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Inside the NBA | Mark Heisler / ON THE NBA

Sterling Doomed to Repeat Himself

November 10, 2002|Mark Heisler

Donald T. Sterling

Sterling World Plaza

Beverly Hills, CA


Dear Donald,

I have seen the future. Unfortunately, it looks exactly like the past.

Not that it comes as a surprise, after 22 farce-filled seasons, but this would be your all-timer. If you mess this one up, it will stand as your monument.

Even I didn't think you could miss this time, with these young players who vowed to start a new Clipper tradition, turned a laughingstock into a hot property, ran attendance up to 18,000 a game, and, according to sources, might have made you as much as $12 million in profits last season.

Not that you did anything to deserve it. The gods dropped these guys in your lap, although the way it's heading, it's obvious now it was another of their cosmic jokes.

The young Clippers were not just good but spectacular. People everywhere loved them, not only here. Sales of your apparel, which once piled up in warehouses and had to be given away to quilt makers, rocketed into the NBA's top 10.

Lamar Odom and Darius Miles jerseys were among the top 10 individual sellers. D and Q -- for those over 30, that's Miles and Quentin Richardson -- starred in their own Spike Lee-directed Nike spot. Kids copied their forehead-fist thing.

This wasn't mere show, though, but the real deal. Young and exuberant as they were, the young Clippers were remarkably levelheaded, with the notable exception of Odom.

More to the point, in a first for Clipperdom, they loved it here. They loved playing as teammates, even if, like Q and Corey Maggette, they vied with each other for minutes. Almost to a man, they said they'd take less money to stay.

To this point, you hadn't had to do anything, which is, of course, why things proceeded so smoothly for three seasons.

The young players were all on rookie-scale contracts that tied them up for five years -- three guaranteed, the fourth at the team's option, the fifth as restricted free agents with the team holding the right of first refusal.

Finally this summer came your turn. Michael Olowokandi, a four-year man, was a restricted free agent. Elton Brand, a three-year man, was eligible for a long-term extension.

Odom, Maggette and Andre Miller were all three-year men too, even if no one had illusions that you'd even talk to any of them.

Odom had things to prove. Maggette was a rare athlete and a demon worker but would just have to wait his turn.

Miller, however, was another hard-nosed leader, your point guard of the future and you had just given up Miles to get him. That would have made him a priority anywhere else. Of course, this isn't anywhere else, or anywhere at all.

Negotiations went nowhere, as they usually do in Clipperdom, even with the players seeking sub-maximum deals.

Even your ultra-loyalists in the front office concede that Olowokandi asked for $85 million, $10 million under the maximum, and Brand for $75 million, less than the $80 million that players chosen below him in the '99 draft -- Houston's Steve Francis and Phoenix's Shawn Marion -- got.

It wouldn't even have blown your budget.

Giving Olowokandi $85 million would have meant bumping him only from his current $6 million to $9 million. Brand's extension wouldn't kick in for a year so you could have signed them, traded your No. 1 picks -- who won't play for a while in any case -- and had a $42-million payroll, $600,000 lower than your present payroll.

One might argue the wisdom of signing Olowokandi, who developed slowly and still has problems with consistency, although this season's numbers -- 16 points, 13 rebounds, 3.3 blocks a game -- suggest he's still coming fast.

However, the only question about Brand is: Do you want to just sign him or adopt him too?

If Olowokandi is a growth stock with a big upside, Brand is like one of those bonds they sold in the early '80s that paid 15%. You bought it for $2,000, put it in your IRA, came back in 10 years and it was $8,000.

Brand delivers 20/10 a night and as intangibles go, he's the mother lode. Invariably positive, he practices hard and comes ready to play. His high school coach in Peekskill, N.Y., noted that in three of Elton's four years, the entire team had a 90% scholastic average, which hadn't ever happened before or since.

Unfortunately, your preferred alternative, to wait until the last moment, or for someone else to set the price -- remember when you gave Tyrone Nesby, of all people, $9 million, because the Spurs offered that? -- sent a message to your players:

If I wouldn't sign anyone, not even Elton, what makes you think YOU have a future here?

I know you don't understand this, but young players are preoccupied with their futures and need a signal. Unfortunately, they didn't like the one they got.

At the moment, the atmosphere around the Clippers is gloomy, going on funereal. People say what they are obliged to on the record, but there's no escaping the reality. As one official said, "He killed the team." Meaning you.

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