Robert Covington stood near a rack of bright Nike shorts inside Dick’s Sporting Goods on Tuesday when a preteen boy in sunglasses walked over wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the Clippers wing’s personal motto and also the name of his foundation: Allergic to Failure.
More than an hour had passed since Covington had walked into the El Segundo store and surprised a group of 15 students from the After-School All-Stars program by handing each a gift card with $300 to be spent on whatever they chose. Covington explained they were initially going to receive $150 until his foundation matched the amount, but judging by the students’ reactions, it was unclear whether the students quite heard those details. At the sight of Covington, one boy exclaimed, “It’s Robert Covington!” At the mention of the gift cards, one girl covered her masked mouth with her hand while another boy’s jaw dropped and his eyes widened.
They scattered to scour the shoe racks and jerseys, and later the boy in the sunglasses approached Covington dribbling a miniature ball, saying confidently he could cross over the 6-foot-9 all-NBA defender with the nearly 7-2 wingspan. Covington smiled politely and without moving his feet, poked the ball away. The preteen quickly reconsidered his boast, smiling sheepishly.
It won’t be the last challenge Covington, 31, and the Clippers receive this season. With Kawhi Leonard returning from injury to reform his All-Star tandem with Paul George, and free-agent point guard John Wall added to a roster that endured little turnover from a team stocked with depth and resilience from last season, the Clippers are, on paper and in the eyes of oddsmakers, among the NBA’s upper tier of title contenders.
Opponents will size up the Clippers’ readiness to make good on that promise as soon as the first preseason game on Sept. 30. To fend them off, the Clippers will rely on veterans such as Covington, the multi-positional wing whose “Hard Work Every Day” neck tattoo suggests a player who enjoys a good challenge.
Covington arrived via trade from Portland in February and needed only 23 regular-season games of strong spot-up shooting, off-the-dribble offensive creation and help defense to make him one of the Clippers’ top offseason priorities. He could have become a free agent for the first time in July but signed a two-year extension worth $24 million in May instead, a deal that achieved a priority for both sides: Covington wants to win big, and the Clippers saw him as a multi-positional way of improving their chances to do just that in coach Tyronn Lue’s plug-and-play system.
“This is about where is it going to put me in the best position to win at this stage of my career,” Covington told The Times. “Going into Year 10, everybody has a goal and everybody wants to win. They have experience here. Kawhi is the main focus, this man has won multiple championships.”
Covington spoke to The Times about what led to his extension, his impressions from offseason workouts and team retreats and why the team’s depth could make opponents “have to fear every night.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You mentioned after the final game of the season that playing for a championship was what would drive your offseason decision. Less than three weeks later, you’d re-signed with the Clippers. How did that extension come to be?
I talked with my agent and he kind of picked my brain on everything on what I wanted to do and I basically told him that at this point in my career I want to win. I've had a big contract, but I wanted to be in a position where I can win and I can really contribute to a contending team. We've seen what we had here and everybody, even the team talked about, "We want you back, want you back,” players, everybody talked about next year. Just the consistency and the commitment that even after my last day there everybody still was preaching me coming back and I took that into account. Everyone expressed how much they wanted me to come back.
You shot 12 percentage points better from the field overall and 12 percentage points better from three after joining the Clippers than at the start of your season in Portland. Now you consider having potentially even more playmakers on the floor with you this season. Do you think about the offensive opportunities there for you?
I don't even really look at the opportunities on offense that much because I focus mostly on the other side, but I know stuff is going to come. It's just being ready and locked in. That's been my main focus is making sure that that jumper is consistent, I'm locked and loaded and I read the play the right way. There are things I've been working on, have truly been significant and like I said, it's first day I got back in the gym [the Clippers] were like, ''Yeah Cov, it looks like you've been in the gym all summer.” I'm like nah, it's just once you get that repetition back it's just making sure that you're getting effective reps and not feeling like you've got to go — at this stage of my career I don't need to go to the gym and shoot 1,000 jumpers. I need to go and shoot quality shots that are going to be game-like.
Early on, eight years ago, yeah shoot 1,000 shots — not no more, because you're building up that muscle memory and building up that strength. But it feels good to me and just that energy the minute I walked back in the building, it's infectious. Like, very infectious. I felt relief, I felt joy once I literally walked in the gym and just seeing everybody's faces. It was like we never left, like we never left, like the season literally just ended. But it's been five months and when I walked back into the building for completely for the remainder of the year, you feel it. You see everybody's focus and I've seen some of the most competitive runs just amongst the team. These guys have been working. These guys have really been working. The body looks good, everything looks good. Everybody has really invested in themselves this summer.
I think one reason obviously why the Clippers are described as a title contender is the depth, and even you see it from fans on social media, is people want to know what the combinations could look like because there are so many guys with experience together but then you add in Norm [Powell], who hadn't played in many counting games, and John, and you get Kawhi back. From what you've seen this summer what is your impression of the combinations and what things look like already?
Listen, I haven't seen combinations yet, we haven't all been there, you've seen different variations of what could potentially be but physically seeing it we haven't seen it all yet. I think once that starts to be put into play, I think T Lue is going to have a good day and a bad day (laughs) because he's going to have a good day of having so much depth but then the bad thing is having so much depth because when it comes down to that navigating the minutes and everything it actually can play in our favor a lot, though, depending how they work it out.
It's just when you have that much depth it's harder to manage, that's the only thing, but with the way our team is structured that's not a bad thing for us because now it's like how we can view it and how they can manage everything, it could be some nights where guys might, that rest factor might really come into play and we still have a deep, effective roster. That's the thing. We're not just solely focused on right now. The main goal is to try to get to June. Having everybody healthy in June compared to right now, it's a buildup and when you build up the right way and you take care of everything that you need to take care of, which they've been doing — that organization is probably from top to bottom one of the best organizations I've been a part of, just about how they cater to their players. ... That's one thing I've really embraced is Steve Ballmer goes to bat for his team. What he feels is what we need he makes it happen. It's the coaching staff, training staff, from top to bottom, everything has been amazing. So, like I said, with the team that we have it's scary. It's very scary because at any moment, how you look at this roster and how deep we are it's crazy. It's really crazy. It's not other way you can put it, really.
We've seen Kawhi come back from serious injury before and win a title. John Wall has played his way back from injury before as well, that year in Houston. What should people expect, from what you've seen, from the way those two guys fit?
They're going to be the key additions. From what we have, they're key additions. John has been a prolific name in this league for years, Kawhi is Kawhi, everyone knows who Kawhi is and what his track record is and Kawhi is a guy who knows how to win so when you bring back that kind of veteran and leadership I don't know what more people can say is just you have to fear every night. You have to fear with those guys healthy. You have to fear because they're threats and they're major threats with the rest of what we have, we have weapons all through the board.
Ty Lue described to me this summer what he called the "main message" he wanted to deliver to the team in the preseason. And it was that, "Don’t think because Kawhi and PG and those guys are stepping on the floor that we’re automatically going to win a championship or go to the Finals or whatever. We’ve got to put the work in."
Because earlier you described a kind of intensity to offseason workouts you've seen, does Ty's main message fit what you've seen from offseason workouts?
Absolutely because I understand that it's not just going to be them that's going to take us to the promised land. One night they might be off and we got 13 other players who can step up any moment. You've seen what [Terance] Mann did in the playoffs. It's all about the opportunity, when it's there you take full advantage of it no matter what and it's not just going to be because of one guy which, I've seen it where the superstars aren't always the ones that — they the ones that take the boatload but it's the other guys in between that finish and fix everything else that's in the gaps. That's why it's called a team sport. That's exactly what it's all about is them other guys stepping up. We know that the spotlight is going to be on [Leonard and George] but it's on us to make everything else fall in and play freely.
You were talking to some of the kids from the after-school program earlier about having to live your life with a chip on your shoulder, the source of motivation. I'm curious now what you use as your chip now that you're an established NBA player, you're on a team that's thought to be one of the leading contenders?
It's the chip of, to some people's eyes I'm not supposed to be here, [that] I got lucky, as if I didn't work to get here, that I didn't put the time in or the energy in, the effort, everything else. That's what it's all about and I've had that my whole life. It's part of my story. It's kind of why I put this mantra together, “Allergic to Failure.” That's my lifestyle because even though I might not succeed in the way I wanted to, it's a learning lesson from everything. I've always been counted out and told I'm not this, I'm not that, that's part of where my chip comes from and I just want to go out and prove them people wrong. I've done that my whole life because it's so many others who be like, “Man, I should be where you are,” or “How did you do this, or do that?” Understanding that my work ethic is what got me here, my resiliency, my everything. I wasn't given nothing, ever. I had to work for literally everything I've ever gotten and any type of success I've had, I've had to work for it. That's where I come from, that's where the chip comes from.
You took part in the players' retreat at San Diego State this summer (joined by, among others, Paul George, Terance Mann, Jason Preston, Brandon Boston Jr. and since-departed, current Knick Isaiah Hartenstein). A lot of teams do variations of that. What was accomplished there?
Camaraderie, chemistry and fun. That's what championship teams do. We worked out together them days we were there, we got after it, really laughing and joking and competing, but we got better while we were out there and we did it together. We did it in an environment where everyone was around each other and we all got to succeed and have fun and be mindful and work and get good days added up as a team. That's what that whole retreat was and we learned a lot and we took a step in the right direction because of that.
So you would work out together, then regroup for a dinner every night?
Yep, regroup or we would be at the hotel relaxing by the pool, some days we had a team yoga session out on the lawn. It's just those little things. Out at the pool, dinner, everything, just hanging out, like, that's what it's about is the chemistry and that's what championship teams do, they build that offseason grit to get the same thing to carry over into the regular season.
I go back again to the variability with this roster and the different ways Lue can play the roster and yet there have to be roles. Have you had that conversation about yours with Ty and the coaches or does that happen later?
That will be something that just happens. I know what they brought me here for. They brought me here to knock down shots, defend, make the game easy, disrupt as much as I can, that's why they brought me back. That's it, that's my role. I don't step out side of that. Now, if I get asked to do more than that's what I get asked to do but everybody knows what I'm here for. Everyone pretty much knows their role but it's like, how are we going to fit once we start having pieces together and actually start having everyone there together, that's when everything else will start unfolding.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.