Seeing that picture might have the same effect on you that it had on me. How did we get from that day to today?
The drama has built steadily over the last decade, increasing year-by-year. The brutal playoff eliminations, the tumultuous off-court events, the devastating injuries, all accompanied by the brilliant post-season battles, the awe-inspiring highlights, the thrilling relief of recent wins against the Warriors and Chris Paul’s Houston Rockets.
It’s impossible to ignore the seemingly exponentially mounting tensions during the half-decade when you and Chris shared the spotlight in L.A., with annual playoff failures turning into increased urgency and pressure the next season. History won’t look past the broken hand from a late-night punch in Toronto, or the animosity revealed in your first game against Chris after he left the team, complete with a post-game locker-room confrontation.
That doesn’t mean, though, that we should forget all of the other things. The rich narratives and deep sub-plots of the recent Clippers era don’t erase the days of the 20-year old kid from Oklahoma bringing hope one of the most dismal franchises in all of sports—at least not for this blogger, who remembers being 12 years old in the summer of 2009 and (rather foolishly) writing, as a new commenter on this website, that the Clippers’ roster composition woes could be solved by playing you at small forward.
From the moment you came into the organization, participating in a pre-draft workout with then-GM and coach Mike Dunleavy, Sr., you sparked a feeling of hope in fanbase that had never had a reason to be anything but cynical. How could we not be hopeful? From your first fancy dribble moves in the Las Vegas Summer League, we were hooked. Blake Griffin was fun, and Clippers Basketball was Blake Griffin.
A couple months later, you’d fracture your kneecap in the pre-season and end up missing the entire 2009-2010 campaign. At the time, it was a fluke, a momentary setback, a demoralizing continuation of a widely-discussed curse. In retrospect, it served to foreshadow the strange and obscure injuries that would ultimately come to be an integral part of your Clipper legacy.
When you finally debuted in the 2010-2011 season, you didn’t disappoint. It only took you a few minutes to do this:
In your rookie year, you had both your most iconic highlight and your career-high scoring game:
I don’t know what it means that you never topped those performances as your career went on. The psychological impact of repeated injuries inspired regular-season caution, increasing the rate of inefficient mid-range jumpers. The assembly of a winning team led to fewer shots and touches, ceding control of the offense to Chris Paul. The pressure to find success, both as an fledgling individual superstar and fledgling championship contending team, led to late-game paralysis.
The feelings of fun and hope seemed to fade as time went on. The franchise grew up, in a way. Eric Gordon, Jr. and Al-Farouq Aminu were traded in the Chris Paul deal. The Clippers began signing serious veteran free agents who were looking to join contenders on deep playoff runs. Vinny Del Negro’s glorious hair and questionable strategies were replaced by Doc Rivers, a bald-headed, coveted coach who had recently won the 2008 NBA Championship with the Boston Celtics. The team shunned the “Lob City” nickname that it had once embraced. Noted cheapskate and racist Donald Sterling was forced to sell the franchise to the energetic, high-spending Steve Ballmer. The fanbase sold out STAPLES nightly in a fashion foreign to us $8-ticket-in-a-half-full-arena fans of old.
Largely, we accepted that growing up was a necessary step towards success. Maybe it was. Unfortunately, everyone seemed to forget to have fun—or maybe felt as though having fun wasn’t allowed for a team with a mission as serious as winning the NBA Finals. From top to bottom, the franchise, team, and fanbase took on the attitude of Chris Paul, who will proudly state that he hates to lose more than he loves to win. The era came to be defined by that: trying to not lose rather than trying to win. Rarely did the team take serious risks, making minor moves around a stable core in order to avoid messing with a relatively successful on-court product. The offense ran down the shot clock to nurture late-game leads instead of looking to create good scoring opportunities. As time went on, the fanbase’s volatile response to losses became louder and more viscous, and the euphoria that once surrounded wins and highlights turned into muted entitlement.
It’s hard to avoid how closely my own fandom followed that trajectory. In the days of (F)Elton Brand and (my favorite) Cuttino Mobley, I would sit in the 300 level of STAPLES Center with my dad, screaming for 48 minutes straight, chanting “DE-FENSE” in the third quarter of 20-point losses. By the time the Chris Paul era came about, I was sitting quietly, focused on the strategy and quality of play. A month ago, when I watched you play in person at four consecutive home games, I sat in the press section, wearing a button down shirt, standing and applauding only for the national anthem, taking notes on my laptop. In the last of those four games, you exited in the first quarter after suffering a worrisome concussion at the hands (elbow) of JaVale McGee. Your hand twitched as you laid on the court, waiting for play to stop so the training staff could tend to you. It was such a cruelly, brutally fitting way for the Basketball Gods to orchestrate the final game where I’d see you in person in a Clipper uniform.
I’m long past feeling a significant emotional attachment to this team. This trade didn’t affect me nearly as much as the Clippers fans that populate my inbox and twitter mentions—I was at dinner when my phone started blowing up, and I took a phone call that went something like this:
“Dude, do you see what’s going on?”
“Yeah—I’m at dinner.”
“You might want to check twitter, Lucas.”
“I saw my twitter. I’m at dinner. I’ll talk to you later.”
It’s hard to imagine the Lucas of ten years ago hearing about a franchise-altering trade, and then putting his phone down and continuing to talk to his friend about her new Introductory Russian professor. I think, in many ways, my experience as a fan, or follower, or supporter of the Clippers became tied to your struggles and frustrations. There’s a certain masochistic element that is only too familiar to those of us who have followed the team for a long time. The most humanizing element of the team for the last several years was the raw emotion coming from you, the frustration that accompanied each injury or setback, the vindication of beating Chris Paul in his return to STAPLES Center two weeks ago.
I’m not quite sure how to track when I stopped feeling. I remember sitting in STAPLES Center during Game 6 of the infamous Clippers-Rockets second-round series in 2015, home at the end of my freshman year of college, watching you help build a 19-point second half lead. I’m not ashamed to say that there were tears of joy in my eyes. There I was, back in the 300-level of STAPLES with my dad, watching the team we’d followed together for my entire life find their way to their first-ever Western Conference Finals appearance. When Corey Brewer and Josh Smith led a Rockets comeback, we—all 20,000 of us in the arena—were reduced to stunned silence.
I remember the next season when, in game 4 of a first-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers, you and Chris Paul both went down, both done for the remainder of the post-season. Just a couple of days prior, the Warriors—slotted to be the your second-round opponent—learned that they’d be without Stephen Curry for part of the second round. The Los Angeles Freaking Clippers were, for a moment, favored to win the championship by several major statistical models. It was a fleeting moment. The night after you and Chris got hurt and the Blazers tied the series 2-2, I didn’t sleep, shook to my core by a punch to the stomach at the end of a long and emotional season, my first writing about the team full-time as the editor of this blog.
But when you got hurt against the Utah Jazz in the first round of last season’s playoffs, and when Chris Paul had a quiet 13-point performance in a Game 7 loss, I didn’t feel the pain anymore. When I awoke last June to find that the Clippers had complied with Chris’ request to be traded to the Houston Rockets, I didn’t feel the pain. And last night, when I learned that the team had traded you, I was numb enough to put my phone on “Do Not Disturb” and finish my dinner.
It wasn’t until I looked through some old pictures from the beginning of your career—like the one above, of rookie Blake at his post-draft introductory press conference with Mike Dunleavy (CGMMDSr) and Neil Olshey (Get ‘er done, Neil!)—that I remembered how much you meant to a much younger Lucas at a time when, much like the rest of the Clippers fanbase, I wasn’t nearly as jaded or analytical, and I had a lot more fun following you and the team. Those years—the years of unbridled hope mixed with a slight, good-natured arrogance—were as enjoyable as any I’ve experienced as a sports fan.
It’s time for this column to end, although I could probably go on. The Clippers traded you yesterday, not because they didn’t think you were a good basketball player, not because of irreconcilable tensions within the organization, but because they felt like they had to take the opportunity to get out of a massive 5-year deal for a player with a troubling injury history. It made sense. And, realistically, nobody on the internet reads past 2,000 words. I should stop. This post, like your tenure with the Clippers, cut unceremoniously short by brutal, uncompromising practicality. Tragic, and fitting.
Thank you for the last nine years. Thank you for coming to a franchise that was stuck in the mud, downtrodden and laughed at, and inspiring a generation of hope. Thank you for seeing us to the most successful era in Clipper history, and bringing us to a point where optimism is permissible with respectable ownership and management. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the change in the franchise’s culture from June 25th, 2009, when you were drafted, to January 29th, 2018, when you were traded. I also don’t think it’s possible to overstate the role that you had in changing that culture and making this a franchise that not only expects success, but legitimately feels as though it is capable of being successful.
I hope you find everything you’re looking for in Detroit, or wherever else you end up. I hope you stay healthy, and your individual greatness finds new heights, helping your teams surpass the success you had with the Clippers. Most of all, I hope you find a way to have as much fun as you had in the early days. I hope that, in the Clippers fanbase, we do too. And, someday, I hope I’m in the building as part of a sellout crowd when the Clippers raise your jersey into the rafters.