In the spring of 1979 it was cool to be a Clipper. Point guard Randy Smith drove to the San Diego Sports Arena in his Rolls-Royce and tailored polyester suits. Shooting guard Lloyd Free—soon known as World B.—rapped at house parties when no one knew what rap was. Seven-foot Swen Nater danced with teammates at discos and coach Gene Shue bought drinks after landmark victories. The Clippers won 43 games that season, the franchise's first on the West Coast after eight years as the Buffalo Braves. Every possession was a fast break, and practices started as late as 7 p.m., which allowed players to sleep in and still hit the beach or the golf course.
"It was the best," says Nater. "No one wanted to leave." In the summer of '79 lawyer William Kunstler, who represented leaders of the Black Panthers, summoned Shue to a farm outside Portland. Kunstler also represented the Trail Blazers' tie-dyed center, Bill Walton, who grew up near San Diego and was a free agent. The Clippers signed Walton to the richest contract in NBA history, $1 million per year. They also acquired forward Joe (Jellybean) Bryant, who arrived from Philadelphia toting a baby boy named Kobe.
The Clippers believed they could contend when they opened training camp in the fall of 1979. But on the first day, in the middle of an outlet drill, Shue called three players into his office: Smith, the team's second-leading scorer; Kermit Washington, the leading rebounder; and Kevin Kunnert, the backup center. In those frontier days of the NBA, commissioner Larry O'Brien could award free-agent compensation when and where he saw fit, and the Clippers were growing too potent. O'Brien stripped them of all three players. Washington spent the next two weeks in his apartment and nearly retired in protest. "It destroyed the franchise," he says.
A year later David Stern became the league's executive vice president, and free-agent compensation was outlawed. The Clippers, unable to heal Walton's chronic foot injuries, began a pattern of desperate trades and reckless draft picks. They moved to Los Angeles in 1984, the same year Stern was promoted to commissioner, just in time for a Lakers dynasty. While Showtime reigned, the Clippers flailed, suffering through 29 losing seasons in 32 years.
Last month, after a 149-day lockout that was supposed to level the NBA's balance of power, Stern vetoed a trade by the league-owned Hornets that would have sent All-Star point guard Chris Paul to the Lakers. Six days later he approved a deal that brought Paul to the Clippers instead. Stern explained that he preferred the Clippers' offer, loaded with young players and draft picks, but to old-timers it was a karmic makeup call. "The dream is alive," Walton beams, "32 years late."
The franchise hasn't been to the playoffs since 2006, but it is cool to be a Clipper again, with Paul launching lobs that appear headed for the concourse and power forward Blake Griffin soaring to stuff them. The team is selling out every game, local television ratings are up 150% and prices of tickets on the secondary market are 50% to 75% higher, according to L.A. broker Barry's Tickets. Actor Colin Hanks, Tom's son, considered buying Clippers season tickets with friends so his one-year-old daughter could relate to an underdog. But he stalled for a couple of days, the Paul trade was consummated, and then he was shut out. "I hear about it every day," says Hanks. "My friends are like, We had the golden ticket!"
The Clippers were 9--5 at week's end, and in one glorious 48-hour stretch this month they vanquished the Heat and the Lakers while a man at Staples Center known as the Clipper Stripper peeled off eight L.A. jerseys in rapid succession. Griffin gushed that it felt like the playoffs. "I've never been to the playoffs," countered center DeAndre Jordan, a second-round pick in 2008 and the longest-tenured Clipper, "so I don't know what it should feel like."
He will find out soon enough. Though the Clippers attract casual fans with their rim-abusing ally-oops, they are much more than Highlight Clips. They blend the guile of point guard Chauncey Billups and small forward Caron Butler with the hyperactivity of Griffin and Jordan with the transcendence of Paul. "You just feel the pride when you put on the red, white and blue," says Butler, without sarcasm. Six weeks ago, Butler was a Maverick, Billups a Knick, Paul a Hornet and apathy a Clipper.
How in the World B. Free did this happen?
The architect of Hollywood's latest overnight sensation knows from experience there is no such thing. Clippers general manager Neil Olshey is a 47-year-old former actor who grew up in Queens, studied at The Neighborhood Playhouse in Manhattan and landed roles on soap operas Loving and All My Children. He moved to L.A. in 1993, on the advice of then Law & Order star Jerry Orbach, and quickly booked commercials for Coke, Visa, Honda, JCPenney and Burger King. Living off the residuals, Olshey had more free time than he could handle, so he volunteered as an assistant basketball coach at Artesia High in Lakewood. He hadn't played varsity hoops—he was cut as a high school freshman—but he was a fixture at CYO games in New York City and intramurals at Le Moyne College in Syracuse. He preferred gyms to sound stages and started bagging auditions for substitute-teaching gigs at Artesia.