SALT LAKE CITY — One of the most promising days in the history of the Clippers happened way back in May of 1979, which says plenty about the history of the Clippers.
The young franchise, then based in San Diego, shook up the NBA by signing Bill Walton to a seven-year, $7 million contract — groundbreaking and gluttonous in those days. Born and raised in the city, the game’s first $1 million-a-year player was coming home to give stability and visibility and hopefully raise the basketball awareness among a population that would just rather go to the beach.
The emcee at the press conference was Ralph Lawler, also the team’s broadcaster then and now, who has seen virtually every Clippers game since they relocated from Buffalo in 1978. Lawler still remembers it like yesterday. After Walton said a few encouraging words for the cameras, the red-headed center met with Lawler in a lounge afterward. Walton quickly excused himself, and Lawler wondered why Walton was leaving.
“Gotta run,” said Walton. “I’ve going to the hospital to have some bone chips removed from my ankle.”
Lawler: “When he said that, I was like, `Oh, no.’ I couldn’t believe it.”
Walton had missed the previous 17 months after multiple ankle surgeries, which caused him to leave the Trail Blazers, searching for a fresh start. But when the new season began, Walton was hurt again and played only 14 games total that first year with the Clippers, then missed the next two years completely.
And that’s where we begin.
The injury to the plantar plate of the right big toe suffered Friday by Blake Griffin that will cause him to miss the rest of these playoffs is jarring and unfortunately not terribly unusual for the club. All it did was remove a five-time All-Star power forward from the Clippers’ lineup and regurgitate the notion of the Clippers being cursed, a word Lawler doesn’t use or buy.
“There’s no curse,” he said. “We’ve been winning 50 games, going to the playoffs, been one of the best teams in the NBA. Where’s the curse in that?”
So, how does Lawler, now 78, describe the string of misfortune that has plagued this franchise, starting with Walton, then?
“We’ve certainly been unlucky,” he said.
Any way you slice it, the Basketball Gods, for some reason, have occasionally taken issue with the Clippers and the latest mishap with Griffin just proves the beef is one-sided and real. The trail of misery between Walton and 2017 doesn’t seem fair, and it helps explain why the Clippers are still searching for a championship.
By now, you either know or are aware of the roll call. Norm Nixon stepped in a hole during a softball game a few years after coming over from the Lakers and leading the league in assists. Marques Johnson hurt his neck. Those injuries ruined careers.
The Clippers take Danny Manning with the No. 1 pick in 1988 and he suffers a knee injury. They pull off a deal for dynamic guard Ron Harper — one of the few trades that went the Clippers’ way during that time — and he subsequently gets a knee injury. They draft teenaged point guard Shaun Livingston, favorably compared to Magic Johnson because of his height, and he breaks his leg.
Other issues were more of the self-inflicted variety by a poorly-run team, but even those bad decisions were laced with bad luck. The Clippers just happened to have high picks in years when the draft was poor, taking Michael Olowokandi No. 1 and Benoit Benjamin No. 3 in 1985, both of whom washed out. In a year when they did draft the right player, as with Griffin, he suffered a stress fracture in his left kneecap and missed his rookie season.
At least Griffin bounced back nicely and became one of the league’s best players at his position and a building block for the Clippers, helping to usher in this, easily the best stretch in franchise history. Still: Griffin has had recurring health issues, with a broken hand (caused by a scuffle with a team equipment manager) last season and then a quad injury that benched him in the first round last year against the Blazers.
“I feel awful for him especially when you know the guy and you see all the work he puts in to be healthy and a good player and where he was at,” said coach Doc Rivers. “He was in a great place, playing terrific basketball.”
Complicating matters is Griffin’s pending free agency this summer. The Clippers and others must make a potentially $200 million judgment on a 29-year-old who has played 80 games only once since 2013-14. Rivers wouldn’t address that, and anyway that’s for the summertime. Right now, more pressing matters await the Clippers in their series with the Jazz.
“When you lose Blake you lose a lot,” said Rivers. “He’s our second-best passer. It’s not just his scoring. We need Blake, we want Blake but he’s not going to play. We gotta get the guys ready. We’ll be ready. We have to be creative and unfortunately we have a lot of practice at it.”
The Clippers were probably at a crossroads anyway had Griffin stayed healthy and L.A. advanced to the second round with a potential matchup with the Warriors. Still, they’d like to get that chance even without Griffin. Up next is Game 4 here, where the Jazz are still singed from being burned by Paul in the closing moments of Game 3. A win by the home team would make for a long series, one which could go either way.
Paul realizes the Clippers had enough to win Game 3 to take a 2-1 lead, and says he has confidence that others will help ease the pain of missing Griffin, and still: “You just hate for dumb stuff like this to happen.”
When Griffin suffered his latest injury, he knew what was up. He walked over to the bench, punched a chair and walked off the floor. Anyone who knows the Clippers’ history certainly mumbled: Here we go again. Rivers wasn’t one of them.
“There’s no curse,” he said. “You have luck, you make your own luck. Blake’s a great guy and right now he’s probably thinking, ‘Why me?’ He’s too good of a guy for this to continue to happen. There’s going to be a ray of sunshine on him and he’s just got to weather this storm. At some point, though not right now, there’s going to be sunshine for him.”
What’s really troublesome for the Clippers to accept is the freakiness of it all. Griffin was hurt on a non-contact play, and not your typical injury or one you could prevent.
“This is a crazy accident that happened on the court to a big toe,” said Lawler, who has seen every type of injury in more than 3,000 games while sitting courtside. “You can’t do big toe exercises all year long to build up your big toe. A damn shame.”
In a weird twist, the Clippers won Game 3 without Griffin for the second half while the Jazz took Game 1 after starting center Rudy Gobert hyperextended his knee on the very first play. Gobert, by the way, has been upgraded to doubtful for Game 4.
“You know what I hated? Seeing Gobert go down. I wanted both teams to be healthy because this had the chance to be a very close and entertaining series. Look, I do this for the fans and I can just feel their pain,” said Lawler.
A franchise often associated with heartbreak is now conditioned to deal with it and move on, especially the last few years. It’s not the kind of “playoff experience” the veteran-heavy Clippers wanted to have over the Jazz. They may not be cursed, but under their breath, they’re cursing their luck. Once again.
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