Clipper Nation suffering through Brand new pain

The period preceding July 4 was the greatest week in the history of the Los Angeles Clippers' franchise. Though the team was months removed from any on-court action, the Clippers took what appeared to be a monumental step toward liberating themselves from their catastrophic history. With the kind of wherewithal usually deployed by a first-class organization, the Clips worked the back channels of the pending free-agent market and stole away Baron Davis from the Golden State Warriors.

With that single act of uncharacteristic boldness, the Clippers simultaneously filled their most gaping hole (at point guard), brought aboard one of the top 10 most charismatic players in the game (something the Clippers have never had), and secured their relationship with their existing superstar (Elton Brand) who wanted to see a demonstration of commitment from the front office. The maneuver was so clever that some observers even called foul: There was no possible way the Clippers could have pulled off such a deft move without resorting to collusion. To Clippers fans, the mere plausibility of this theory was a blessing: The Clippers were actually competent enough as a franchise to work the system to the very edge.

Over the long weekend, a faint comedown started to set in among Clippers fans. It was weird that Brand hadn't confirmed that his opt-out was a mere formality that would enable the Clippers to sign both him and Davis to respective deals. Though every report had Brand committed to the Clippers, there was no official word that he'd pass up a more lucrative offer from Golden State.

As the no-seriously-he-is-definitely-going-back-to-the-Clippers reports gradually became more and more persistent, the anxiety receded. Brand and agent David Falk were clearly just waiting for the cap number to be announced, so they'd know exactly what to ask for. That's what was going on. Then, just hours after the loudest pronouncement of certainty, Brand was gone.

Detroit Lions fans probably know best, as do Cubs fans of a certain generation: There's a unique relationship between the beleaguered fan base of a historically disastrous team and its best player -- if that guy happens to be a soulful, unimpeachable professional. Clippers fans thought they had that kind of bond with Elton. The perception that they did nurtured them for seven years. Their devotion to Brand and the Clippers under his leadership was rewarded with the comfort of watching their team achieve a modicum of respectability -- which was enough for most Clippers loyalists.

Because for the first time in Clippers history, there were off-balance sheet assets that came with being a Clippers fan. During his seven seasons with the team, Brand was a trump card in any intracity debate. The Clippers offer no competition to the Lakers -- not in history, relevance, pageantry or volume of support. But even Lakers partisans readily conceded that Clippers fans carried the pride of rooting for one of the most stand-up guys in sports. To Clippers fans who saw Maurice Taylor literally give them the finger strolling upcourt in the closing months of the '99-00 season, Brand's pride in his affiliation presented a unique proposition to those who loved him -- he seemed to love them back.

Brand's departure was an act of compounded cruelty to Clippers fans. Not only did they have that love affair snatched away from them, but they lost something more profound -- the faith that such a relationship can even exist between player and fan. For the Clippers' faithful, this was particularly devastating because the sustenance derived from the relationship was -- the playoff run of 2006 being the exception -- almost the entire return on their investment. The team was never able to sustain its brief success … but they still had Elton.

Clippers fans will now suffer through the grieving process. They'll measure competing reports on what transpired between the Clippers and Brand. Some assign culpability to the Clippers' front office for putting forward what Falk now claims was a "take it or leave it" offer on June 30. Others, like Mark Heisler of the Los Angeles Times, maintain that the failure of the two sides to come together lies with Elton Brand.

For Clippers fans, each scenario is awful for a different reason. The possibility that Brand never harbored any love for Clippers fans -- that his outward displays of loyalty were intended solely to bolster his "good guy" image -- is gut-wrenching. But what's equally terrifying is the idea that the Clippers can't even get it together to retain a player who actually wants to be there, all things being equal. That would mean recent flashes of know-how by the organization are merely aberrations in a terminal course of failure.

Clippers fans, by their nature, can stomach a great deal of indignity. But either circumstance -- cold-blooded betrayal or woeful neglect -- is something not even Clippers fans are truly equipped to deal with.

Kevin Arnovitz is the founder of ClipperBlog.com.