LOS ANGELES — Chris Paul laughed at first, admitting he wasn’t “philosophical” enough to answer a question about what lesson the events of the past few days had taught.
And then the Clippers’ star point guard changed course.
“One thing I will say,” Paul said late Tuesday night at a packed news conference after his team beat the Golden State Warriors in a playoff game at Staples Center, “is how blessed and fortunate we are to have a guy like Doc Rivers leading us through this.”
Rivers, the team’s head coach and senior vice president of basketball operations, had been the sole voice of the Clippers through an emotional days-long scandal that began with a viral recording of team owner Donald Sterling making racist remarks to a female friend.
Sterling’s words sent waves of outrage across the globe and into Rivers’s locker room, where players talked of protesting and even boycotting games. Rivers, who was the Celtics coach for nine seasons until he left for Los Angeles last summer, was suddenly tasked with keeping everyone together, even while denouncing Sterling’s remarks.
Rivers warned his players of “clutter,” a favorite term of his.
“You’ve got your family members, you’ve got social media – everybody telling you what you should do or what they would do if they were in this situation,” Paul said, “but you never know until you’re in the situation.”
Rivers wanted the players to feel they could talk honestly and openly with him and each other, to let it out instead of burying it inside.
“Everything was about communication,” Paul said. “It sounds crazy, because that’s the way basketball is supposed to be played — by communicating — but through everything, we were tight. We were tight. Still are.”
Rivers’s ability to keep the team together was made easier when NBA commissioner Adam Silver dropped the hammer Tuesday afternoon, banning Sterling from the league for life and saying that he’d push hard to force a sale of the franchise Sterling has owned since 1981.
The swift action was met with almost universal approval, and Tuesday’s game — which both teams were going to sit out had they deemed Silver’s punishment not severe enough — marked a celebration in many ways.
The team’s 138th consecutive sellout crowd filled the stands, standing and cheering when players took the court before tipoff, then growing even louder when Rivers emerged from a tunnel. He called the atmosphere “as good as I’ve ever seen.”
He added later, “You think it’s just the players. It was the fans, too. Everybody was going through this. It was almost like everybody wanted to excel tonight, and it was good.”
The team adopted the mantra, “We Are One.” It was written on the basket stanchions and recited by Rivers and players after the game. It beamed through the video boards throughout the arena, and the in-house DJ screamed it into the microphone at nearly every opportunity, even starting a chant in the fourth quarter.
And the Clippers’ 113-103 victory gave them a three-games-to-two lead in the best-of-seven first-round series.
But there were signs everywhere of the scandal that had engulfed the team.
Clippers staffers and cheerleaders wore black in solidarity. Some advertisements were shrouded in black fabric or replaced by team logos after those sponsors suspended their relationship with the team.
Former Major League Baseball outfielder Kenny Lofton sat near the court in a black shirt with the following written in block white text: “Black and proud.” Rev. Jesse Jackson sat along the baseline, not far from the seat that Sterling used to occupy along the sideline.
There were posters that read:
“Clippers new owner wanted! Racists need not apply!”
“NBA (No Bigots Allowed)”
“Hate will never win”
“Is basketball more important than our dignity?”
There were shirts that read:
“Clipper Nation All In, Except Sterling.”
“Sterling Out, Equality In”
“The owner is banned for life, thank God the Clippers are free at last!”
Surrounded by six bodyguards, Sterling’s estranged wife, Shelly, attended the game after asking Rivers’s permission.
“I thought that was a very nice gesture,” he said.
She asked Rivers to tell the players she loved them.
Rivers described his players as weary from the “emotional baggage” of the last few days, and he used timeouts in the fourth quarter just to give them a rest.
“We have distractions all the time, but the magnitude of this was a little crazy,” said forward Blake Griffin. “Even when something like this happens, you spend emotional energy just trying not to think about it and trying to say, ‘OK, we’re not going to let this distract us.’ ”
But Griffin said Rivers was worn out, too.
“It has definitely affected him, but he’s been great for us,” Griffin said. “We let him speak for us. I thought he did a great job; it definitely has affected him. It’s hard not to affect anybody, really.”
Rivers asked his players if they wanted him to speak for them.
“We said how we felt, and he said he was going to take care of it,” said center DeAndre Jordan. “What you heard from him was what we all thought and said.”
In moments bigger than sport, Rivers has struck the right tone before, including last year in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, when he delivered a passionate address about Boston, its people, and its resiliency.
“We want to return things as soon as possible back to normal because that tells whoever did this that you don’t stop the spirit of Boston,” Rivers said then.
When Rivers left the Celtics, he did so because he didn’t want to go through a difficult rebuilding season.
In Los Angeles, he found himself in the middle of a scandal fueled by racism that sparked outrage — all of it stemming from the man who is Rivers’s boss.
Now, Rivers and his team will try to move on, though that is no simple task, especially while Sterling still technically owns the team.
“Like Adam said, the healing process has started,” Rivers said. “We’re going to keep growing and getting away from this, and that’s good. I can’t wait to talk about just basketball.”
Meanwhile, Oprah Winfrey leads the list of wealthy luminaries who announced their interest in purchasing the club.
Winfrey’s spokesperson confirmed Wednesday she is in discussions with record-label mogul David Geffen and Oracle CEO Larry Ellison to pool their resources for a bid.
They won’t be alone, either. Music mogul Sean Combs tweeted his interest in going after the Clippers, and boxing champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. wants to form a group to buy the team.
Celebrities ranging from Matt Damon to Oscar De La Hoya expressed interest in joining an ownership group.