For the past twenty one years, Clippers games in Salt Lake City have come to resemble traditional Japanese Kabuki theater. Fans would enter the venue, secured in the knowledge of the storyline and how it will end. There are no surprises and no suspense, the joy of spectacle lies in small deviations; how the Jazz might prevail on this night and by how much. The players in their respective jerseys might have changed over the course of two decades, but there is a comforting rhythm to the almost unbroken string of Clippers losses in Utah, as predictable as the tides and the turning of the earth. When the Clippers finally pulled out their lone victory in twenty one years, on January 22, 2003, the world did not come to a cataclysmic end as the ancient Mayans had prophesized, though perhaps the world did hold its breath for a brief moment to ponder this inexplicable outcome, which had defied all known laws of physics, before exhaling and settling back into its comforting axis of rotation, from which the unbroken streak of Clippers losses would continue on as before.
For most of those twenty one years, when the Clippers record in Utah was a cumulative 1-39, the coach of the Utah Jazz has been Jerry Sloan. It is perhaps no coincidence that one of the most stable franchises in the NBA would have such an unfathomable home record against one of the most unstable franchises in the league. Since Jerry Sloan took over as coach of the Utah Jazz from Frank Layden in 1988, the Clippers had hired and fired 12 coaches, counting Kim Hughes and Dunleavy for seven of those years. It is no wonder then, that even though players have come and gone, their bright eyed rookie seasons turning into tearful retirement speeches, the Utah Jazz continues to run the same pick-and-roll plays for Darren Williams and Carlos Boozer that they had run for John Stockton and Karl Malone, with the same effectiveness against succeeding new generations of Clippers. That Jerry Sloan has survived for so long as a coach in the NBA is a rare anomaly, as the tenure of most NBA coaches, particularly Clippers ones, is often short, nasty, and brutish. It is no wonder that current interim Clippers Head Coach Kim Hughes professes his admiration for Jerry Sloan and perhaps, if he were honest with himself, also a bit envious of Sloan’s long tenure.
In any other town, in any other franchise; being the bridesmaid but never the bride for twenty one years would have brought out fans with pitchforks and the taciturn Jerry Sloan would have been led to the guillotines a long time ago. But there is a certain faith in the system which the late Larry H Miller held for his long time coach, and though Sloan never won a championship, it is hard to quibble with his consistent winning record and consecutive playoff appearances year in and year out. There is a great article by Ian Thomsen for Sports Illustrated recently about the head coach in the NBA being a lion tamer in a cage with five lions, trying to get them to perform before a jeering crowd of 20,000 each night. More than any other professional sports league; the power, money, and the guaranteed long term contracts reside with the players. Coaches like Jerry Sloan, despite their long tenure, have to find ways to inspire and cajole their players, to get them to sublimate their own sometimes selfish desires for the greater glory of the team. Being in the same office for over 21 years earns you some respect, and for an interim coach like Kim Hughes, who is under contract for another month, the ability to shape and hold his players accountable must seem like a daunting task.
The Clippers started out the game with a hot hand, and they looked like the team that had shocked the Jazz five days ago at the Staples Center. That victory remains the crown jewel of Kim Hughes brief coaching career; a rare win against a playoff bound team who was fighting to hang on to their top four ranking in the West. Before that victory, Coach Hughes had implored his team to give maximum effort for four quarters. He said that wins and losses against teams like Utah no longer mattered, he just wanted a consistent effort for 48 minutes and would live with the results, with his head held high. In the exuberance aftermath of that victory, there were some optimism that perhaps this collection of Clippers players will be able to build something positive for the off season after all; that individual growth and an espirit de corps can be forged for next season, and perhaps a few of the players with expiring contracts can be brought back, instead of being scattered to the four winds. Bring on the playoff teams, Kim Hughes had insisted; he welcomed the challenge, and his players would welcome it too. They needed to be tested and they needed to chart their growth and maturation as a unit.
For most of the first quarter, the Clippers took the game to the Jazz, they played with fierce abandon, as if to defy the gods. They moved the ball crisply and they made Utah seems like a tired team, whose energy and future was all but spent. For a brief moment, it seems possible that the impossible might happen again, as the Clippers shot out to an early ten point lead, forcing Jerry Sloan to call a timeout. It is worthwhile to watch disciplined teams like Utah and San Antonio after they emerge from a timeout huddle. There is no panic in their game, and more often than not, they don’t try to do anything different, they just run the same plays they ran before, but with more attention to details and execution. The Jazz came out of the timeout and stopped the bleeding. Then they slowly, methodically, cut into the Clippers early lead. You can feel the inevitable turning of the tides, and even though the Clippers were playing relatively well, with Drew Gooden scoring inside and the ball finding the right shooters in the corners, you felt that Utah was just patiently waiting for their familiar foil to self destruct, in accordance with the cosmic laws which govern Clippers games in Salt Lake City.
When they finally lost the last vestige of their lead late in the second quarter, it seemed as if the final breath of life had vacated the Clippers players lungs, and any hope they had of defying the gods or the immutable laws of the universe had dissipated. Generations of Clippers players before them had lost to generations of Utah players on the other side, and now the familiar rhythm of the Kabuki play was once again established. Utah had clawed out a one point advantage at halftime, but to long time fans of the Clippers, it might as well have been a twenty point lead. To ensure that the ending is no longer in doubt, and that the storyline adheres to tradition, the Jazz came out and scored seven straight points in the third quarter, essentially ending the game. They would methodically outscore the Clippers by 21 in the second half, sending them reeling toward another blow out loss in Utah.
That the Clippers were playing without Eric Gordon, on the second night of a back to back, probably didn’t matter very much. The same lack of focus, poor shooting from their key players–Baron and Kaman–and lackadaisical turnovers did them in once again. Baron and Kaman combined to shoot 9 for 32 from the field, for a 28% field goal percentage, and combined for 10 turnovers between them. To the comical delight of the crowd, with the game decided in the fourth, the Clippers had a four on one fast break and turned the ball over on a traveling violation. These priceless moments are why people attend Kabuki plays. The ending, the victory was never in doubt, but little variations on how you get that victory is entertaining. Kim Hughes’ ultimatum, his plea that the Clippers play with all out effort and focus for 48 minutes is yet to be fulfilled. Even in their previous victory over Utah at the Staples Center, they had played with focus and determination for only 46 minutes, with the final two minutes almost costing them the game. Now that the gauntlet of effort has been thrown down by Kim Hughes, and what he has asked of this Clippers team is not unreasonable, what will happen if his players defy this simple challenge? Certainly Drew Gooden played with effort and toughness tonight, and he needed to because he is playing for his next contract. But for Baron and Kaman, secured in their guaranteed money, knowing that they will be here next year even though Kim Hughes may not, what incentive or threat can Interim Coach Hughes hold over them? If he benches Baron and Kaman, the team will, in all likelihood, lose even more games, and he will certainly be cleaning out his desk next month, even as Baron and Kaman will remain, watching him carry out his belongings, ready for their next coach.
The Clippers sustained record of futility in Salt Lake City might be etched upon the stars, or it might have been the last will and testament of some ancient gods, but a more reasonable explanation might be attributed to the quiet steadiness of Jerry Sloan; his long tenure and enduring system amidst the ever changing faces of Clippers coaches, most without much authority, defied by their players, and ultimately sacrificed to the altar of futility. And so continues the rhythm of the tides. The Clippers are now 1 for their last 41 against Jerry Sloan’s team in Salt Lake City.