitous events and they never seem to get the message. It's pie-in-the-face basketball.

They have wandered into more embarrassing situations than Laurel and Hardy at their best. "Another fine mess you've got us into!" should be the team motto. No wonder Billy Crystal loves them. Chaplin would have hired them.

We should all love them--in the way parents love their backward children. Other teams get stars, the Clippers seem to get straight men--guys who should go around saying to the top banana, "How hot was it? "

Except they don't have a top banana. They are a team of second bananas. The Clippers haven't got a ticket-seller on the floor. Danny Manning, maybe. And he's about to go over the wall.

It's frustrating to "the other Donald"--the West Coast Donald--Sterling. This Donald has no trouble running his other businesses into high profitability. The Clippers he should hide in the attic when company comes.

Consider a few of the things they have done. First of all, they moved to L.A. at a time when the town's other franchise had Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. That's like getting in a car with the Pope. That's like being on the bill between Fink's Mules and Eva Tanguay. A leopard wouldn't want that spot.

And, then, their third year here they won a total of 12 games. That's 12 as in a dozen, one more than 11. They managed to lose the other 70.

They were the Figueroa Street Follies. The next year, they improved. They won 17 games. They cut their losses to 65. Meanwhile, across town, the Lakers were winning their more or less annual championship. Their head-to-head meetings were hardly more edifying. The Lakers once beat them nine in a row and 34 out of 38 times. When they met, it wasn't a game, it was a Punch-and-Judy show.

The Clippers always had one sure-fire remedy for their troubles: Get a new coach. This came as a surprise to a lot of people early on because they didn't think the Clippers needed a coach. They needed a priest. They didn't think the Clippers were coached. Nothing they did on the floor would lead to that belief.

Sterling tried everything. The draft was no help. They only seemed to get more Clippers. They got a guy in the pivot once who pioneered a new way to play basketball--standing still. He looked like a guy waiting for a bus.

They had trouble getting marquee players, but our Donald finally got a marquee coach--Larry Brown. The trouble was, Larry Brown is a guy who double-parks when he takes a new job. And keeps the motor running. The first time one of his players misses a layup, he pulls out a bus schedule. They named a magazine after him--Rolling Stone.

Before he left, he made some sense out of the Clippers. They had not made the playoffs in 16 years when he put them there. But Larry Brown, basketball's Bedouin, was on his way out the door at the time. He should have kept a camel in the parking lot. Willie Nelson dedicated a song to him, "On the Road Again."

So, now, the Clippers have Coach No. 9 in 10 years. There's no reason to believe we are dealing with Knute Rockne--or Red Auerbach--here. A lifetime won-lost record of 183-227 is hardly reassuring. Bobby Weiss is not your basic genius. But he comes highly recommended. By guys who have fired him.

But he doesn't come to work in a moving van.

Also, he can relate to being a Clipper. He was one once himself. Back in the days when they were the Buffalo Braves. Weiss was a three-point guard. That's three points a night, not a basket.

The Clippers need an identity, not a coach. Does Michael Jordan need a coach? Did the 1927 Yankees?

The Clippers had a chance to get instant parity with the Lakers, to say nothing of the rest of basketball, last year when Charles Barkley came on the market. Whoever talked Donald Sterling out of that probably would have told Thomas Edison to stick with candles.

Does Weiss know what he's letting himself in for? Probably. He seems to have a nice sense of humor. He's going to need it. After all, he's not being asked to coach the Celtics of Larry Bird or even Barkley's Suns.

Weiss laughs. "I think I know a basketball team when I see one," he says. "And, from what I can see, this one has a lot of good people on it. "

That's nice. But the Clippers don't need good people. They need good players.

"There's talent here," Weiss insists. "I like what I see. "

Of course, he hasn't seen any sloppy turnovers yet. And, to be sure, his center, Stanley Roberts has a chance to be the major player the Clippers thought Benoit Benjamin was going to be, someone who can keep Shaquille O'Neal from eating the backboard. How will Weiss, who spent three years with a cluster of underachievers at Atlanta, handle this new collection of characters?

"You 'handle' horses. You work with men," he corrects you.

Of course. And, if the Clippers had Barkley, Donald Trump might now be "the other Donald." The Lakers would be the dog act in town. And Larry Brown could coach the team from his car phone.

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