My Time With the Clippers

 —  December 2, 2004

For those of you who are regular readers Bill Simmons (AKA “The Sports Guy”) at ESPN.com you know that he bought season tickets for the Clippers this year, and he has grown fond of the lovable losers of Los Angeles. I think he’s a masochist — a Red Sox fan who finally has one Atlas-like burden lifted then asks for another. However, part of me understands the lure of the Clippers. I’ve been there.

His most recent column about his new obsession contained one comment that caught my eye:

Only three Clippers ever had a chance to be special. The first was Danny Manning, who promptly blew out his knee. The second was (Lamar) Odom, who blew out a never-ending supply of bong pipes. (Rookie Shawn) Livingston made three.

I think he’s leaving off one guy, one classically tragic NBA story: Derek Smith. A guy who brings back fond memories for me.

Let me explain:

For the franchise’s first two seasons in Los Angeles, I saw almost every Clipper home game. No, at age 17 I didn’t have the money for season tickets — my first job was helping those who did find their seats. During my junior and senior years of high school, I worked as an usher and ticket taker at the Los Angeles Sports Arena and Colosseum. It was a great gig — I saw concerts (amazing ones like U2, and others such as Triumph — I’m young, I’m wild and I’m free, I’ve got the magic power of the music in me) and sports (Clippers and Raiders), plus the head of the union let me work when and where I could around school (more in the summer, less around finals, etc). At Clipper games I had the chance to talk to Billy Crystal and George Wendt, among others. It was the best high-school job you could ask for.

And, once you start seeing every game, you start to become a fan. Which was hard, because even then, these were the Clippers.

When the Clippers moved up from San Diego — the 1984-85 season — it was during the middle of the Showtime Era at the Forum. To counter that star power, owner Donald Sterling made the first of many disastrous moves — he traded three young and improving payers (Terry Cummings, Rickey Pierce, and Craig Hodges) to the Bucks for three over the hill players (Marques Johnson, Junior Bridgeman, Harvey Catchings) whose names were better known.

That first-year in L.A. team had Norm Nixon running the point, an overweight James Donaldson and bad kneed Bill Walton clogging the lane, and the hard-working Michael Cage clearing the boards. Jim Lynam was calling the shots from the bench, at least until someone figured out he didn’t really know how to call the shots. Then Don Chaney got his first shot at a head coaching gig.

However, in only his second year in the league out of Louisville, Derek Smith was the star of that squad. He led the team with 22.1 ppg., got to the line five times a game (two more times per game than anyone else on the team) and was third on the team in assists. He was fun to watch, strong and able to run the floor. He was the one guy you could count on to score in the clutch.

Starting the 85-86 season, Smith was ready to make the leap and carry the Clippers with him. He was going to be an All Star, he was going to lead the team to the playoffs. Best yet, you knew he was going to be a star for the next five to seven years, and we pictured it all in Clipper colors.

That season Clippers got off to a fast 5-0 start, fueling the optimism, and Smith was leading the way averaging 23.5 ppg, getting to the line 7.6 times and adding some assists and rebounds. It was his team and he was leading them to the post-season. Then it happened — in game 11 Smith blew out his knee in a collision near mid-court. I remember at the time thinking it didn’t look that bad from my angle (behind a basket), but people closer to it said they heard the pop.

This was back in the day when when you went down with a knee injury, you were never quite the same again. And Smith wasn’t, his explosive first step was gone. He didn’t return that year and the Clippers chose not to resign him, a decision made by the newly-hired GM Elgin Baylor. Smith spent the next three seasons in Sacramento, followed by stints in Philadelphia and a last season in Boston. Each season his numbers dropped. He left and went home to Georgia back in 1991.

Five years later he passed away, and now there is an annual high school all star game in his name. I still think about him now and then, with a wistful “what if” floating through my head. The Sports Guy may not remember him, but Smith was the first Los Angeles Clipper who could have been special. Then, like so many for so many reasons, it didn’t pan out.

When I left the employment of the Sports Arena, my interest in following the Clippers was beaten out of me by bad decision after bad decision, by fleeing free agent after fleeing free agent. I returned to my Laker roots (I’d never really left them, I never rooted against the Lakers with any hatred). The Lakers can be a bit Hollywood, a bit too much soap opera for my taste, but I’m not a masochist. I couldn’t tolerate the Clippers.

The Sports Guy will learn that lesson for himself. Eventually. It may just take him longer than me, I wasn’t used to the pain.