Friday, January 06, 2006

So, a Russian and an African walk onto a basketball court...

The Clippers' meteoric rise to possible playoff contention and at the least guaranteed mediocrity for this season has caught most everyone by surprise. For a few reasons, I've been unable to fully appreciate how exactly the Clips have FINALLY gotten their shit together. For one thing, the Lakers' turbulent season has been quite the deterrent -- it's something about watching your favorite team consistently playing games that are determined in the final minute that makes you want to stop watching basketball for at least a day. For another thing, KTLA-5, the local L.A. station that often broadcasts Clipper games, isn't picked up here in Santa Barbara, yet it's seems to be recognized as a local Santa Barbara station by NBA League Pass, which always blacks out Clipper telecasts. So, when presented with the opportunity to check 'em out against the hapless (or so I thought) Sacramento Kings on December 27th at Staples Center, at $25 for a seat in the first row of upper deck (a.k.a. the best worst seats in the building), I couldn't pass it up. Live NBA action, and really, how often do you get the chance to pay $8.50 for a Samuel Adams?

Coming in to this game, the Clippers were 16-10, despite being without Corey Maggette, who's still injured, for half of the season. The Kings, sporting their ridiculous purple-and-gold (hmmm) WNBA silk pajama jerseys, were 10-17, and would be without 3/5ths of their starting lineup, the perfect compliment to their depleted bench. Surely, this would be the perfect exhibition for the Clippers to show off what they've been up to while I've been away. And well, I should've stayed away. Far away.

At the end of the long night, the Clippers were defeated 110-93 in a game so lopsided that the 17-point defecit doesn't do justice to what actually went on. The Kings were running all over the Clippers, beating 'em down the court for fast breaks and far too many and-1's. Mike Bibby had 36 points and 10 assists, most of those assists in the 1st half as no one felt the need to put a hand in Brad Miller's face, let alone maybe point a foot in his direction, but instead watch him swish wide-open jumpers all night, finishing with 23. Down by 15 at halftime, the Clippers continued to force bad shots, fall asleep on defense, and avoid the one reliable offensive weapon they have in Elton Brand. Cuttino Mobley's 19 points were a well-placed facade for the all the bad shots he missed. Sam Cassell shot 1-12 from the field en route to 3 points, and despite somehow sneaking in 9 assists, his shot selection ruined every opportunity the Clippers had. It got to the point where you hear a collective cringe throughout the building everytime Cassell prepped a shot; I think Sam was the last one to realize he was having an off-night. Now, I agree that it's not fair to judge someone based on their physical appearance, but it got to the point where very little was stopping me from yelling out at the top of lungs, "DAMMIT, GOLLUM!"

The enjoyment of the game was somewhat saved when it turned into the inaugural "International Clipper Coming-Out Party", as rarely-used foreign-born players Yaroslav Korolev and Boniface Ndong (pronounced "Bonnie-Face-Dong") were awarded with career highs in minutes (Korolev 22, Ndong 11), career numbers for Ndong in points (6) and rebounds (6), and Korolev finishing one short of tying his career-high in points (6, as opposed to 7). Korolev, the 18-yr. old Russian selected by the Clippers in the 1st round of the 2005 Draft, showed calmness under pressure, as all 3 of his made shots were contested, including a nice finish after getting fouled. His calmness under pressure turned to a disadvantage though, as he'd miss a free throw and a wide-open 3 before calling it a night. Ndong, a horribly-stiff 7-footer from a country where "Boniface" is a common name [Upon further research, Senegal is that country. Senegal.], nailed a mid-range shot to show off his touch, then badly missed his next 3 mid-range shots to reveal that said touch was a fluke. He made up for it, though, on an ensuing play, where he took it strong to the hoop and threw one down on a King defender -- a "Bonifacial", if you will. A blowout loss at home and this brief glimpse into the Clippers' crystal ball would serve to prove one thing: the Clippers' future will be... multi-cultural, to say the least.

Regardless of how uneventful the live game may turn out to be, the atmosphere at Staples Center alone is worth (free) admission. Here are some things you didn't see on TV, and not only because you most likely didn't watch this game at all:

-- Every Clipper basket was followed by a quick 3-second snippet of a popular song, each player with their own specific song. Elton Brand's was Nas' "Made You Look", Cuttino Mobley's was Lil' Kim's "The Jump Off", Shaun Livingston's was Puff Daddy & Nelly's "Shake Ya Tailfeather", and most notably, the song for rugged outdoors-type Chris Kaman (who, in a recent L.A. Times article, mentioned that he hates rap) was Jagged Edge's "Where The Party At". So I guess he has a soft spot for R&B. I don't remember Sam Cassell's song, because he decided to only make one shot.

-- In-between quarter entertainment came in the form of a contest sponsored by JetBlue, where round spots were placed around the court and a person from the crowd would have 30 seconds to shoot from any spot he desired, and with each made basket win a round-trip flight to the corresponding city. For example, the Las Vegas circle was at the free throw line, the New York and Fort Lauderdale circles were 3-pointers, and the circles for Salt Lake City and Washington D.C. were about 18 feet out. Obviously, depending on how well of a shooter you are, you want to use your 30 seconds wisely. The dude picked out of the crowd had no shot whatsoever, so he played it safe and made a lay-up from the circle right underneath the basket -- and won a free trip to Oakland. Great.

-- The "Clipper Spirit" dance team might have the worst song selection of what to dance to, and might also have the only other known person named Yoko.

-- The homeless people that parade around outside of Staples Center are the best this side of San Francisco. The first we encountered was in the parking lot, asking people if they had 35 cents to spare -- since when do the homeless get to call out amounts? Aren't they supposed to be happy with what we give 'em? On the way out the arena, we encountered one humbling both aloud AND to himself, who rudely proclaimed "I DON'T WANT THAT SHIT!" when my older brother offered him his leftover caramel corn. The next dude kind of killed the fun, as he graciously accepted the popcorn and gave a kind "Thank you, God bless". Fortunately, the strong stench of fecal matter that trailed the next homeless dude that we passed brought us right back to where we wanted to be -- hell.

[Update: The Clippers' following game, another blowout loss at home against a mediocre team, 111-92 to Boston, has helped ease the pain of me feeling responsible for wrecking Clipper games simply by attending. Now, if a losing streak follows...]