PLAYA DEL REY, Calif. – For 18 years, Darrell Bailey has been a fan of the most ridiculed franchise in professional sports. "Clipper Darrell," is what most people know him as. He attends every home game of the Los Angeles Clippers usually wearing a suit that's split equal parts red and blue. He even had a custom paint job for his car in the team's colors: One half is red, the other blue.
Rarely have the Clippers rewarded Bailey's loyalty with any type of sustained success. He, like many of the tortured team's fans, has weathered years of blowout losses, busted draft picks and a near-endless stream of embarrassment from the franchise's eccentric owner, Donald Sterling.
“Tears came rolling down my eyes. I couldn’t believe it,” Bailey said. “This is a dream come true. I hated to see Eric Gordon go, but Chris Paul is a game changer. Nobody is laughing right now. I’m getting hit on Twitter and Facebook about the Clippers from people that haven’t talked to me in six years. I can’t get them tickets.
“It’s like a dream to me right now."
Fortunately for the Clippers, Paul doesn't care about their sordid history. He sees only a bright future filled with lob passes to Blake Griffin, a renewed rivalry with the Los Angeles Lakers, playoff appearances and – if they're fortunate enough – a championship.
[ Slideshow: Chris Paul joins the Clippers ]
“That’s what’s going to make this even more fun,” Chris Paul said. “Anybody remember what the Hornets’ record was before I got there? It was 18-64. I’m used to being an underdog. It’s what competition is all about.”
That's good news for the Clippers, who've rarely been competitive in their 27 years in Los Angeles. They've reached the playoffs just four times since moving to L.A. and advanced to the second round just once. Their last postseason appearance came in 2006. Six times they've won just fewer than 20 games, and that doesn't include the 1999 lockout-shortened season when they won just nine. Danny Manning and Michael Olowokandi, both No. 1 picks, were supposed to save the franchise, but injury and, in Olowokandi's case, indifference left them unable to do much heavy lifting. Elton Brand had some good years, but then he, too, got hurt and left for the Philadelphia 76ers. Baron Davis' arrival was trumpeted as a turning point for the team, but he never lived up to his bloated contract and was finally traded away.
And that's just on the court. Sterling had to pay a record $2.7 million to settle government charges that he refused to rent apartments to Hispanics and blacks. He's also been sued for sexual harassment and in recent years he refused to help pay for the cancer treatment of his former interim coach, Kim Hughes. Just last season, he used his courtside seat to openly heckle Davis during games.
Clippers president Andy Roeser has seen it all as he prepares to enter his 27th season with the Clippers. And every single joke has stung.
“I do take them personally,” Roeser said. “Look, if you are in the sports business you have to have thick skin, you just do. Everything you do is under a microscope and second guessed.”
The Clippers looked like they had finally found something to build upon when they advanced to the second round of the playoffs in 2006 before losing a tough seven-game series to the Phoenix Suns. That same season, the Lakers were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. The Clippers' success proved to be short-lived. They missed the playoffs the next season and haven't been back. The Lakers went on to win two titles.
“We wanted to keep it going and the owner was very supportive,” Roeser said. “But you know what happened? I think our players, in my opinion, spent the summer reading their press clippings. We just didn’t start with the same competitive fire at the beginning of the season, which we needed to sustain the effort.
“We ended up missing the playoffs [in 2007] by one game. That team, had we made it to the playoffs, might have stayed together longer.”
The fate of the Clippers seemed to change in 2009 when they won the draft lottery and took Blake Griffin with the first pick. Griffin then missed all of his first season with a knee injury.
Nevertheless, Griffin eventually recovered and showed off his talent and promise last season by making the All-Star team and being named Rookie of the Year. After he leaped over a car to win the dunk contest at All-Star weekend in L.A., it was suddenly cool to like the Clippers. And the chance to play with the high-flying forward was the biggest reason Paul wanted to join the Clippers.
“At the end of the day you have to have guys that want to play with other guys as far as basketball,” Paul said. “Blake did an outstanding job with what he did here and we want to take it to another level.”
Clippers general manager Neil Olshey did a masterful job surrounding Griffin with talent even before acquiring Paul. The Clippers plucked Chauncey Billups off the league's amnesty waivers, signed veteran forward Caron Butler and retained promising center DeAndre Jordan. Sterling then pushed Olshey, Roeser and coach Vinny Del Negro to trade for Paul, even though it cost the Clippers talented guard Eric Gordon and the Minnesota Timberwolves' unprotected 2012 first-round draft pick.
“The hardest thing we said in this whole process was, ‘We’re good. We have a chance to be good, and do we really break this up for the home run?’ " Olshey said. "We told Mr. Sterling we had two really good directions: We could continue to build – we’re going to be better this year than we were last year. We have this draft pick. The players are going to keep developing.
"Or we have a chance to completely change the culture of the organization and make us a contender right away."
The Clippers opted for the latter, surrendering Gordon, the draft pick, Chris Kaman and forward Al-Farouq Aminu for Paul and two future second-round picks. When the deal was done, Roeser and Olshey celebrated with champagne at the practice facility.
“I’ve enjoyed times of hope and times of agony," Roeser said. "And I’ve never been more excited for a team at the beginning of the season."
While the Clippers look good on paper, they will begin the season with the unlikely burden of playoff expectations. They also know they have to win to keep Paul, whose contract runs through the 2012-13 season and Griffin, who could become an unrestricted free agent in 2014 if he doesn’t sign a contract extension. Paul and Griffin also have had knee injuries in recent years that will continue to be a concern.
But instead of worrying about any of that, Paul and his Clippers are focused on the present. For a day or two, at least, the Clippers have become the talk of the town.
“This decision wasn’t about the past," Paul said. "It is about the present and about the future.
"I don’t come in here saying, ‘This isn’t what happened five years ago. This is what happened 10 years ago.’ …I’m one of those people who feel like I might be able to change what people may think."
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- Chris Paul