The Day They Didn't Call It A Day

Baron Davis' first year in Clipperville hasn't gone completely according to plan. Getty Images

Baron Davis and I are discussing body art. When his Clippers hosted the Suns the night before, I found myself staring at the ink covering Matt Barnes and wishing for a coffee table book about NBA tattoos. Just picture after picture of them, accompanied by the story behind each one. I'd buy this book.

"Let's do it!" Baron says, eyes lighting up. "I'll take the pictures. You write the words!"

Done. I now have an imaginary book deal with Baron Davis Publishing. We're in the kitchen of Baron's Brentwood home with his lifelong buddy Cash Warren, a.k.a. Lou Gehrig's replacement as the Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth. (Cash is married to Jessica Alba, as any loyal Us Weekly subscriber knows.) We're eating omelettes and waiting for Baron's cell phone to ring. The trade deadline is less than an hour away. Word is, Baron desperately wants out, but the latest update is that he's staying put. Still, you never know.

With the Clips headed for a top-five pick in a crappy draft and owner Donald Sterling unwilling to dump floundering coach/GM Mike Dunleavy, fan and franchise morale is cratering even for this perpetually depressed team. You could hear scattered boos after a few of Baron's misses last night, a rare display of hostility from the emotionally battered faithful. As the saying goes, if a Clippers fan is reading a newspaper in his living room and the ceiling falls on him, he'll just shrug and move to another room. To get this crowd to turn on you takes some doing.

Baron has pushed them to the brink. Those in attendance know only that he signed for $65 million and promised to turn around their wretched franchise and now is shooting a career-low 35% and hasn't been healthy all season. Against the Suns, he looked as if he'd rather have been anywhere else, jogging around with a how-the-hell-did-I-get-here? look. In Section 102, where I own two seats, diehards have been on him for weeks. Play some defense, Baron! Wake up, Baron! Come on, Baron! They feel let down.

I pass this along. Baron is almost always smiling. He has one of those big, friendly faces, which makes him always seem happy. But not right now. "They don't know that I'm jogging up and down wondering if I'm gonna get traded," he says. "There's a lot going on in my head. It's been a lot, just a lot…"

His voice trails off. The competitor in him can't believe it. Not just that the Clips are headed toward their NBA-record 10,275th lottery appearance, but that he's been transformed from impact player to cap figure. As we speak, lots of GMs are thinking about dealing for him. But then they examine his contract and decide they'd rather spend their money elsewhere. Only 29, Baron still believes he's a go-to guy. Of course, he's taking the lack of interest personally. "It's gonna make me better next year," he vows, sounding vaguely like Cliff Poncier in Singles. "I'm not gonna let anyone stand in my way. From now on, it's on me."

I tell Baron he needs to regain his mojo. Warren nods. We both decide that Baron needs to approach the next two months as if he were an actor. He needs to play the role of Boom Dizzle. That's what they called him during his happier stint with the Warriors. "You're one of those guys who play with their hearts on their sleeves," I explain. "When you're not happy, we can see it."

Baron counters with the I-haven't-been-healthy riff, and it is true. But I think this goes deeper. He feeds off loud crowds and bright spotlights, only now he's playing for a laughingstock in a half-empty arena. He thrives in crunch time, only the Clips don't keep games close enough for that to matter. When the 2007 Warriors made their playoff run, his iconic dunk over Andrei Kirilenko showed the best of him: degree of difficulty, fearlessness and ferocity, joy. When the fans jumped off their seats, it was as if they'd been electrocuted. There have been more meaningful moments in pro basketball, but I can't recall a happier one. That dunk will forever belong to Warriors fans, and no matter what happens from that moment on, so will Baron Davis.

Now he's halfheartedly picking at a piece of melon, sweating out a trade deadline, wondering about his future. "There were rumors about me going to Dallas or Houston," he says, "maybe even back to Golden State. When there's no reassurance, you're kinda stuck. It's like basketball purgatory. You're halfway in, halfway out."

Turns out, he doesn't really want a trade at all. This much he knows. Baron grew up in South Central. If he hadn't gotten a scholarship to Crossroads—a respected private school in Santa Monica—he believes he "would have had a couple of kids, a record." He figures he might have made the league, but maybe not. Shuddering, he decides his career would likely have fallen somewhere between "J.R. Rider and Iverson." (Note: Is it wrong that I was excited by this thought?) Instead, in his old neighborhood, they point to Baron as an example. As in, "You can make it out of here—you could be Baron Davis!" He loves that. Lives for it. "That's why I came back," he says. "So all these kids could see that a real person from where they come from has made it."

But the Clippers' stench is like skunk spray: Once it nails you, you can't shed it. "When I signed," Baron says, "Corey Maggette told me I had a rude awakening coming. I was like, Whatever." Whatever? Other franchises have one or two coulda-been-saviors littered across their histories. The Clippers roll another one out every year. And none of them leaves with body or spirit intact. They end up looking like the wobbly survivor of a bus that has just flipped 50 times. I had a serious conversation with two Clips fans recently over the following question: How will Eric Gordon's career go to hell? That's the Clippers. The stink doesn't come off.

Baron agreed to terms on July 1, but it wasn't long before local excitement faded. Whispers soon began about reigning star Elton Brand's maybe jumping ship. Since Brand had just spent all of June recruiting him, Baron was flabbergasted. "Elton basically begged me to come," Baron says. "He kept saying, 'We can do great things!' And I was with it."

And Elton's your friend, right?

"Was a friend," Baron says. Past tense. Elton ignored Davis' "What's going on?" texts for three days, finally responding to say his own negotiations had broken down because the Clippers "didn't treat him right." Brand soon landed in Philly. Baron called to wish him well, but they haven't talked since. When the Clippers played Philly in November, the ex-friends didn't even make eye contact. "It is what it is," Baron says. He glances again at the phone. Thirty minutes to deadline.

It's been a revolving door at the Staples Center since Brand skipped town: Maggette (out), Marcus Camby (in), Tim Thomas (out), Zach Randolph (in), Cuttino Mobley (out), Ricky Davis (in), Chris Kaman (injured). Plus, fired GM Elgin Baylor slapped Sterling with a discrimination lawsuit. When I ask for the best word to describe all that's happened, Baron needs two: soap opera. And we haven't yet mentioned Dunleavy, who promised Baron the team would run, then didn't follow through.

This is a sore subject for me. As a basketball fan, I can't fathom why the Clippers would sign Baron then bog him down in a half-court offense. It's like hiring Simon Cowell to judge a reality show then preventing him from being mean. Baron listens to my complaints impassively. He has no interest in undermining his coach, although he does say the team has no identity. "I don't think we play with enough freedom and trust," he says.

Translation: Give me the rock, and let me be me! Okay, I'm projecting. I had a fourth-row seat for the entire Rick Pitino era in Boston; I have a PhD in Knowing When an NBA Team Has Quit on Its Coach. For these Clips, it happened within three weeks of opening night. The players have no common purpose. They are palpably, undeniably bummed out, like a family trapped on the side of a highway with an overheated minivan. Of course, the historically cheap Sterling won't change coaches. Why spend more money when you're losing? That's how the man thinks. Who cares if fans are so depressed the PA guys should be playing Morrissey and Vampire Weekend during timeouts? God forbid Dunleavy would find the dignity to say, "I screwed this up; I can't in good conscience keep cashing paychecks"—then quit.

As the minutes pass and it becomes more apparent with each that Baron is not going anywhere, we're presented with an unhappy set of realities: a coach who has lost his team, a team that has lost its fans and a season that is already over. It's not the ideal situation for the Dude Who Plays With His Heart on His Sleeve. Recently, a former co-worker e-mailed Baron to say that his recent play reminded him of how he struggled during Mike Montgomery's disastrous coaching tenure with Golden State. "Don't lose your joy for the game!" it read. "You're not being a force out there, you're just going through the motions." It was like a hard slap—not the e-mail itself, but the truth of it.

So is the situation salvageable? Well, the Clippers' nucleus does remind Baron of the successful 2001 Hornets squad he was part of. Except that team "prided itself on defense, ran when we could and worked the mismatches…everyone knew his role." He hopes that will happen with the Clips soon. I want to tell him that, as long as Dunleavy is around, there's a better chance that Bernie Madoff will be named the next commissioner of baseball. For once, though, I bite my tongue.

"Look, if this is the adversity we have to go through to be a good team," Baron says, "I'll do it." He keeps talking about next year. As a paying customer, part of me wants to scream, "Baron, this all sounds fine, but I still have 14 home games left this season! Get your act together now!" The other part just feels bad for him. Yes, incredibly, I feel sorry for someone who's guaranteed $65 million during the worst economic crisis in 80 years. The guy just wanted to come home and win a title with a friend. He didn't ask for any of the other crap. This is why I never like to spend time with athletes. Will I defend Baron the next time someone rips him? Did a single breakfast turn me into the "Leave Britney Alone!" guy on YouTube?

Meanwhile, we've been chatting for so long that the trade deadline passes without our noticing. No texts, no e-mails, nothing. Nobody wants Baron Davis. He will remain a Clipper.

And you know what? He's happier than he thought he would be. For a minute, the boat has stopped shaking. In a few hours, he'll receive a commendation for a documentary that he and Warren produced about gangs. It's a beautiful day in sunny California. He's surrounded by friends and family. Our best-selling tattoo book is in the works. The Clippers will be undefeated until Sunday. (Okay, they don't have another game until Sunday, but still.) Things are looking up.

"I'm gonna have the best year of my career next year," Baron vows again. "That's all I can say."

I believe him. I think.

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