An unexpected year in the life of the LA Clippers, the NBA, and the world

When the LA Clippers acquired Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, none of us knew what kind of year was in store.

It’s a funny quirk of the human memory that we all remember where we were, what we were doing when the news of huge events first reaches us. One year ago, late in the evening on July 5, 2019, Los Angeles Clippers basketball changed in a huge way when Kawhi Leonard and Paul George decided to become Clippers.  I was at the emergency room of a Los Angeles hospital; the rumors and details of NBA free agency that had occupied my every waking minute for the better part of a week was the furthest thing from my mind.  Clipperholics writer Jordan German was at Disneyland; fellow Clipperholics Seth Kimbrell was at home in Montana, asleep.

And then, in the blink of an eye, the phones of NBA fans everywhere exploded with the news.  The contents of the Clipperholics group chat from that night are very NSFW, but suffice it to say, the excitement was unprecedented.  And the lofty projections for what would lie in the year ahead were the stuff of dreams.  Most of us imagined that by this time, July 2020, we would be at a local beach decked out in Clippers championship gear celebrating a great season behind us.

To be sure, the latter half of 2019 was a great time for NBA basketball.  Kawhi was everything we had hoped for, adding PG to the mix in November was nearly seamless, Ivica Zubac became the best version of himself, and as expected, the deep and talented Clippers bench did their thing, night after night.  The NBA was exciting and unpredictable, with the once-dominant Golden State Warriors fighting for a lottery pick instead of a ring, the Toronto Raptors unexpectedly thriving without Kawhi, and Giannis Antetokonumpo reminding everyone why he was the regular season MVP.

And then, everything changed.  In the morning hours of January 26, 2020, Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others died in a helicopter crash en route to a girls’ basketball tournament. Again, I know exactly where I was when the news broke – driving to a local farmers market. The world rocked, far beyond the borders of the NBA. NBA games were canceled; those that were played showed coaches and players openly weeping and teams taking intentional 24-second violations to pay their respects. For good reason, basketball just wasn’t fun anymore.

As it does, life and basketball resumed.  A little broken and bruised, but the season went on.  Teams started battling for playoff positioning in earnest, the All-Star selections provided predictable debate about noteworthy snubs, and we settled in for the last month of the regular season and the playoff battles ahead.

March 11, turning on the television for the start of the Oklahoma City Thunder game to watch our perennial Clippers favorite Shai Gilgeous Alexander against the Utah Jazz, a strange slow-motion event was unfolding. The game didn’t start as planned.  Players and fans just sat, waiting. And then, again, everything changed. News broke that Utah Jazz star Rudy Gobert had tested positive for Covid19, a disease that had just a few weeks prior begun to resonate in our national consciousness. That game canceled, and in what seemed the blink of an eye, the entire NBA season was put on pause.

In the following months, NBA leadership and the NBPA worked to navigate the health issues associated with any thoughts of an eventual return to basketball, without fans in attendance at games.  Plans and back-up plans were discussed, bits, and pieces of information released to the NBA-craving public. Steve Ballmer donated $25 million to fight against COVID-19. It seemed that somehow, we were on a path back to completing the 2019-2020 season, not in the way anyone would have imagined back in the summer of 2019, but a season nonetheless. Amid safety concerns, Clippers fans cautiously hoped for the chance to realize the dreams of last summer.

And then, tragedy struck before our very eyes on May 25, 2020, when George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis. Nearly nine minutes of video taken by a young bystander documented the horrific murder of a black man at the hands of white police, while he and those witnessing pled for his life.  Not the first of such incidents, and unfortunately not the last, but this event took hold of our national and global consciousnesses, putting racism and police brutality front and center. Protests ensued daily, nationwide.

Focus rightfully placed on systemic racism made sports seem superfluous. Just as the NBA was announcing plans to resume the season in a well-crafted bubble in Orlando, NBA stars questioned whether basketball would draw focus from legitimate, life-threatening issues facing people of color.   NBA teams publicly denounced racism and voiced support for Black Lives Matter.

The NBA and NBPA announced that when the NBA does restart on July 30, players may wear messages to battle racial injustice on the back of their jerseys instead of their names, messages such as “Black Lives Matter”, “I Can’t Breathe”, and “Say Their Names”. Not fixes, but steps in the right direction on a long path to equality.

And so it seems, in a year filled with tragedies beyond any imagination, NBA basketball will be back.  It doesn’t by any stretch of the imagination fix any of what we have endured, what we continue to endure, what others with different life experiences than our own endure every day, but it may, for a few moments, fill some holes and provide us all with some hope. What a year of learning, of surviving, of discovering our strength and potential.