When Elton Brand spurned Los Angeles for Philadelphia 17 months ago, no party involved was left unscathed. Brand’s previously sterling reputation was sullied, management was again portrayed as horribly incompetent, and David Falk’s name suddenly became synonymous with Satan himself. At the time, there were no winners, only losers. Clippers fans are notoriously hardened (2 winning seasons in 25 years will do that for you) but even this was a bit too much to handle. The Clipper faithful had previously endured “star” players bolt via free agency, but none of this caliber. They saw a temporarily delusional Kobe Bryant “almost” cross the hall, but no one really believed him. They learned that Gilbert Arenas decided to go to Washington instead of L.A. because of a coin flip, which still hasn’t really sunk in yet. Point being, this particular fan base was not exactly weaned on sunshine and lollipops. Clippers fans instinctively expect the worst. That being said, no one was really prepared for the announcement that came on 7/8/08.
It was supposed to be different with Elton. He was everything as advertised: Consistent, heady, reliable. He was the blue-collar, lunch-pail type of player fans could really get behind, and they did. Much in the way the Spurs started to embody Tim Duncan’s traits over the years (Professional, efficient, horrifically boring), it was easy to see the Clippers resembling all the admirable traits of Elton. Over the span of seven years, Elton Brand basically legitimized a franchise that was in desperate need of such a thing. He was a player to be respected and in turn it became more respectable to be a Clipper fan. I distinctly remember a time frame where the announcement of Clipper fan-hood would usually result in a complementary comment in relation to Elton’s beastliness. He made it okay to follow the Clippers – as long as he was always out there busting his butt, you had someone to be proud of. There’s an attachment you naturally develop to players like him. So it was different when he left. It meant more.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of it all was that it was impossible to really make sense of “why” Elton left. The Baron Davis signing was supposed make Elton perfectly content. Just when it seemed like everything was lined up perfectly, Elton inexplicably bailed on the plan. The problem with digging for answers is that it often forces us to the conclusion we didn’t want to believe in the first place. It couldn’t have been about the small differential in money, because Elton isn’t that type of guy, right? Right?
The problem is, as much as fans would like to believe they know players on a personal level, they don’t. Dunleavy and company thought they knew Brand well enough too, but they didn’t. From Elton’s side, you never really know how you’ll react to millions of dollars being flashed in front of your face with a super agent manipulating your every move. Fans weren’t hurt because of something tangible like the loss of statistical production and a likely drop in wins, they were hurt because their built up image of Elton Brand was ruthlessly shattered in a days time. Seven years of built up beliefs about Brand’s loyalty, however uncorroborated, were gone in an instant.
On the court, it would eventually become completely obvious that the Clippers were a mentally defeated and talent deflated unit sans Brand. He’d go on to make the pain even worse in his first tilt against the Clippers by nailing his trademark 15 footer to put the game away for Philadelphia. However with the daggers still freshly planted in the Clippers back, Elton soon received a fork in his own. A torn labrum would require season ending shoulder surgery, his second major operation in two years. With Elton out of sight and out of mind, the recovery process rapidly advanced to it’s final stage for Clippers fans: Acceptance.
For Elton, things haven’t gone as swimmingly. Perhaps in a twisted form of karmic retribution, Philly fans by and large have turned on Elton and the signing, declaring him a bust just 51 games into his 5 year, 80 million dollar deal. There’s no shortage of ammunition against Brand; the stylistic differences and decreased athleticism are plain to see. It’s been accepted that Elton’s contract (signed right before the economy tanked) is way too pricey for a player of his production level. Ironically, the few million dollars in bonus money Elton accepted to go to Philadelphia are now working against him ten-fold. It’s hard to say how patient the Clippers would have been with Elton on a big deal coming off injuries, but at least they’d have a reason to stay loyal to one of the franchise’s all-time great players. Philadelphia holds no such obligation.
With Elton’s numbers severely declining in virtually every statistical category, Philadelphia head coach Eddie Jordan has moved him to the bench. Elton himself isn’t pleased, but it’s no secret that he simply doesn’t fit in with Philadelphia’s personnel or game plan. Every feed he gets feels forced, as if the rest of the Sixers are going out of their way to incorporate him into the game. It’s a far cry from the way Brand was utilized in his time in Los Angeles to say the least. The story isn’t finished, but this a fall from the elite for Elton, and it’s happened insanely fast in just 17 months.
Is it incorrect to say the perception of Elton has changed quite a bit around these parts during that span as well? It’s tough not to have some sympathy for Elton when he gets booed, or misses shots he used to make with scary consistency, or gets parked on the bench. He’s not the player he used to be, and that’s depressing to see, regardless of the circumstances. Will you be sympathetic, unforgiving, or devoid of any real feeling altogether when you see Elton on Saturday?
I know one thing: I’ll be nostalgic. As much as I’ll try to fight it, I’m sure I’ll crack a little smile once I see that funky jumper again. Memories.