Clippers returning to Hawaii star-studded

Maybe the Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers deals didn’t surprise everyone.

“We knew that this was all gonna happen with Leonard in advance, before we scheduled this,” Hawaii Tourism Authority chairman Rick Fried said Monday of the Clippers’ expected return to Honolulu this fall.

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“Put an exclamation point on that,” Fried added, tongue firmly in cheek, before breaking into a hearty laugh.

Jokes aside, the HTA has either been remarkably lucky or amazingly prescient in its choice of pro teams to bring in lately.

Less than four months after signing the Los Angeles Rams for next month’s Aloha Stadium exhibition game against the Dallas Cowboys, the Rams appeared in their first Super Bowl in 17 years.

And, now, after agreeing to an option on their contract with the HTA that is to bring the Clippers back this fall, guess who is the Las Vegas oddsmakers’ early betting favorite to win the NBA championship?

“That will make the exhibition game even that (much) more remarkable to have a team that is potentially gonna be one of the best in the NBA,” Fried said.

Yet to be announced are the dates, opponents (one NBA foe and one international) and prices. Plans “haven’t been finalized and are still in the works,” an HTA spokesperson said via email.

For months, as the free-agent period drew closer for the cap-flush Clippers and fans obsessed over the destination of marquee players, the HTA crossed its fingers for a jackpot. “We were hopeful this would happen and we’re absolutely thrilled that it did,” Fried said.

Across parts of four decades the Los Angeles Lakers were Hawaii’s adopted team, making 13 visits between 1988 and 2015. But with the Lakers getting their own training center and sticking closer to home in the preseason from 2017 on, there was an opening.

When the HTA went looking for a sports tie in its biggest visitor market, Southern California, the up-and-coming Clippers under new owner Steve Ballmer were the answer. The Clippers and the HTA signed a deal for the team to hold its training camp here and play two exhibitions in 2017 with options to extend up to three additional years through 2020.

This is one of them. “That is certainly my understanding,” Fried said. “I think everything is on track.” A contract with the HTA has been signed and UH has said it is talking with the Clippers about using its athletic facilities again.

For its $650,000 sponsorship, the HTA gets the Clippers’ presence here to promote, advertising at the Staples Center, broadcast and online exposure and in-game promotions. In addition, the Clippers will have a community engagement component, holding clinics for local youth and making a donation to a local school.

The inaugural year’s games with the Toronto Raptors drew crowds totaling nearly 17,000 to the Stan Sheriff Center, and last year’s return against the Sydney Kings of Australia’s National Basketball League still drew 6,911 for a single game.

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After the first visit, Clippers coach Doc Rivers said, “It’s just a great place for us. I love making this our home base for training camp. I hope we can continue to do that. The guys love coming here. The coach loves coming here — and the fans enjoy it. So, it’s a good fit for all of us.”

Especially this year.

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