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How an NBA Franchise Became Synonymous with Boating (And Why That's Awesome)

If you read enough about boating and eventually it starts to permeate into your dryland hobbies.

When the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers announced a complete rebrand of their organization in February, there were an awful lot of nautical references in all the press materials. As a hardcourt and overall sports fan, I had to ask: "what does an NBA team have to do with boating?"

It turns out, a lot.

I am not, nor have I ever been, a sailor, so perhaps the bluejackets among our readership may have found the connection obvious. But those of us in the gas-powered gang were understandably confused. Why is an NBA franchise using a boating theme? Where did that come from?

To understand the inner workings of a multi-billion dollar sports franchise, one must first understand what a clipper is. Then it'll make sense why an NBA team has embraced it as their icon.

A clipper is a synonym for a type of merchant ship that was popular throughout the 19th century. Clipper ships were used for both cargo and passenger transportation, but their signature feature was their speed.

As a three-masted sailing vessel, clippers were designed to travel quickly in order to minimize travel time and maximize profits. Each of their three masts were entirely covered in sails, so they required experienced crews to operate them.

Maritime historians will go into great length, and great debate, about the clipper’s contributions to merchant sailing, but the generally accepted belief is that a design known as the Baltimore Clipper was the first to use the moniker. Over time, the name was shortened to simply 'Clipper,' and the speedy hull shape became a steasfast addition to maritime fleets around the globe.

To understand the impact influence of the clipper design, it's worth noting that The East India Company, the most powerful corporation in human history and the biggest merchant trading company ever, relied on the clipper for transporting cargo across Asia and Europe. Their devotion to the clipper would see them dominate global trade for nearly two centuries.

So how does this all relate to a basketball team?

Well, let’s take a step back before we go forward. The current Los Angeles Clippers, as we know them today, were originally the Buffalo Braves from 1970 to 1977, mired in a frigid city with no connection to merchant sailing but instead to comically large snowfalls and a rabid football fandom. In 1978, the Braves moved shop to the West Coast and became the San Diego Clippers - their name serving as an ode to the rich maritime history of San Diego Bay.

This is where things get as nautical as they do comical.

Per Wikipedia, "In 1984, owner Donald Sterling controversially relocated the franchise to Los Angeles without NBA approval. The NBA spent more than three years on a lawsuit to force the team back to San Diego before eventually dropping the suit in exchange for Sterling paying a fine. Over the course of their first 27 seasons in Los Angeles, the Clippers qualified for the postseason only four times and won a single playoff round. They were frequently considered a perennial loser in American professional sports, drawing unfavorable comparisons to the historically successful Lakers."


And so began a long history of the LA Clippers as the NBA’s slacker, and the clipper moniker being equally tarnished. The lousy rap lasted until the mid 2010’s when the franchise finally began to right the ship. Stars like Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and Chris Paul helped fill seats in a chronically empty arena. Season ticket holders doubled seemingly overnight. The Clippers first-ever trip to the Conference Finals in 2021 was be a turning point for the franchise that pushed the sports media under full sail behind the team. Thanks to the sudden upswing, the Clippers are moving into an epic $2 billion dollar arena in late 2024 called the Intuit Dome.

The franchise is understandably capitalizing on their momentum by giving the new and interested public a fresh look for 2024 that they can co-opt as their own. In the U.S., there’s always a place for the red, white, and blue.

Front Office Sports interviewed Clippers president of business operations Gillian Zucker about the rebranding, who said: “When we asked fans what a Clipper was, they would respond with things like: “We have a direction. We have a North Star. This is a team that stands for something.” And we would say yes, but what is a Clipper? What is that, actually? And people did not know. Once they realized they didn’t know, they were like: “Oh, but I want to know. What is the Clipper?” So that was really where we really took our direction.”

Funny, I wanted to know that too.

What’s ironic is that current owner Steve Balmer was open to dropping the Clipper name as recently as 2019. Some of the names being tossed around included the LA Bears, the LA Waves, and the LA Breeze. Thankfully none of them caught a tailwind.

The new direction seemingly includes sweet retro jerseys to coincide with a new home at the Intuit Dome. The new Clippers franchise is also headed into the 2024 season with good momentum, according to NBA pundits. That sounds like ‘ahead full’ to me.

Much like a clipper ship with its massive sails and streamlined shape, the Clips would be wise to adopt the same momentum-based approach to their future. Like all sailors know, home is where the anchor drops.

The Clippers connection to the water is becoming an increasing trend in the NBA, too. Boaters already know about Michael Jordan’s exploits on the high seas, and Tony Parker recently gave up solid land for expedition yachting. Even fellow Californian transplant Klay Thompson boats to his own games with the Golden State Warriors.

(*skip to 15:56 for the Clippers story)

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