It is difficult to describe what the Los Angeles Clippers were like in the late 1990's and early 2000's, mostly but not entirely because there is no point of reference in the NBA that presently exists. There are bad teams, just as there will always be bad teams, and some of them are still sucking around in major markets. But as bottomed-out as the Lakers were during the terminal years of the Kobe administration, as multiply bankrupt as the Nets are, as bafflingly and boldly backwards as the Bulls are and as syphilitically Knicks-y as the Knicks are, there is nothing that is quite like those old Clips. I know because I was there, but I know, too, because the NBA just is not like that anymore. There are feckless owners and overmatched front offices, still; there are the Sacramento Kings, and they will always be with us, accidentally setting fire to their underpants every 12 hours forever. But even that is a different thing.
It wasn't just that the Clippers teams were bad, although they were always bad. It was how they were bad, the absence of any design or intent or perceived obligation to anyone to be anything but bad. Every purgatorial season was like every other purgatorial season, with various haunted lottery picks affixing a thousand-yard stare at the end of their rookie contracts and slowly shuffling forward and a host of defective vagabonds—able-bodied bigs with hands like buttered oven mitts, grave Slavic big men who regarded rebounding as unclean, stringbean perimeter gunners who d'ed up with all the command and purpose of a toddler trying to play bagpipes—orbiting wanly around them. The end of the roster was a hospice, giving a host of Olden Polynices and Glen Rices and Howard Eisleys one last pair of NBA warm-ups before the game finally showed them the door. No team could have been harder to like; the thick stink of owner Donald Sterling's disregard for players, fans, anyone and everyone, was suffocating. I decided that I loved them.
I'd grown up watching bad basketball teams in New Jersey, and mapped my own stupid adolescence over those teams' attempts to drag themselves up and out of a similar swamp of organizational idiocy and executive incompetence. I went off to college in Southern California and found a team that was even worse; where the Nets owners were a bickering gaggle of local litigation aficionados, the Clippers were owned by an authentic monster—a rancid hornball slumlord whose immense wealth and complete immunity to shame allowed him to treat the team with transcendent carelessness. I found something to like in the way that players struggled to extract some dignity or joy from their sentences with the team, and in the broader ramshackle comedy of the Clippers experience; I contributed to a Clippers blog and mentioned Tyrone Nesby and Heidegger in the same sentence. I was an idiot, obviously, but I was happy to have a lost cause of my own. I watched their games on a tiny television in my dorm room, with folksy play-by-play man Ralph Lawler doing his level best—I remember him chirping "Bingo for Chilly!" after sad-eyed beanpole Pete Chilcutt hit a three-pointer to shave some third-quarter deficit briefly into single digits—and Bill Walton exploring the outer boundaries of madcap sarcasm with every hyperbolic appreciation of Michael Olowokandi's robustly checked-out post game.
The NBA was not yet widely aware of the concepts that presently define front office best practices, let alone in thrall to them, but it was generally possible to see what even bad teams were going for. They used their crude stone tools to fashion rosters built around one-dimensional scorers and complementary oafs, they entrusted a generation of poker-faced retreads as stewards of team culture and leaders of men, and of course they failed, but they were at least failing honestly, because they authentically didn't know how to succeed. The Clippers were not doing that. They weren't doing anything, really, and the slow realization of how willing they were to waste anything but the owner's money made the team harder to countenance, let alone enjoy. I watched and waited for something to emerge, and saw only the grim passing through of youth and promise and the permanent presence of Donald Sterling's rancid candy-apple form on the sideline, watching the hopeless games he made.
This did not really change when Elton Brand joined the Clippers, although he would eventually become the cornerstone of the first decent Clippers team in many years. But something was changing in basketball, which was then beginning the long trip from there to here. For all the things that can be said about Brand's long and brilliant career, which ended this week after 17 NBA seasons, maybe the most remarkable is that he was there to see so much change.
This looks like faint praise, but it isn't. Brand's career splits cleanly into two halves, during the first of which he was one of the NBA's most valuable players, and reliably its most underrated. Brand was mostly in hopeless situations during that period, first over two seasons with a Bulls team dragging the chunky depths of its post-Jordan hangover and then with the Clippers. Because Brand's body betrayed him halfway through his career, and because his prime was spent serving such shitty teams, it's easy to forget just how good he was. Brand hung on to become a reliable supporting player on a series of middling teams across the back half of his NBA tenure, and was a fascinating hybrid star over the first half of it; had the two halves been flipped, and Brand somehow been able to enjoy his prime years in the more open-minded NBA of the last half decade or so, he could have been something else entirely.
That isn't how this stuff works, though, and that wasn't the NBA in which Brand was a star. As refined as he was in the post and as a shot-blocker, Brand's best and brightest skill was an elemental one. He worked, and won where he won—on the offensive glass, at the rim—because of the work he did. This made him not just exciting but relentlessly surprising to watch; his play was effortful and heavy, and then suddenly it was shockingly graceful or violent at precisely the moment that one or the other or both were required. His physical combination of gangle and bulk enabled him to be, in a way that even his highlights don't quite express, two players at once. At his best, those two seemed to be working together, with Bowling Ball Brand handling things from the elbow to the rim and Vicious Predatory Condor Brand handling the aerial stuff. When time and attrition took the second player out of the picture, the first one stayed on in the league for nearly a decade on the combined strength of what was left and the ferocious want that powered it.
It is easy to project our own things onto players like this, and not just because it's natural to want to be as beautiful or as forceful as a great athlete. But it's unfair to Brand to read his career as a metaphor for something or other. By the same token, as tantalizing as it is to imagine what he might have become had he enjoyed his prime in a more imaginative basketball age, we also have the significant reality of his life's work as a basketball player. But because Brand's best years were spent with the Clippers, I can't quite do that. I don't really have it in me to be reasonable about Elton Brand, because I was so moved by the work he did in that most unreasonable of basketball situations, and how he willed and worked some dignity and purpose onto an organization that so flagrantly lacked either.
Brand's seven seasons with the Clippers—six, really, as he only played in eight games in '07-08, the season that marked the end of his career's first act and the start of its final one—produced one winning record, and one brief playoff run. The Clippers teams with him on them were markedly better than the ones that came before, and the ones that followed his departure were worse, but that doesn't convey the change he made during his time with the team. The Clippers were a joke, an odious rich man's bleak prank, and would have remained a joke for as long as the NBA allowed Sterling to fester. Brand, because he took his work seriously, did as much as anyone could have to redeem them. They were still owned by a sucking black hole of a man, of course, and subject to his tossed-off cruelties and imbecilic whims; it was not in Brand's power to fire the boss. But by playing with such purpose and grace, he brought some purpose and grace to an organization that had long refused them as a matter of course; through the persistence of his work, he managed to extract some dignity from the experience of working for the most undignified owner of his era. This is not the sort of greatness that's easily quantified, or that is summed up neatly on Hall of Fame plaques or the backs of basketball cards. But you know them when you see them.
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