LOS ANGELES — In sports, posting the larger number on the scoreboard when the clock reaches zero is the most time-tested and surest salve most players or coaches will ever know. The Clippers aren’t fooling themselves, though. They put together an emotional, 113-103, win here Tuesday night, energizing an arena and momentarily putting the focus back on basketball. But then the horn sounded, quickly snapping everyone back to reality.
“It’ll still be an issue,” said Clippers’ guard J.J. Redick. “We know that.”
NBA commissioner Adam Silver made the historic announcement Tuesday afternoon that he was banning Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life, days after a recording of him making racist comments became public. Less than 12 hours earlier, players for the Clippers and the Golden State Warriors say they were debating whether they’d even take the court Tuesday evening. Both teams had discussed plans for a possible boycott to protest Sterling’s controversial statements.
“Luckily it didn’t come to that,” Clippers guard Chris Paul said.
After Silver came down so hard on Sterling, any plans of an organized walkout quickly dissipated.
“We knew as players we had the opportunity to have a voice,” said Warriors’ guard Stephen Curry, “and if it came to that, I think we were all committed to it.”
While the Clippers applauded the news that Sterling would be permanently sidelined, they still had to re-group and re-focus. The shell-shocked team was in a film session earlier Tuesday, trying to do that one thing that had proven so difficult in recent days: focus on basketball. Doc Rivers, the Clippers’ fatigued but resilient head coach, decided it was time to break the news to his players.
“I honestly didn’t think it was going to be as big as it was,” said forward Blake Griffin said. “I think it definitely made sense.”
The room was silent, processing what they’d been told and emotional wringer that wouldn’t stop cranking. While players said they felt a burden instantly lift, their coach conceded later that returning immediately to normalcy was unlikely. Rivers called NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s severe punishment “the sigh of relief we needed,” but before even taking a breath, he seemed to acknowledge that damage had been done.
“Is this over? No, it’s not over,” he said. “But it’s the start of a healing process that we need, and it’s a start for our organization to try to get through this. That’s very important.”
Tuesday’s emotional win over the Warriors gave the Clippers a three-games-to-two lead in the best-of-seven series. Though Sterling was far from his regular courtside seat, his specter seemed to loom over the night’s proceedings.
Paul, who had 20 points and 7 assists Tuesday, said he became emotional during warm-ups and several of his teammates said the energetic crowd support buoyed team spirits. Players huddled right before the tip and vowed to take advantage of the emotional momentum that seemed to finally tip to their side. “All that means nothing if we come out and lose,” Griffin said players told each other in huddle.
Rivers had watched in recent days the toll the owner’s recorded remarks had taken on his team. After a listless squad lost, 118-97, Sunday on the road, Rivers cancelled an off-day practice, hoping his players could find some space from the controversy that came to dominate the sports world and office water coolers.
“We had distractions all the time. The magnitude of this was a little crazy,” said Griffin, who scored 18 points and pulled down 7 rebounds in Tuesday’s win. “Even when something like this happens, you spend emotional energy just trying not to think about it.”
Rivers was especially struck by the unfairness. His players had done nothing, he said, to deserve the pressure and questions that were forced on them.
“You learn over and over when something like this happens, with the burden of racism, it always falls on the person who has been offended to respond,” he said. “I’ve always thought that that’s interesting. I felt the pressure on my players. Everyone was waiting for them to give a response. I kept thinking, they didn’t do anything, yet they have to respond?”
There was a strong police and security presence both inside the arena and out, though protester turnout was relatively light. There was, however, a strong entrepreneur presence outside the Staples Center where vendors hawked T-shirts featuring a colorful expletive aimed at the Clippers’ embattled owner.
The Clippers tried to turn the page, subtly at times, awkwardly at others. Sterling’s name was never mentioned over the public-address system, and he was nowhere to be seen in the arena. Many fans, as well as some team officials, wore black, and several signs could be spotted in the stands. “I’m here for Griffin, not Sterling,” one read. Another: “Wanted: New owner. Racists need not apply!” At one point, the video scoreboard featured one sign that read, “It’s time for some MAGIC,” alluding to the possibility of hall of famer Magic Johnson perhaps buying the team. The crowd erupted in cheers.
The public-address announcer repeatedly hammered home the night’s theme — “We are one” — and in the fourth quarter, with the score tight and the stakes high, the sell-out crowd of 19,657 spun it into a unifying chant. Within minutes of Silver’s announcement earlier in the day, the team’s official web site re-directed to a page that featured only those three words: “We are one.” The curious move raised the question: If Sterling is out of the picture, who’s calling the shots?
There wasn’t a clear answer on Tuesday.
“If you think about it, I’m coaching a team right now,” Rivers said, “and I actually don’t know who to call if I need something.”
He said the next steps for the organization will be an ambiguous process with little precedent. Even Rivers isn’t sure where it will lead. While the coach is confident that Silver’s edict will stand and Sterling will forever be persona non grata, he said it was too early to discuss his own future with the organization.
“I think we’re just going to let this whole thing run its course, and then we’ll all have better clarity,” the coach said. “I’m not in a position nor do I want to be in position where it sounds like I’m threatening anything. I want my players to be comfortable. Honestly, that’s the most important thing.”