The Clippers have built a respected franchise stocked with All-Star players, U.S. Olympians and an NBA championship-winning coach, with new ownership trying to overcome a dysfunctional history. The team is thriving in a market where the Los Angeles Lakers are stuck in a historic slump. Yet the Clippers never have played in the NBA's Western Conference finals, even if they've advanced beyond the stage when Jay Leno would tell Clippers jokes on late-night TV and Barry Hecker would hide the team logo on his shoulder bag.
"You'd be embarrassed," said Hecker, a longtime Salt Lake Valley resident.
Clippers coach Doc Rivers laughed for several seconds Monday, when I asked him to contrast the franchise he played for 25 years ago to the current operation. "I don't think there is a comparison," he said.
Hecker worked for former owner Donald Sterling and lived through the Clippers' struggles in various personnel and coaching roles in two stints totaling 16 seasons, usually traveling to scout players while the team was losing 858 games (and winning 444) and generally inventing ways to fail. The team went through 11 head coaches, including two interim appointees, in his era.
Asked to summarize the experience, Hecker said, "Chaos would be the word. Chaos and disappointment. And frustration."
He's partly borrowing from the title of a book that quotes him, among dozens of people who shared his misery. "The Curse: The Colorful and Chaotic History of the LA Clippers" is 540 pages of mostly suffering, mixed with occasional redeeming sequences.
As Hecker said, "You'd get teased. There were moments when we were pretty good."
The high points of his Clippers tenure included two playoff series vs. the Jazz, in the town where he once coached at Westminster College and West High School and has maintained a home for more than 40 years. Would it ruin the story to say the Clippers lost both series?
The Clippers almost knocked off the Jazz in 1992, when rioting in Los Angeles interrupted the series. A team that included Rivers as the starting point guard led 52-40 at halftime of the deciding Game 5 in Salt Lake City. The Jazz rallied behind Jeff Malone and David Benoit to win, eventually advancing to the Western Conference finals for the first time.
Hecker remembers being convinced the Clippers were about to break through themselves. He had helped general manager Elgin Baylor build the team, posting a 45-37 record that looked like the start of something. "We took five years to put the team together," Hecker reflected on a recent morning. "Then it turned into a zoo again."
The thread was Sterling's unwillingness to spend money for players.
After that '92 playoff series, the Clippers signed free-agent forward Charles Smith to only a one-year contract. That basically forced the Clippers to trade him (with Rivers) to New York in a three-team deal, and their next winning record wouldn't come for another 14 years.
The franchise finally won a playoff series in 2006, the year after Hecker left. In 2012, when he was a Memphis assistant coach, the Clippers did a decidedly uncharacteristic thing: They rallied from 24 points down in the last eight minutes to beat the Grizzlies in Game 1, and won the series in seven games.
But the Clippers have been unable to sustain any playoff momentum, even with Rivers coaching them and guard Chris Paul, forward Blake Griffin and center DeAndre Jordan in starring roles. They blew great chances to beat Oklahoma City in 2014 and Houston in 2015 in the West semifinals, then lost to Portland in the first round last April when Paul and Griffin were injured.
And now they're facing the Jazz in a series that resumes with Tuesday's Game 2 at the Staples Center. Among the Jazz's starters is guard Joe Ingles, a player the Clippers cut prior to the 2014 season. The Jazz quickly signed him, which turned out to be a shrewd move. The sequence of events left Ingles with "no hard feelings" toward the Clippers. "It's all worked out pretty well," said Ingles, who has thrived with the Jazz and hopes to become another footnote in the Clippers' cursed history.
Who knows how this series will end, though? The recently published book's epilogue begins by citing a quote from Rivers: "At the end of the day, until we do something, I guess we are the Clippers."