They played as if children again, on a playground with friends, unburdened and unafraid.
Blake Griffin palmed the ball into the back of the basket and screamed. DeAndre Jordan threw down a dunk and laughed. Jamal Crawford hit a jump shot and posed. Chris Paul finished a fastbreak and grinned.
Their fans cheered with the simple joy of parents watching their children, arms held out as if embracing, voices lifted as if to inspire.
There was a standing ovation for pregame warmups. There was a standing ovation for each player when he entered the game. And, yes, there was even a small standing ovation when the giant video board showed two of those fans wearing black shirts with Donald Sterling's face crossed out.
Donald Sterling is gone. Let the good times roll.
Hours after Clippers owner Sterling had been banned for life by the NBA for making racist comments on a verified audio recording, his former team and customers celebrated a joint rebirth with a 113-103 victory over the Golden State Warriors in Game 5 of a first-round NBA playoff series.
Donald Sterling is gone. May the ignorance and intolerance that have long existed in his office go with him.
“It was almost like everybody wanted to exhale tonight, and it was good,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said after his team and the building had rocked in agreement.
The Clippers played as if on wings, flying around with hustle and heart. Jordan scored 25 points with 18 rebounds after being shut out in the previous game. Paul hit two big three-pointers after the Warriors briefly took the lead late in the third quarter. Crawford perfectly ended the night by high-fiving fans in the front row.
“It seemed like a burden lifted off everyone and we could just go back to playing basketball,” Paul said.
The Clippers now lead the best-of-seven duel three games to two, and can finish off the outmanned Warriors on Thursday in Oakland, but this series will be remembered for something far more than basketball.
From the moment the audio of Sterling's conversation with female friend V. Stiviano was released Friday night, this series became a textbook on the nightmare of racism and the strength of a powerful response to its evil.
The Clippers were initially saddened by the revelations, then angered, then overwhelmed by the stress of being tugged in every direction by family and friends. Should they boycott? Should they tank? Should they just quit? How can any of them work for a man who had been heard scolding Stiviano for bringing blacks to the games?
“As a human being it hurt,” said Crawford. “Most things in life, you can compartmentalize, but this was everywhere, we couldn't shake it.”
To nobody's surprise, the distracted Clippers had little chance Sunday in Oakland, and were steamrollered, 118-97, to even the series. They returned home to a surprising off day given by a coach who said he wanted to give them a chance to breathe.
Those breaths were held until Tuesday morning when new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver powerfully freed the organization of a 33-year burden by banning Sterling for life, fining him $2.5 million, and promising to urge the league's owners to compel a sale of the team.
While early reaction indicated the league's owners will agree to force Sterling to sell, that process could be prolonged for months while the legendarily litigious Sterling fights back. This journey to a truly new Clipper day isn't over, it's just beginning. And the Clippers and their fans cannot rest easy until the team actually changes hands, as Rivers has indicated he can no longer work for Sterling, and will surely cause a fuss this summer if the sales process slows.
“Everyone wants to know who they're working for, I think that's very important,” Rivers said.
But dragging Sterling out of the captain's chair is a good start, one that certainly energized the fans who happily gathered outside Staples Center before Tuesday's game in a scene that contained none of the expected protests, and hundreds of the happiest smiles.
“The Clipper curse is dead,” announced Omar Anorga, a lawyer and Clippers season-ticket holder who showed up in a black shirt with the team logo.
Many of the fans wore black to show unity with the players, who again made a silent protest with their black socks. But the mood was anything but dark.
Quite unbelievably, those fans included Sterling's wife Shelly, who, despite being an integral part of past discrimination lawsuits against Sterling, asked Rivers' permission to come to the game, and showed up with several bodyguards and a message to the players that she loved them.
Once inside the building, the most diverse crowd in Los Angeles came together under the team's new post-Sterling motto of “We Are One!” It was shouted by DJ Dense, displayed on signs in the stands, and finally chanted by 19,000 fans midway through the fourth quarter.
The players heard and responded, with Paul even acknowledging that his eyes almost filled with tears during warmups.
“It was so incredible, I had to calm myself down,” Crawford said.
The Clippers jumped to a 10-point lead in the first quarter thanks to one dazzling run that included three consecutive dunks. They finished the first half with a five-point lead after a strong offensive rebound and reverse layup by Jordan at the buzzer.
They slowed in the third quarter, and actually lost the lead before Paul splashed those two threes in the final two minutes to give them a five-point lead heading into the fourth, where they held off a Warriors charge in front of fans who stood and cheered for the entire period.
“The crowd was awesome, as good as I've ever seen,” Rivers said.
In the end, the flashing scoreboard did not tell the entire story. Not only had points been scored, but a much larger point had been made, a passage had been navigated, justice had been found, and peace had been reached.
Donald Sterling is gone. It was one of the greatest days in the history of professional basketball in Los Angeles.
“We can move forward . . . we have to,” Rivers said. “You always have to move forward.”
As one, with their fans and their dignity, the Clippers are doing just that.
Twitter: @billplaschkeCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun