LOS ANGELES — The idea popped into longtime Clippers fan Rudy Olivera's head soon after he heard Donald Sterling's reprehensible words Saturday morning.
Olivera decided he wanted to make T-shirts supporting his favorite team yet decrying its racist owner.
For more than three hours before Tuesday night's game, Olivera stood on a street corner outside Staples Center selling a duffel bag full of shirts that read "I love my LA Clippers but ..." on the front and "F--K" the owner" on the back. He said the $10 per shirt he charged were more an attempt to recoup the money he'd spent than to turn a profit.
"This is more of a protest movement than it is about selling shirts," Olivera said. "I've been a Clippers fan for years and years. Maybe about 10 years now. I was cool with Sterling until this came out. Right now, he's just a lost puppet to me."
The shirts Olivera hawked crudely yet perfectly represented the dilemma many Clippers fans experienced leading up to their team's 113-103 victory in game 5 of its opening-round NBA playoff series against the Warriors. They wanted to support their favorite team in a crucial playoff game yet they also felt compelled to express disgust for the hateful words that earned Sterling a lifetime ban from associating with the Clippers or the NBA earlier Tuesday.
Two men in the lower bowl wore Magic Johnson jerseys mocking Sterling's desire to never let the former Lakers star attend a Clippers game. A man and woman a few sections away donned black T-shirts featuring the words "Go Clippers" underneath pictures of Sterling's face crossed out. Numerous others toted homemade signs adorned with red and blue messages denouncing Sterling and bigotry.
Sandy Oshinsky, her daughter and her three grandchildren are Clippers season-ticket holders who made a 90-minute drive from Santa Barbara to attend Tuesday's game. Oshinsky's daughter made three signs for each of her kids to hold during the game: one that read "We are one Clipper Nation," another that read "Hate will never win" and a third that read "Rise above."
"We came to support the players, not the owner," Oshinsky said. "We listened to [NBA commissioner] Adam Silver's press conference [Tuesday], and we were so excited he made a statement that was so definitive and so strong. There was no doubt they have to throw Sterling out, and I hope they do it quickly."
Indeed the bold, swift punishment Silver handed down Tuesday likely diffused any chance of a widespread pregame protest outside Staples Center. The Los Angeles Police Department had an unusually large contingent of officers patrolling the outskirts of the arena several hours before tip-off, but everything was fairly quiet save for a handful of protesters.
The loudest were two men wearing black T-shirts that read "Clip-Him" on the front and "Sterling -1" on the back. They attracted a small crowd screaming for fans to boycott the game rather than to put money in the pocket of a racist owner.
Not far away from the mini-protest stood Darrell Bailey, the super fan affectionately known as "Clipper Darrell" because of the trademark red and blue suit he wears to games and red and blue BMW he drives. Bailey acknowledged he was "saddened" by Sterling's words yet insisted there was no chance he'd ever skip Tuesday's game because he has learned to compartmentalize his passion for the Clippers and his squeamishness regarding their owner.
"When have you heard me say, 'Let's go, Sterling, let's go?" Bailey asked. "It's always, 'Let's go, Clippers, let's go.' It's all about the red, white and blue and what these players represent. This is the best Clippers team we've ever seen and the best playoffs we've ever seen. Let's get back to basketball."
That the Sterling controversy has interrupted one of the best season in Clippers franchise history is especially cruel for a fan base that has endured plenty of frustration and futility.
Only twice in the first 27 years after the Clippers moved to Los Angeles did they finish above .500 and only once did they win a playoff series. They were so inept because of bungled trades and draft picks and Sterling's thriftiness that Sports Illustrated famously proclaimed the franchise the worst in professional sports in 2000 and former guard Ron Harper once likened his stint with the Clippers to "jail time."
The franchise has been on the upswing since December 2011 when it acquired All-Star point guard Chris Paul from the Hornets and paired him with young power forward Blake Griffin. They made the playoffs the past two seasons and won 57 games this year, earning the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference.
Even though only hours had passed since the announcement of Sterling's lifetime ban, the Clippers were quick to disassociate themselves with their owner Tuesday night.
Before announcing the team's starting lineup, the Clippers' public address announcer told a sellout crowd, "We welcome you tonight as we unite behind our team. Tonight we are one." The team also displayed fans clad in anti-Sterling shirts on the Jumbotron throughout the game, attempted to trigger "We are one" chants, and even showed one man holding a huge Donald Sterling head dressed like the devil in the third quarter.
The anti-Sterling, pro-Clippers atmosphere at Staples Center surely made Olivera smile.
"I was going to rip my ticket clean in half if they didn't ban that dude," Olivera said. "Screw it. I will not tolerate giving money to someone like that."
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