DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - We are a bewildered bunch these days. Giddy, but confused. Raucous, yet reticent.
You may have seen us recently out and about on Figueroa Street, trying to preen like peacocks. However, we've still got that peripheral jitterbug of traffic-addled pigeon ingrained in our stride and entrenched in our souls. The Fatal Fender of Fate surely must be around the next corner. Right?
We are Los Angeles Clippers fans, and frankly, this is weird. Bizarro world weird. People are actually envious of us.
The strike-shortened season is young, and the Clippers' record is only middling (3-2 at press time), but everything is different.
We're the long-before-the-bandwagon bunch. I've been paying for season tickets since 1996, when the Clippers played at the mausoleum known as the L.A. Sports Arena. Since Staples Center opened in 1999 I've sat with a slew of cellmates - make that season ticket holders, in Section 113. The usual quicksand we slog through has been miraculously swapped out for fluffy clouds of optimism. Gone are the days of "Wait 'til next decade!" Better yet, Jay Leno has to search elsewhere for a punch line.
Somebody get Police Chief Charlie Beck on the horn, because there has been a robbery: The Clippers have stolen the Los Angeles Lakers' thunder, their neon, their headlines and their supposed savior - Chris Paul. Sure, it took some aiding and abetting from NBA Commissioner David Stern, but lo and behold, the Clippers poached the prize player.
The only thing that could improve this scenario is if Clippers GM Neil Olshey somehow lures Phil Jackson out of retirement to help clobber Kobe and his crusty crew.
Across the board, the team's fortunes are rising even faster than budding superstar Blake Griffin can leap over an automobile. Shockingly, a genuine culture shift is afoot. For the uninitiated and the nouveau Clip among you, as well as for us disoriented disciples, here are three reasons why the Clippers' transformation is so stunning.
We've Lost That Losing Feeling: In the not too distant past, someone called 411 in Los Angeles and asked the operator for the number of the "L.A. Clippers' box office." After a long pause, the woman replied, "You're joking, right?"
The Stockholm Syndrome got so bad last year that one bemused fan made a short film, "Clippervention," which played the local festival circuit and tried to comically capture the unique mindset of those who willingly chose to cheer for the likes of Keith Closs, Michael Olowokandi and Baron Davis over the years. (Full disclosure: That fan was me, and the short is at Clippervention.com. I kid you not, we are working on a Black Swan-style sequel, where the Clippervented fan is outraged to learn that he gave up on the team just when it becomes successful, and his personality splits.)
The Exodus Is Over: For years, whatever good players the Clippers managed to luck into would spend hefty portions of their free time plotting their escape. Elton Brand. Lamar Odom. Way back in the late 1980s, when Danny Ferry was a top college talent, he and his agent warned owner Donald Sterling's Clippers not to draft him. They did, and Ferry played in Italy for a year.
These days, it's a sea change. Before landing Paul, the Clippers had already added prized free agents Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler to the fold. Lakers fans, and the seething Kobe, are keenly aware that Billups was the ice pick on a Detroit team that punctured L.A. in the 2004 Finals, and that Butler is a former All-Star forward who's good pals with Bryant, and would've added some offensive firepower to a depleted Laker rotation.
Suddenly, Clipper Nation became a destination, not an exile for the fat (John "Hot Plate" Williams), skinny (Closs) and checkered-past individuals (Ricky Davis) who've washed up on the red-and-blue shores.
No Longer Pointless: Point guard is perhaps the most important position on a basketball team. The last time the Clippers had a good one, Sam Cassell in 2006, they were an actual championship threat. But Cassell's age and balky back hastened his and that unit's demise. Now, with Paul, they have a younger, rock-solid star who brings both a little of Magic Johnson's "Showtime" flair and some serious intensity.
After a recent home victory over a then-undefeated Portland team, a TV reporter kiddingly asked Paul about living up to the team's new "Lob City" marketing moniker, playing to the flashy alley-oop dunks of Griffin and young center DeAndre Jordan. Instead of a chuckle and an acknowledgment of the aerial acrobatics, this new sheriff in town visibly winced.
"I'm just here to win," he said.
Honestly, a backed-up statement like that will make us Clippers fans a hundred times woozier than any sedan-clearing exhibition dunk ever could.
©Los Angeles Downtown News.