Donald Sterling must have used King Tut’s tomb as the litter box for a black cat when he owned the accursed Los Angeles Clippers.
His 33 years running the NBA’s most bedeviled sports franchise ended in 2014 when the league bounced him for racist comments. But basketball’s curse of the Clippers didn’t leave with him.
TNT analyst Reggie Miller raved about the team’s acquisitions of superstars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George last summer. He raged, however, after they blew a 3-to-1 series lead to Denver this week.
The Clippers were eliminated from the playoffs after fumbling away double-digit leads in each of the last three contests. They’re now 0-for-8 in games that could’ve advanced them to a conference final.
“The Clippers’ curse is real,” Miller howled. “I was led astray. I was hoodwinked. I’ve been bamboozled. I was led to believe the Clippers.”
So were most NBA pundits. And they were infatuated with the prospect of a La-La Land Western Conference final that would’ve pitted the Clippers and Lakers this weekend.
But the Clips’ collapse could’ve been predicted 11 months ago — as soon as Sports Illustrated came out with its NBA Preview edition. The most jinxed cover in the history of journalism showed Leonard and George with four of their new Clipper teammates.
“Welcome to the Reinvention,” the headline read. “Inside the Clippers Extreme Makeover.”
The cover of Sports Illustrated had jinxed better teams than this. The hex began with the very first edition of August 16, 1954, when it put Milwaukee Braves slugger Eddie Mathews on the cover.
The Braves had just won 20 of 22 games to get into the thick of the National League pennant race. Mathews, who was only five years out of Santa Barbara High School at the time, hit 10 home runs during that stretch.
But right when the first S.I. hit the magazine racks, Chicago Cubs pitcher Hal Jeffcoat hit Mathews on the hand with a fastball to split open his middle finger.
“It bled like a stuck pig,” Mathews once recalled. “I was out of the lineup for 13 days.
“I missed our series against the Giants and Dodgers, the two clubs ahead of us in the standings. I didn’t return until Labor Day weekend.”
The Braves fell out of the race and the Giants wound up sweeping the Cleveland Indians in the World Series.
Countless other cursed cover boys and girls were to follow. Wikipedia lists 172 incidents of the S.I. jinx, including this week’s Clipper catastrophe.
The magazine ran a 2002 cover story about all the curses, illustrating it with the photograph of a black cat. But if it was hoping to jinx the jinx, the reverse curse failed miserably.
Bad luck has followed the Clippers throughout their half-century of existence — from their first days in Buffalo to San Diego and now to Los Angeles.
Sports Illustrated acknowledged the team’s futility in 2000 with a cover that showed three Clippers fans with bags over their heads. The headline read, “The Worst Franchise in Sports History.”
The Clippers’ futility has been fueled by plenty of bad draft picks and trades. Luck, after all, is often called the residue of design. But injuries at the worst of times have also bled the Clippers like Mathews’ proverbial pig.
They were up 2-0 on Memphis in the 2014 playoffs when star Blake Griffin went down. The Clippers plummeted, as well, in the next four games. They were up 2-0 again against Portland in 2016 when Griffin, Chris Paul and Austin Rivers all got hurt. Four straight losses again followed.
The third time was the harm when Griffin injured himself again during the 2017 playoffs. The Clippers decided to reboot by booting both him and Paul after the season.
But Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who bought the Clippers for $2 billion in 2014, is still banking on beating the curse. He made Doc Rivers one of the NBA’s highest-paid coaches. He also forked out enough for a new arena in Inglewood that will get them un-Stapled from the Lakers in 2024.
He then outbid the Lakers for Leonard, a two-time NBA Finals MVP, and traded away the team’s future to get George from Oklahoma City. The Clippers were tired of waiting for their first NBA title.
They might’ve jinxed themselves, however, with the marketing bluster that followed. They trash-talked the Lakers with slogans such as “L.A. Our Way” … “Driven Over Given” … “We Over Me”… “We’re taking over L.A.” … “New Sheriff in Town.”
But the Clippers’ two hired guns had only blanks in their clips when High Noon arrived during Tuesday’s fourth quarter. Leonard and George missed all 11 of their shot attempts and finished with a combined 24 points in a season-ending, 104-89 loss.
LeBron James was asked if he was disappointed in the Lakers’ own miss: the chance to “settle” matters between L.A.’s two NBA teams.
“Nah,” he replied. “What were we settling?”
He does know about jinxes. James became the subject of Sports Illustrated’s 2018-19 NBA Preview cover after leaving Cleveland for L.A. The headline read, “The King’s Gambit.”
James wound up missing the NBA Finals for the first time since 2009-10.
The Lakers have enjoyed good fortune for a long time. How else do you explain getting Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol in lopsided trades? Or being able to draft Magic Johnson or James Worthy even after posting some of the NBA’s best records.
Those legacies are also what led Shaq and LeBron to L.A.
But Leonard decided to fashion his own legacy in the City of Angels.
“I’m sure Kawhi wants to take the challenge of winning independent of playing with LeBron,” Bryant said a few months before dying in a helicopter crash. “Maybe that was the same for P.G.
“I think they relish the challenge of taking on something new.”
The curse they must overcome, however, is older than they are.