As it turns out Elton Brand is an NBA player, the Clippers are the Clippers and the joke's on all of us who ever thought otherwise.
When he agreed to a five-year, $82 million contract with the Philadelphia 76ers, Brand did what 99.9 percent of all players would do: Choose more money and a better chance to win.
He said, "My intention is to stay," when he opted out of his contract with the Clippers last week. His agent, David Falk, painted it as a generous opportunity to give the Clippers a chance at bringing in a star free agent, which they promptly did by nabbing Baron Davis. For a brief moment there was euphoria in Clipper Country.
Then the Warriors threw more money at Brand to give him pause, the Sixers cleared room to make a handsome offer to Brand and suddenly Brand is off to Philly.
As a longtime member of the NBA circle said, "Right when you thought they had just pulled it off, right when you thought the Clippers were not going to be the Clippers, they're going to end up being the Clippers."
The thing is you can't blame this on Donald Sterling's miserly ways. That hasn't been the issue for a while now, even if old labels don't fade easily. He tried to spend what he could to get Kobe Bryant in 2004 and Ray Allen in 2005, but Bryant stayed with the Lakers and Allen stayed with Seattle. It wasn't money that kept the Clippers from building on their run to the second round of the 2006 playoffs; Sterling kept that team intact, even committing $52 million to lock up Chris Kaman long term. Injuries and then player apathy did them in.
But this is also about the lengthy history of failure that surrounds this team and how the past can dictate the future. Brand has had his doubts about this franchise, whether it would ever commit the full resources to being a winner, or maybe if it was simply jinxed. Because in addition to the legacy of comically erroneous draft choices and past-their-prime player acquisitions there is also a tradition of devastating injuries, the latest to Shaun Livingson. Something always goes wrong.
Just when the Clippers appeared ready to change their fortune, after they uncharacteristically struck with the first bold move of free agency in landing Davis, Brand bolted on them and took the heart of the team with him. Yes, the Clippers could have shipped people out to clear more cap room to re-sign Brand. But that would have weakened the team's depth. And besides, they shouldn't have had to jump into an escalating salary race once they satisfied what he told them was his primary objective, to bring in more talent.
So this one's on Brand. Not that I blame him entirely. Even with Davis, the Clippers weren't guaranteed a spot in the Western Conference playoffs with the Lakers, Spurs, Hornets, Jazz, Suns, Mavericks, Rockets, Nuggets and Trail Blazers around. In the Eastern Conference, simply fielding a 12-man roster gives you a chance to make the playoffs, and even an inexperienced Sixers squad managed to take a couple of games off the veteran Detroit Pistons in the first round. Brand's the exact piece they needed: a low-post presence who can help their half-court offense, because Philadelphia's formula of turnovers and transition baskets doesn't work so well in the postseason. In that sense Falk stayed true to his word when he said Brand's top priority was winning a championship.
But he and Brand gave signals that they wanted to do that with the Clippers, where he also could have stayed close to Hollywood for his nascent movie producing career.
When it came down to it, Brand did what all NBA players do come contract time. He got selfish. And Clipper fans feel betrayed.
That's a new emotion. They've been upset before. Ashamed, even. But never before had they had their hearts ripped out by someone they wanted to believe and felt safe in trusting. Brand was someone who actually brought honor to the Clipper uniform, someone who was hard-working, classy and real, a peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwich guy in a tofu town. Now he's just like so many other promising players who pass through Clipper Country: gone.
"I wish ill will upon him," a Clipper fan friend of mine said.
That's pretty much the sentiment among the non-purple-and-gold set in L.A.
Many of those wondering how Brand could leave forget that he left once before: in 2003, when he signed an offer sheet with the Miami Heat. But that time he was a restricted free agent, so the Clippers retained his services by matching the terms of Miami's six-year, $82 million offer.
That year the Clippers also kept Corey Maggette around for a $42 million commitment as part of an unprecedented spending spree. That ended this summer too, when Maggette opted out and wound up with the Golden State Warriors.
Good luck trying to replace Brand's 20 points and 10 rebounds a game, or the two blocks a night he made as the long-armed last line of defense. His career year in 2005-06, coupled with the arrival of Sam Cassell, resulted in the best season in Clippers history.
They'll also be hard-pressed to find another 22-point-per-game scorer like Maggette. But he wasn't as essential to the team as Brand. For a while Brand gave the team an identity -- a brand name, you could say.
It was our mistake to look at the back of the jersey. The real story, all along, could be found on the front.