For Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, Joining Los Angeles Clippers a ‘Surreal’ Southern California Homecoming

LOS ANGELES -- For Darrell Bailey, Wednesday’s press conference introducing Kawhi Leonard and Paul George as members of the Los Angeles Clippers almost didn’t feel real.

“If I'm dreaming, don't wake me up,” the man known to most as Clipper Darrell tells CloseUp360, clad in his usual outfit of a half-red, half-blue suit. “I don't drink nor smoke, but I'm so high right now, I'm not coming down ‘til June, baby!”

Clipper Darrell, who’s had season tickets since 2000-01, may be the team’s most dedicated superfan, but he wasn’t the organization’s most famous long-time supporter inside the Green Meadows Recreation Center. That honor was split between the two men for whom the welcome wagon had been wheeled out.

“I grew up a Clippers fan. I loved the Clippers as a kid,” Paul said, while acknowledging that Kobe Bryant of the Staples Center-sharing Los Angeles Lakers was his favorite player.

Kawhi, meanwhile, noted that “probably one of the first games I came to” was for the Clippers. And, when asked about escaping the Lakers’ “shadow,” the two-time champion drew chuckles and cheers from a room full of staffers and local kids (and about 200 credentialed media) when he stated matter-of-factly, “As far as the last few years, as far as the basketball standpoint, the Clippers have been better.”

That’s just the start of what makes this newfound professional partnership between Kawhi and Paul so fascinating on its own, and even more so now as teammates on the Clippers.

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Paul George and Kawhi Leonard have been connected to the Clippers since they were kids growing up in Southern California. (Amir Ebrahimi)

For one, this pairing is, in some respects, eight years in the making. The Indiana Pacers selected Paul, then a sophomore out of Fresno State, with the No. 10 pick in the 2010 NBA draft—two spots after the Clippers chose Al-Farouq Aminu from Wake Forest.

“That wasn't on Steve's time, so it's cool,” Paul quipped, while seated next to Clippers owner Steve Ballmer. “Let that grudge go away.”

The following year, the Pacers took Kawhi, a sophomore from San Diego State, at No. 15, only to trade him to the San Antonio Spurs in a deal that brought George Hill to Indianapolis.

“It just seems like this was destiny,” Paul said. “We were supposed to play together.”

“I wonder if we would’ve stayed in Indiana,” Kawhi said, “but we're here together in LA, both Southern Cal guys.”

That these two locals-turned-hoops superstars joined up on the Clippers, rather than the Lakers, boggles the minds of many who know the Southern California sports scene as well as they do. If ever there were a franchise that would inspire players of Kawhi and Paul’s generation in LA, it would be the Lakers, who put together the NBA’s most recent “three-peat” with Kobe and Shaquille O’Neal, just before Kawhi and Paul became teenagers.

But the Clippers’ newest stars, while native to places within reasonable driving distance of LA, don’t hail entirely from the epicenter of Lakers fandom. Paul was born and raised in Palmdale, a town of just over 150,000 people in the Antelope Valley, on the northern edge of Los Angeles County. Kawhi has roots in Compton, but grew up in Moreno Valley, with a population of around 200,000 east of LA in Riverside County.

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Paul and Kawhi were both raised in smaller towns outside of the actual city of Los Angeles. (Amir Ebrahimi)

Nor are the Clippers the same club that Kawhi and Paul would’ve watched during their younger years. While the Lakers have languished through a franchise-record six straight seasons outside of the playoffs, the Clippers have qualified in seven of the last eight years.

During that time, the Clippers have taken a proactive approach to restructuring their organization from within and reaching out to the surrounding community, particularly in the five years since Steve Ballmer bought the team. The floor on which Kawhi and Paul were introduced—their jersey numbers (No. 2 and No. 13) lining up like LA’s inner-city area code—was one of 350 refurbished in South LA by the team through the Clippers Community Court project in partnership with the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks.

Though neither would likely describe himself as an Angeleno, both Paul and Kawhi hail from close enough to the city that their extended families were in attendance for their introductions on Wednesday, and will be able to watch them play on a regular basis in the coming years.

“For my friends and family to drive to the games, watch me play, seeing them after and able just to enjoy the time here, it's going to be great,” Kawhi said.

“I'm able to be here full time, be around my niece, nephews, my kids being here with their cousins,” Paul added. “It's just, I think it's a great feel all around. I've always wanted to play back home and see what that was like, do something for my hometown. I think now I'm here, I can do that on a full-time level.”

Paul can also go house hunting without worrying about whether he might one day leave it behind to go home, though that process has led him to postpone dinner in town with his new coach, Doc Rivers.

“It’s a pretty good excuse for right now,” Paul joked.

Doc Rivers

Clippers head coach Doc Rivers still plans to meet with Paul for dinner at some point this summer. (Amir Ebrahimi)

Soon enough, Kawhi and Paul will settle into surroundings that are at once more familiar than the ones they left behind in Toronto and Oklahoma City, respectively, and, to a significant extent, entirely new.  

“This is surreal to be home and do it for a team that I grew up and wanted to be a part of,” Paul said.

And if it’s that uncanny for two guys who haven’t lived year-round in California since the early 2010s to now be back as professionals, just imagine what it must be like for Clipper Darrell. He’s seeing them return home to play with the team that he’s supported in seemingly every way—from cheering the Clippers and taunting opponents from the stands, to decking his car and his house in red and blue—for nearly two decades, through its more recent peaks and many valleys prior.

“Oh man,” Darrell says, “I still can't believe it.”

 

Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.