LOS ANGELES — Years before they stepped onto pristine basketball courts as millionaires practicing a game whose rhythms had long ago become a daily routine, the kids and teenagers who would one day become Clippers stood in the driveway of their childhood home. Or a community center. Or an outdoor park.
From a humble, homegrown start began a journey to the sport's highest level.
To watch the Clippers play basketball now is to see a group of players that must remember a small encyclopedia of information: an opponent's tendencies, the movements of their many plays, how to choose when to talk to a teammate delicately, or directly. What hasn't gotten lost amid all of that accumulated basketball knowledge are the memories of where their paths to the NBA started.
"Guys are always going to remember their first hoop, their first court," center Ivica Zubac said. "That's special."
Since the season began, The Los Angeles Times asked each Clipper to describe the hoops they spent the most time practicing and playing on while growing up, where their passion for the game deepened. Those driveways, junior high gyms and outdoor park courts don't compare to the NBA-caliber rims and courts they now play on — but without them, many players agreed, they might not be in the NBA.
"Probably the gym that made me who I am," said guard Norman Powell of a favorite San Diego spot.
In their own words, each Clippers player, along with coach Tyronn Lue, describes the courts "where it started," point guard Reggie Jackson said, "my love."
Nicolas Batum | Childhood driveway, 3 rue Marcelle Forest, Pont-l'Évêque, France
"There was a dead end so there was no traffic. So I used to, I got a little hoop. I used to put it and draw like paint on the road, and I would spend hours. My mom, I got a little hoop for like my ninth birthday and I kept it from 9 to, when I threw it away, it was broke, I was 18. I played like, forever.
He pretended to be "Scottie Pippen for sure and people like back home. I was a big basketball fan so I just watched stuff on TV and run outside and do the same thing. It's funny, because I used to wake up all the neighbors at night. Like every Saturday morning I didn't sleep, every Saturday morning, so I just wake up early. And there was this old guy, old man — very great, very good — and every time it would be like 7:30 a.m., I used to be outside and playing. … If I wasn't outside playing he was, like, worried. 'Oh, right on time, huh?' I was like 9 years old."
Brandon Boston | Childhood driveway, Springbotto Court, Lawrenceville, Ga.
"We were the only one in the neighborhood with the hoop so probably like 40 kids around the same age, everybody would pull up every single day in the summer. It was my eighth birthday, me and my pops put it together — adjustable but I would keep it at 10 [feet]. I worked on everything. From when I was younger I would put the bag on the basketball to get my handle up, watch YouTube videos to watch the move over and over again, used to play games to 21 from sunup to sundown. We would be out there all day.… Falling on the concrete all day, playing out there when it's hot, Mom telling you to stay outside, don't come in — if you come in you got to stay in, so we would stay outside all day."
Moses Brown | Our Lady of Lourdes school, Queens Village, N.Y., and an outside court at PS34, Queens
"I played CYO there [at Lady of Lourdes], I was like 9. … Everybody would come play, it was something to do and it was an event every Thursday and Sunday. That was really my house — every time I came up in there they knew what it was, every single game, from sixth grade to eighth grade, every single game.… The park was always jumping, even when it was cold. We would shovel the snow, come out in our little leggings and just play all through the night, all day. I caught a couple bad ones, I slipped and fell a couple times but that's what comes with it, though, it makes you tougher. I just use everything as resolve, and just use it on the court. I transmit everything that I feel and just go out there and play."
Amir Coffey | Brooklyn Park, Minn.
"There was a park down the street from my house, across the street from Champlin Park High School. I used to walk there with my sisters all the time and hoop, just always play there … in the summer. Because once that snow comes in, it's over with."
(Coffey's sisters, Nia and Sydney, also are accomplished players. The siblings teamed up together at the park.)
"We were young. This is before organized basketball so it would be all kids, we would be on the same team. It was me, my sisters and two random dudes against five dudes and our sisters were killing the whole game, so [the all-male opponents] were all mad. After the game, they gave them their props but they were killing the whole game. I don't know why that just stuck with me but they could hoop, for real."
Robert Covington | His backyard, Bellwood, Ill.
"When we moved to the suburbs, I was the only person on my block that had a rim in the backyard, so everybody was always at my house. My mom worked at a sports store, Sports Authority, so we literally had everything when it came to sports. Mom bought us a rim for Christmas one year and we ended up putting it up. That rim lasted for years, probably until my junior year. … The backyard is where it all began for me. We literally played outside every day.
"There would be days when my parents would come home from work and there's random kids in our backyard just shooting, all the time. It was to the point we used to have to push the rim down during the day, and then we'd put it back up at night; like just lay it down and then my dad when he come home he'd put it back up when we wanted to go outside. It's where I grit and grind, playing all day, every day, outside. Everybody else in the gym, playing for teams — I wasn't. I was outside."
Moussa Diabate | Park near Place de France, Massy, France
"This outside park probably two, three minutes away from my house, I used to go to a lot and it was a double-rim park and they had those really thick nets. It was really where I started grinding, for real. I was 12, that's pretty much when I started playing basketball so at that point I'm just trying to play as much as I can. I found that park that was right next to my house and I was like, 'Man, I'm going to use this as much as I can. I just love basketball.'
"I was like 6-3, 6-4. At first I really didn't understand it because I just started but it's like, as time went on, I was just like — the coach I had was a great coach and he made me understand what it is to love something that you do and how you approach it. So it's just work every day. At that point, I'm trash. I don't know how to play at all. He just told me to find somewhere to reside in and work as much as you can, watch basketball videos. That's what I did."
Paul George | Domenic Massari Park, Palmdale
"That was a five-minute, 10-minute walk. I would take it right after school, wait until like 4, 5 o'clock and I'd be there until 10-11 at night. When I started to play on the courts I was like 12. My brother-in-law was one of the best in the city of Palmdale growing up and I used to watch him play against the grown-ups. I think I was probably like 14-15 years old when I first started to get on the courts playing with the 20-year-olds, 30-year-olds. It started out just barely being able to get on the court and eventually I was the man at the park.
"Playground basketball creates that toughness. It creates especially when you're young in the league or a young player in general, learning how to get bumped and get hit and get trash-talked. It's just that environment that creates the confidence to play against bigger people and faster people and being tough. You lose, you won't see the court for three, four games so that competitive juice gets to flow."
Reggie Jackson | Calhoun County, Ga.
"Grew up with a very Southern town for sure, not really having much to go to, I remember visiting my grandma and aunts and uncles all the time in their trailer homes, which was really cool when I was a kid. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. But not having much, just a bunch of trees and a bunch of foliage, I just remember having the back walkway and you walk about a mile through the woods and for me it was just a safe haven. It was a red-clay court in the middle of nowhere. Red-clay court. [No pavement], not at all.
"Really the first time I seen it I was like 5 1/2. I remember my eyes just lit up. It was the coolest thing, ever. I just wanted a place to play. That was probably one of my favorite parks when I first started. I started going with my brother, he would go, both my brothers would take me and just more so started going by myself a little bit, sneaking off probably when I shouldn't. That's where it started, my love. I played every other sport but I think that was the first time my eyes just opened bright, getting on that court and feeling, 'I love doing this.' It was just out in the country, man."
Luke Kennard | Franklin Junior High School, Franklin, Ohio
"My dad, he went to Franklin and he coached and so he had a key to get in. That was the gym, our go-to. Since about a year ago, [then] they just tore it down to build a new high school. I got a piece of the floor and one of the rims that was in there. It was an old, old gym. The junior high school gym was like the best gym around. We would have my AAU team, and we were based out of Cincinnati, come up and practice at this gym. It's nothing special. But pickup games, we wouldn't even go to the high school. All year-round, that was where I played a lot.
"We could get into the high school, but I don't know, something about [the junior high] — it was the spot. There was some bounce to it. I got my first dunk when I was in eighth grade on that floor."
Kawhi Leonard | Childhood driveway and Valley View High School, Moreno Valley, Calif.
"The high school where I played by [National Junior Basketball], we went to every Sunday or Saturday and played, is probably where I spent most my childhood playing. But I would just say in the front yard; I built the love of the game just playing with friends, that's how I continued to enjoy the game, hanging out with friends, playing basketball with them and you eventually get older and they all disappear. That's where I grew my love for it.
"I don't have one hoop I could say I just remember other than the one in my front yard. I would pretend I was a lot of different players, everybody. I didn't really watch too much growing up, it doesn't feel like I did, but anything on our local networks — it was KCAL 9 at that point — so any Laker, Clipper games, whoever they were playing, I probably just go out and mimic some of those players, if it was Shaq, Kobe, T-Mac, Gilbert Arenas, Carmelo, everybody. Just seeing what they doing and going out there, playing around, dunking."
Tyronn Lue | Garfield Park, Mexico, Mo.
"Garfield Park is where it all took place for me. Probably a quarter-mile, if that, not far. It's a great park, a lot of people come from out of town to play, from Columbia, Mo.; Mobley, Mo.; Jefferson, Mo.; and especially when I was younger it was the place to be and had a lot of talent.
"The toughness you had to have to play with the older guys, the talent that we had down there — being young and I think when I got in eighth, ninth grade I started to be able to play a little bit with the older guys, which helped me out a lot. They didn't take it easy on me. Still knocked me down, still was physical. Talking about older guys and they all were talented. It was a thing to do. In the summertime it was unbelievable, the courts were full every single day, man. And that's what you kind of miss about playing the game."
(In October, the Mexico City Council unanimously approved renaming the park to Tyronn Lue Park.)
Terance Mann | Father Maguire Park, Lowell, Mass.
"I moved around a lot so it was tough but I played a lot of outdoor basketball, a lot of double rims. Me and my friends would play from like noon to 10 at night. We'd be outside all day playing in Lowell, Mass., like a group of 20 of us. It was a few different [parks], Lowell's a pretty big city, so we would just walk around, whichever was the most open we'd stop and play. It was one specific one we went to a lot called Father Maguire, which is where I'd say I probably played the most basketball.
"You lose, you don't get on for like four games, so everybody's trying not to lose. We had a real competitive group of friends who played all day. I stopped playing there my junior year of high school I believe — nah, maybe a little after that. We played from seventh grade all the way through high school. It was the same group of like 20. Sometimes more. It's three courts, lined up next to a baseball field. Some were double rims, some were regular rims. Some had ripped nets, some had sometimes no nets, just depending on the day.
"A lot of kids nowadays, a lot of kids have — it's crazy. We didn't have trainers. We just played against each other all day."
Marcus Morris Sr. | APEX Academy, Pennsauken, N.J.
"Honestly I didn't really start playing until I was in high school. I was playing football all the way up until my sophomore year of high school so I would just go to the neighborhoods and play with my friends but there wasn't really a court I worked out on."
Norman Powell | Park behind a liquor store, Spring Valley, Calif., and Municipal Gymnasium, Balboa Park, San Diego
"There was a park right around the corner from my house [in San Diego] that I would go to by myself. It's behind a liquor store, a little broken down, not even a real park. Literally a gym set, a jungle gym and a court. Broken down, nobody was really ever over there. That was more just me going there imagining being in the NBA, all the video that I watched, re-enacting those moments and putting myself in those situations … it was more Kobe than anything. I just remember doing all the moves setting up to getting him into his midrange pull-ups and post-ups and walk-up threes. I would just lose myself there for hours behind the park by my house.
"But Muni is where the competition and the competitiveness came out.… Muni is probably the gym that made me who I am in San Diego and just in general because all the big-time guys used to play there, in college or overseas — it was the spot you would go to throughout the week, especially in the summer. We'd go up there as a high school team, my friends in my grade. We'd go there and had to wait our turn and it was a lot of arguments and trash talk and having to wait because the older guys didn't think we were ready to be on that floor. So it was like if you got on the floor, you had to win because if you didn't, you're pretty much done for the day."
Jason Preston | Dover Shores Community Center, Orlando, Fla.
"I went to elementary school there and I just grew up around that gym and all my friends would go to that gym. They would have open run from 5 to 8, and you take a little break from 8-10, then you have more runs from like 10 to 1 a.m. Saturdays — it's all day. We'd be in there for hours and hours, and it was walking distance so we were always there. Ever since third grade to senior year of high school, whole life growing up. The people there, they were cool because a lot of people would charge for gyms but they were nice, they were cool.
"In middle school I would ride the bus and the bus stop would be right next to there so I would go straight there. I would go to the computer lab there and just watch basketball highlights and spend some other time just playing there. It was a real staple."
John Wall | Raleigh Boys Club, Raleigh, N.C.
"I used to go after school. I played against older people, it was like teenagers but it was way older. Like, P.J. Tucker was playing there and stuff like that. That's when I first started playing against him and against older guys a lot. Made me who I am now. I wasn't trying to get off the court.
"Outside of that, where I lived there on the south side you would just walk up the street to the park, outside, double rims. That's kind of how I started playing, I fell in love with the game like that. Everybody had a Fisher-Price goal growing up. It's what my mom bought me for Christmas."
Ivica Zubac | In front of his childhood home in Čitluk, Bosnia and Herzegovina
"Mine's probably the craziest. It was on a street in front of my house, the court was basically on the street, so we would have to pause while the cars were going through. No cars, we would play. … Me and my friends would all put an NBA jersey on and just play like that. I had Kobe's jersey so it was always Kobe for me.
"… We broke backboards 100 times. The backboard that's there right now is not even a basketball backboard, it's just wood, there was no lines, the only thing that's really basketball is the rim and net. My dad put it there, I was like, I don't know, 6 or 7. It was crazy, he put it up like two inches higher; I don't know if it was a mistake or not but we always complained about it when we were young, you needed a lot of strength to get [the shot] there. We always complained but he was like, 'When you grow, you're going to be able to do it,' so that's how you get stronger. We struggled at the beginning but later on it was pretty easy. … As soon as we started dunking, we broke the backboard, the rim. We had to replace it every year."