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As curious as he naturally was, given the decades he has invested as the Los Angeles Clippers’ foremost fan, Billy Crystal restricted himself to one text message to Clippers Coach Doc Rivers at the start of the Kawhi Leonard Sweepstakes.
“All I wrote was, ‘Fingers crossed,’” Crystal said.
“Mine, too,” Rivers replied.
For the next week, Crystal was just like rest of us — nervously waiting for definitive word and overanalyzing the few clues that dribbled out about the three-team Leonard chase. He stared in disbelief at the notifications piling up on his phone late Friday night in Los Angeles that the Clippers were getting not just Kawhi but also Paul George.
“My head is spinning,” Crystal said. “I had a feeling it was going to be us, but this is pretty overwhelming that it’s going to be the two of them. It’s sort of beyond description for us.”
In a 10-minute phone chat, Crystal liberally tossed in pronouns from the “us” and “we” family. He isn’t merely the celebrity season-ticket holder most frequently associated with the long-suffering Clippers. Crystal has been avidly following them “since the days of Benoit Benjamin getting drafted.”
That was 1985.
He once told Larry King in an interview that he got hooked on the Clippers because rooting for the mighty Lakers, as a transplanted New Yorker living in proximity to Hollywood, meant there was “no challenge.” The Clippers have actually averaged 51 wins over the past six seasons while the Lakers have been mired in the longest playoff drought in their franchise history, but this is the first time, as Crystal put it, he feels as though “we really got a shot at this.”
Yet the comedian/actor/producer/director remains somewhat guarded, hardened by the repeated inability of the Lob City teams led by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin to advance beyond the second round of the playoffs — and scarred by Crystal’s first two decades of fandom when it would have been folly to even suggest that a gap between the Clippers and the Lakers could be measured.
So accustomed to impending doom, Crystal said: “When people raise their hand at a game to say hello, I wince.”
Five years into Steve Ballmer’s reign as the ownership successor to the disgraced Donald Sterling, Ballmer’s determination to win a championship, so he can wave it in the Lakers’ faces, isn’t looking so comical. Ballmer recruited Jerry West away from the Golden State Warriors to serve as a front-office consultant, extended Rivers’s contract when some league insiders thought they were headed for divorce and imported a noted salary-cap savant, Michael Winger, to assist Lawrence Frank, the team’s president of basketball operations.
The Clippers made Leonard their No. 1 free-agent target a year ago, stalked him all season and — as covered here in our N.B.A. finals preview — looked into buying the rights to Leonard’s treasured “Klaw” logo that Nike refuses to surrender. When Leonard insisted that the Clippers had to secure a co-star of All-Star standing before he would agree to join them, Ballmer backed his front office to go all in, not flinching when it became clear that getting George from Oklahoma City would require surrendering the biggest pile of trade assets ever forked over for a single player.
My pal Danny Leroux of The Athletic is known to respond to both good and bad moves teams make by reflexively tweeting: “Ownership is the biggest competitive advantage in the N.B.A.” Crystal has had a courtside seat to witness the way Ballmer has established a level of organizational stability that the Lakers, for all their tradition and reach, simply lack.
“He’s just such a positive force,” Crystal said.
At 71, having grown up as a Mickey Mantle superfan in a bygone era devoid of player power, Crystal said that he is still processing the way business has evolved in the N.B.A. over the past decade.
“We benefited this time,” Crystal said when asked to react to the revelations about Leonard lobbying George to ask the Thunder for a trade to the Clippers last week — with three years remaining on George’s contract.
“It’s just a whole different world. I guess it would be akin to Mantle calling Ted Williams and saying, ‘Why don’t you come play with me?’”
Crystal made it clear, though, that he has been an admirer of Leonard’s for some time. He avidly watched the playoffs and was moved by the way a whole nation fell under the Toronto Raptors’ spell.
“When they won the championship, I was really happy for Canada,” Crystal said. “I don’t know Drake, but to see what Kawhi meant to them, I wanted to send him a note that said, ‘I’ll have what you’re having.’”
Now, just like that, Crystal and everyone else in Clipperland are going to get a taste.
Let’s face it: Los Angeles will always belong to the Lakers, just like New York will always belong to the Knicks. Little brother can punch big brother right in the face, as both the Clippers and Nets just have, but winning it all is what has to happen in either metropolis to truly make things uncomfortable for the signature franchise.
Can you imagine a Clippers parade in downtown Los Angeles? A Nets parade in Gotham? The reality is that both teams still have plenty of work to get there, but no longer do the Clippers or the Nets have to dream about home runs in free agency. They each just hit two.
“When I saw that trade happen, it felt a little obscene to me,” Crystal said, referring to the Lakers’ recent acquisition of Anthony Davis to partner with LeBron James. “But now that we have our two guys,” he added with a laugh, “it feels O.K.”
A more well-rounded journalist and thinker than me would have had the good sense to do some math before Crystal called. The 30-year anniversary of the release of “When Harry Met Sally” is Friday. I didn’t realize it until after we hung up. Mark that as a lost opportunity for your myopic newsletter curator.
Of course, Crystal sounded so excited about his favorite basketball team that I don’t think he minded one whit that the questioning was Clippers-only.
Asked what he texted Rivers after it sunk in that the double score of Leonard and George was no hoax, Crystal said: “I told him, ‘This could be really exciting, but don’t worry. I promise you I won’t massage your shoulders during a game.’ ”
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You ask; I’ll answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at [email protected]. (Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from and make sure “Corner Three” is included in the subject line.)
Q: A few summers ago it was popular among the top free agents, like LeBron James and Kevin Durant, to sign one-year deals with a player option for the second season. The structure allowed them to maintain flexibility and hold leverage over their teams. But over the last two summers we’ve seen LeBron, Paul George, Kyrie Irving, K.D. and now Kawhi Leonard sign four-year deals. What changed? — Mike Chamernik (Chicago)
STEIN: Health, for starters. Players facing injuries or mindful of their advancing age started prioritizing long-term security over the benefits attached to short-term contracts.
Durant’s motivations were obvious. Besides putting himself on the same contract track with his close friend Kyrie, Durant just suffered the most dreaded injury (Achilles’ tendon tear) in the sport. Signing a short-term deal would be way too risky.
The real surprises in this group were George and Leonard.
George was widely expected to take a shorter deal even if he agreed to stay in Oklahoma City last summer. He signed the four-year deal with the Thunder instead but just pulled off a maneuver that many agents feel the biggest names in the game can always achieve if they push hard enough — George abruptly asked for a trade last week, at Leonard’s strong urging, and found himself with the Los Angeles Clippers some 72 hours later.
I really thought going into free agency that Leonard would choose to sign a one-year deal with a player option in Year 2 to stay with the Raptors after Toronto won the championship. If you would have forced a prediction out of me, I liked Toronto’s chances because I was skeptical of the Clippers’ ability to acquire the kind of co-star Leonard was demanding while also never really believing that Kawhi wanted to form a superteam with LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
What many of us missed last week, amid days of silence and mystery and tracking private jets, was a crucial hint dropped by Fox Sports’ Cris Carter on July 5. Carter is known to have close ties to Leonard’s very small inner circle and reported that Kawhi was not interested in signing a one- or two-year deal.
That was the clearest signal, until Kawhi’s sister Miesha Slayton posted a Clippers logo on Leonard’s fan page on Instagram, that Leonard was not going to stay with the Raptors or join the Lakers.
Taking a short-term deal to give the new champions an opportunity to defend their crown is one thing. Locking himself into a four- or five-year pact with a team he never wanted to be traded to in the first place could have been messy — even if Leonard was ultimately prepared to go the same route as George and try to force a trade.
Q: Small correction, Steiny Mo. The Nuggets did not win the West’s regular-season crown. They won the division crown. — Alex von Nordheim
STEIN: Yes, indeed. This was a great illustration of how far the free-agent frenzy threw me off my game last week.
In my haste to get last Tuesday’s frenzy-delayed newsletter published Friday afternoon before the workweek ended, I wrote a very rushed and dumb sentence about the Nuggets winning the West last season. Denver, of course, actually finished second in the conference after winning the Northwest Division.
And, yes, @areyofhope, I saw your tweet pointing out the mistake. Just a bad turnover from the Committee of One.
Q: Bro it’s so cringe. Why do reporters do this so much lately? Please stop! — @YBKM93 from Twitter
STEIN: I think I just found my 15-year-old son Alexander’s burner account on Twitter.
“Bro it’s so cringe” is something I literally hear every day at Stein Line HQ. In this case, it was a tweeted response to my recent social media applause for Klay Thompson’s new signature shoe that features newsprint all over it.
In all seriousness now: Is this really so hard to understand, @YBKM93? I am by far one of the biggest sports nerds covering #thisleague, but those fossils among us who have tweeted about the shoe are all just giddy to see a newspaper-themed product hit the modern sneaker market.
Reporters of a certain age are all thrilled that Klay makes reading a newspaper such a staple of his pregame routine. Please let us have our moment and tweet things we’re too cringey to be tweeting.
Old people like to have fun, too.
The Raptors’ championship honeymoon lasted all of 22 days before Kawhi Leonard chose a new team. No reigning N.B.A. finals most valuable player has ever switched teams that quickly, according to research from my good pal @ToddSpehr35. The previous record-holder: Dennis Johnson was traded by the Seattle SuperSonics to the Phoenix Suns after the 1979-80 season — one year after winning finals M.V.P. honors with Seattle. LeBron James (2013 finals M.V.P.) and Kevin Durant (2018) switched teams 13 months after winning those awards.
Kawhi Leonard has essentially sacrificed $80 million over the past year. He declined a five-year, $221 million “supermax” contract from San Antonio heading into the 2018 off-season, forced a trade to Toronto and just chose the Los Angeles Clippers’ four-year, $141 million contract over a five-year, $190 million offer to stay with the Raptors.
It’s no surprise that Leonard still hasn’t addressed his free-agent move to the Clippers via social media. The last tweet from the @KawhiLeonard Twitter account was in 2015 — and there have only been four tweets total.
Regular readers know I am far too sappy to avoid pointing out that this month marks the 30th anniversary of my first trip to an N.B.A. summer league: 1989 at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. My first-ever N.B.A. interview: Utah’s 7-foot-4 center Mark Eaton.
All the wrong sort of memories came rushing back late Friday night when a 7.1-magnitude earthquake struck in Ridgecrest, Calif. — virtually the midpoint between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The force of the quake brought a premature halt to Friday night’s summer games in Vegas — including Zion Williamson’s debut with the New Orleans Pelicans — and the temblor’s high magnitude inevitably evoked reminders of the Northridge Earthquake that caused so much devastation 25 years ago because it struck in such a densely populated area. Early on the morning of Jan. 17, 1994, I was planning to pull an all-nighter in the office of the Los Angeles Daily News in Woodland Hills, Calif., partly so I could use wire services to follow the start of the Australian Open in a time when we didn’t have the many tools available now to do so. I thankfully decided to go home about two hours before the 6.6-magnitude quake struck — destroying the newsroom. Sometimes it really helps, my friends, to be lucky rather than smart. I moved onto the Clippers beat and began covering the N.B.A. full-time a few weeks later.