LOS ANGELES – Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers players ran onto the floor for warm-ups for the first time in the Donald Sterling-less era with no idea how their fans would react. They didn't even know if there would be fans in Staples Center to react.
But with Drake's song, "Trophies," blaring in the background, the weary Clippers ran out to a roaring standing ovation from a packed house that nearly brought Paul to tears.
"I'm an emotional person," Paul said. "So running out for warm-ups, it took everything not to break down. That is something I will never forget forever."
It hasn't been easy to be a Clippers player since news broke last Saturday that the owner, Sterling, told a woman in a taped conversation that she shouldn't publicly display pictures taken with black people nor take them to Clippers games. The report brought anti-Sterling reaction from President Obama, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Jesse Jackson and LeBron James, among others.
Clippers players and coaches contemplated boycotting Game 4 against the host Golden State Warriors in response. Clippers players quickly decided against such action that would have evoked memories of past memorable athletic stances for blacks made by Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, John Carlos and Jim Brown. Instead prior to tip-off of Game 4, the Clippers players opted for a silent protest by tossing their warm-up jackets with the word "Clippers" on the front, wore their shooting shorts inside out and wore black socks and wristbands.
Worn down from the Sterling news, the Clippers were hammered 118-97 in a series-tying loss to the Warriors in Game 4.
"We didn't air it out enough because Sunday we weren't as locked in as we should've been," Clippers guard J.J. Redick said. "Whether it was private conversations that guys had or with their families, guys just had to get their emotions off their chest."
When asked why the Clippers didn't boycott Game 4, Paul said: "That's something I'll probably talk about later. It crossed my mind. But we played. We play for each other. We play for our fans."
NBA Players Association vice president Roger Mason, Jr., told Yahoo Sports he is confident that the Clippers would have boycotted Game 5 if the NBA didn't have a strong ruling on Sterling. Mason said the minimum punishment sought by the players' union was Sterling being removed as Clippers owner. Without that, Mason said the six NBA teams playing in the playoffs on Tuesday were prepared to boycott their games.
New NBA commissioner Adam Silver cooled the boycott talk by announcing early Tuesday afternoon that Sterling would be banned from the NBA for life, would face a maximum fine of $2.5 million and the league would try to force him to sell the team. The Clippers got the news during a post-shootaround film session and breathed a deep sigh of relief afterward.
"I thought the commissioner and the NBA was going to take some action," Griffin said. "I honestly didn't think it was going to be as big as it was. But I think it definitely made sense and I think it was the right thing to do."
Paul said that Silver, who replaced the now-retired David Stern in February, is the "right man for the job" and has been "amazing" so far.
"It put a lot of guys in that locker room's minds at ease," Paul said. "It definitely has been tough the last few days. But we've been getting through it."
Said Clippers guard Jamal Crawford: "I'm just glad we do have closure."
The strongest voice for the Clippers through the Sterling situation wasn't any of the players. Rather, Clippers first-year coach Doc Rivers. While Paul said his family gave him strong support, Paul also credited Rivers for keeping the players sane through it all.
"We are blessed and fortunate to have a guy like Doc Rivers leading us through this," Paul said. "I couldn't imagine having another coach who was there to communicate with us through this and ask us how we feel and not just tell us we're going to do this and we're going to do that. He actually listened to us throughout this entire thing. It was pretty special."
A force of police and security were inside and outside of Staples Center just in case there were some protests or tomfoolery. The Silver announcement, however, calmed a lot of the Clippers fans' anger and fears, and made them comfortable cheering their team in Game 5's 113-103 victory over the Warriors on Tuesday night. Clippers fans wore T-shirts and held signs condemning Sterling and expressing their love for the team by chanting, "We Are One."
The Clippers can advance to the second round with a Game 6 win over the host Warriors on Thursday.
"I thought they had great mental toughness [Tuesday night] and really wanted to win this game," Rivers said. "And [Tuesday night], they did that. So I'm really proud of them."
Said Redick: "It would be ideal not to come back here for Game 7. Obviously, the pressure is on them."
The NBA did make a decision on Sterling, but nothing is etched in stone right now.
Clippers ownership is up in the air. Long-time team executive Andy Roeser is suddenly running the Clippers in the interim. While Rivers said the NBA's decision on Sterling helped, he didn't commit to returning to next season. But even with all the uncertainty, the Sterling decision at least allows the Clippers players to finally concentrate on their lone safe haven of late in the game of basketball.
"This thing isn't over," Paul said. "Right now it's about the healing process and us getting back to what we're supposed to do. And that's play basketball."