LOS ANGELES — Darrell Bailey braced himself.
The first volley of smack talk hit him after only a few steps. It came from men in purple Lakers T-shirts. “Clipper Darrell!” yelled one. “We got LeBron, baby! We got LeBron! We gonna win championships, Clipper Darrell! How you like that?”
Bailey, 50 years old, short and broad-shouldered, is the biggest, loudest, most passionate fan of the city’s junior varsity N.B.A. team: the Los Angeles Clippers. He goes to every home game. He wears a tailor-made, two-piece suit, divided vertically — Clippers red on one side; Clippers blue on the other. On the back, spread across both colors, is the logo of his beloved team.
During games, he rises in the stands. He dances. He shouts. He twirls. He raps.
He is such a fixture in the Clippers firmament that Angelenos have blended his name with the team’s.
Clipper Darrell, they call him.
But this wasn’t a Clippers game. Bailey was walking from his car toward a basketball gym at King/Drew Magnet High School near Watts, resplendent nonetheless in his red and blue. He nodded at the men taunting him. He tried to shrug them off. Lakers fans — seldom humble in their devotion to the city’s varsity N.B.A. team — have grown ever more merciless during the three weeks since LeBron James announced he would be joining the team on a four-year, $154 million contract.
This meant the Lakers, much to the ever-hopeful Bailey’s chagrin, had the league’s most transcendent star.
Inside the gym, Bailey watched fierce competition among teams at the Drew League — street basketball at its best, conducted with a shrewd and hardened vibe. Players drip with talent. Some are in college. Others are from professional leagues overseas. Occasionally, an N.B.A. star will take the floor.
Heads turned as Bailey entered. Some people pointed. Others laughed. Ushers mentioned James and offered condolences while Bailey grinned through gritted teeth. He may be a carnival barker with a gift for self-promotion, but he cares deeply about his team.
He walked to his seat in a shower of catcalls. Nearly everyone here seemed to be on the Lakers’ purple and gold bandwagon. “Why wouldn’t they be?” Bailey said. “This is what it is like for any real Clippers fan these days.”
Through thick and thin — mostly thin, given the team he adores — Bailey has been a presence at Clippers’ games for nearly two decades. Since he first bought season tickets in 2000, he has missed only two home games, one when he was in the hospital with chest pains.
“Every player in the N.B.A. knows who he is,” said Corey Maggette, who spent eight of his 14 N.B.A. seasons with the Clippers. “There’s a lot of respect for him.”
Fans, too, know his face and his voice. At the Staples Center, home of the Clippers and Lakers, cameras for the big screen zoom in as Bailey prances near his seat in Section 107. He leads chants, his sandpaper baritone echoing from the rafters. He talks trash to players from opposing teams. When a little-known reserve steps to the free-throw line, he begins shouting: “Hey, you, who are you? … You’re weak, you’re no good and you can’t be traded.”
His act, however, is G-rated.
“I remember a few years ago, I was at a game and there were some fans that were really getting on a guy, swearing and cussing,” Maggette said. And I remember seeing Clipper Darrell go over to them, in front of everyone, and loud enough so everyone could hear, and saying, ‘Hey, stop, that is not what we do. We are for our team but we respect the players. We don’t cross that line.’”
It’s a line that matters to Bailey.
“Going to Clippers games and going to church are the two things I can do to get away from the world, and I want to do it right,” he said, as the Drew League play got underway. “They say I’m one of the cleanest hecklers left, but at the same time, every player who plays against the Clippers knows that those 48 minutes, man you are the enemy. After 48 minutes, we good.”
So good, in fact, that he has developed a bond with some of the game’s legends. Even James and Kobe Bryant give him his due. Bryant, interviewed just before his retirement in 2016 and after his last game against the Clippers, spoke of how much he was going to miss “Clipper Darrell, his passion and enthusiasm.”
Several years ago, Bailey said, he was walking down a street in Hollywood wearing his Clippers suit, when an S.U.V. pulled up and a passenger rolled down a window. It was James, who grinned and began to sing some of Clipper Darrell’s favorite chants.
“I can’t hate on LeBron,” Bailey said. “LeBron is the best. That’s documented. And a great dude who is going to do great things in this community. But man, since he was going to come to L.A., why couldn’t he have come to my team? We can’t get a break.”
Bailey was always the class clown growing up in South Los Angeles. He has an innate sense for easing tough situations by making people laugh. He dropped out of community college, cooked at a Carl’s Jr., worked as an aide for children with disabilities, then got fired from a job at a cellphone and pager shop. He trudged home with his boss’s words ringing in his ears: “You’re never going to amount to nothing.”
He sat on his couch and turned on the TV. The Clippers were playing. “The announcer was saying how horrible they were, how they would never amount to anything, just like my boss had said. Just then, a light went off in my head. I said to myself, ‘This is going to be my team. We are going to ride and die together, me and the Clippers.’
“Over time, this became my identity.”
Today, Bailey makes a modest living as an automobile broker. He supplements his income by hosting podcasts and events in his Clipper Darrell persona. He endorses a few small, local companies. One of them, the fast food restaurant Tom’s Jr., put him on a billboard that stands right now just off a South L.A. freeway. But he has never fooled himself. Although the Lakers struggle now and then, he knows that in the battle for popularity his team has no chance of outshining the Lakers’ cavalcade of superstars and championships.
The Clippers found some footing between 2011 and 2016 behind the All-Stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. At the time, the Lakers were floundering. “I thought finally we’d arrived,” Bailey said. “I knew we still weren’t going to overtake the Lakers for popularity in this town, but I was sure we could put a little dent in it. We could walk around with our chest out. But in the end, we didn’t get nowhere.”
He watched in horror these past two seasons as the Clippers’ best players, including Paul and Griffin, were lost to free agency or trades. He has soured on Glenn “Doc” Rivers, the head coach. “I don’t call him Doc no more,” Bailey said. “A doctor knows what he is doing. He is just Glenn to me, and if you ask me, I say he needs to be replaced.”
Why would James even consider coming to such a disheveled outfit? Bailey knew it would take a miracle, but to keep his hopes up before free agency officially began he bought a vintage Clippers jersey and had the name LeBron James stitched on the back.
When James chose the Lakers, Bailey moped. He shared an image of himself on Twitter wearing a Lakers cap and a suit of purple and gold. The caption said: When @KingJames Calls you and says “ITS TIME FOR CHANGE”!!!
The tweet went viral. It was a prank, partly to cheer himself up and partly to cause a stir. Bailey does not shy away from being outrageous. “I definitely know what makes you stand out here,” he said. “You gotta do something crazier than the next person.”
But for all of Bailey’s laughs and all his stunts, seeing James sign with the Lakers cut to the core. “Never really winning, I am telling you, it starts to affect your DNA. You start wondering, ‘Am I a loser? Am I?’ Seriously, you do …
“A lot of fans, they don’t understand. They get days off. But me, I don’t get days off. I live with this all year, 24 hours a day.”
At the Drew League — after taking in a few games and a steady stream of barbs, most of them good natured — Bailey got hungry. He climbed into his Nissan sedan and drove 45 minutes to Sista Mary’s, a soul food restaurant in Glendale, north of downtown L.A., and a world from Watts.
On a sidewalk outside he was instantly recognized. People waved and shouted encouragement. Then a black BMW stopped at a red light. Its driver rolled down his window. “The Lakers are back, baby! It’s all about LeBron, baby!” he shouted. “Clipper Darrell, you suck! Clipper Darrell, your team sucks!”
“Man, see what I go through?” Bailey said.
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