Baron Davis walked up, a glazed doughnut in one hand, a stern look in his eyes, flashing a playful smile.
"I blame you," he said, chuckling slightly. "All of this is your fault."
This, of course, refers to Davis' hope-turned-to-dust season as a Clipper. Ten hours later, this would include the horror of watching LeBron James erase a Clippers' 19-point lead, dragging Davis through a deeper nightmare.
The ex-UCLA star wryly blames me for this because of a column I wrote two years ago.
"A lot has changed since then," he says, while sitting at a Brentwood cafe. "A lot."
That column, a sketch of a frenetic day spent with Davis, touted his on-court verve and off-court moxie. Back then, when everything was sweetness and light in his basketball life, I'd written that L.A. needed Baron Davis, who, because of the megawatt swagger he can possess, was as L.A. a guy as existed in pro sports.
I had even proposed that one of our teams (I was thinking the Lakers) find a way to scoop up this great homegrown talent -- to pluck him out of Golden State as soon as possible.
Well, he came to L.A., but to the Clippers, which is like deciding to go deep-sea fishing on a dinghy in the Bermuda Triangle during a hurricane. Of course, disaster struck.
By Week 2 it seemed as though the Clippers were 99 games out of first place. Now, with 17 games left, the owner is showing his oddball nature, the controlling coach has only barely loosened his grip, and Davis' supporting cast has proven decidedly Clipperish. Nobody looks happy, least of all Davis, once an All-Star, the most heralded free agent in the team's history. He has at turns been injured, angry, disappointed, unsure -- and, in the frantic, clueless, reactive way the Clippers do things, trade bait.
"This has been the worst year of my NBA career, and the least amount of fun I've ever had," said Davis, a 10-year veteran, his head shaking, his voice low, his eyes partly shaded by a black Dodgers cap.
He bit off part of the doughnut. He may possess a five-year, $65-million contract, but his face is a mask of sadness. "I've had seasons where I haven't had great numbers, but at least I have had fun. But this year, it's all just spiraled downhill from the start."
He said he had imagined a brilliant homecoming, not this. That this is happening in front of family and friends in an arena a few miles from his childhood home in South L.A. weighs on his heart.
"I just can't shake it," he said. "It's like, there's so much going on inside. I'm playing in my own head. When you are playing inside your own head, you can't play the way you want. Part of it is emotional. Part is the injuries. I see things that I can exploit out there, but I see them in my head and I am not able to do them. I am not me out there."
Davis, 29, has an easy charm -- and a stubborn streak. He is more self-reflective, and more mentally engaged, than most athletes. Like the rest of us, he is hardly perfect. Observing his career, you get the sense he has a deep need to feel loved and accepted, and that when he feels loved and accepted he plays like a superstar, one of the top five guards in the NBA. Yet, asked by a Bay Area reporter a few years back if he was a superstar, Davis said he didn't feel like one -- as if unwilling to fully embrace what seems so natural.
You're Baron Davis, I reminded, why haven't you taken this team by the scruff?
"You go to a team and you hear 'This is going to be your show,' but you still try to fit in with what is already here," he said. "That's what I tried to do, especially with the veteran guys. You know, I didn't come in here and impose my will, but maybe I should have. Maybe it would have been different if I had come in with a total different mentality . . ."
His voice trailed. He pushed the doughnut aside. Sometimes, sweets don't soothe.
"The fans have been great," he said. "The team, I'm still trying to figure it out. In Golden State, we had characters. We had Al Harrington, who played to the crowd, and Stephen Jackson, who was really loud. To me it was a different type of vibe and I took all that emotion and fused it to make everybody else better. Here, everybody is laid-back. I'm trying to understand."
He is also trying to "understand" Coach Mike Dunleavy, whose command-and-control style seems better suited to college than today's NBA.
Dunleavy knows more about the game than most observers will in several lifetimes, but that doesn't make him a good coach for the Clippers, particularly a team that needs Baron Davis to be feeling good.
Pressed, Davis wouldn't say anything but kind words about Dunleavy. No rocking the boat. Not after all he has been through. Same for questions about owner Donald Sterling, who seems as barely tethered to reality as ever.
What Davis would admit to was feeling isolated within the organization, particularly when there was talk he would be traded.
"It was like, damn, I just got here. It was like everybody had just given up on me. Man, that was not a good feeling, especially when the team had high hopes and you yourself have high hopes. Now those high hopes are for next year. Next year is going to be different, everyone will see."
Game time approached. He had to go. Before the day ends, he will endure a new layer of suffering in this, his calamitous season. But walking off just then, he grew thoughtful once more. No, he admitted, he didn't know who was going to return to the Clippers next season. Yes, he still could be traded away.
Grimacing, he tossed the half-eaten doughnut in the trash.