Don’t believe him. Don’t believe a word. Until Donald Sterling signs the formal documents empowering his wife, Shelly, to sell his Los Angeles Clippers, the prudent course of action is to assume the worst. The man suffers from a chronic disease: an inability to tell the truth.
NBA officials barely blinked when reports surfaced Friday about the worst owner in professional sports – the man known as Donald has been No. 1 on the hit list since he bought the Clippers in 1981 – because they know better. He sells bologna. He never sells his real estate. Buyer beware.
“We continue to follow the process set forth in the NBA Constitution regarding termination of the current ownership interests in the Los Angeles Clippers and are proceeding toward a hearing on this matter on June 3,” the NBA responded in a brief statement.
The Sterlings have long been one of those famous and famously bizarre Hollywood couplings. Are they estranged? Divorcing? In cahoots? He says, she says. They are, they aren’t.
Let’s just say Commissioner Adam Silver and his legion of lawyers are really smart to maintain that healthy dose of skepticism; these latest reports that Shelly Sterling is working with attorneys on both sides to resolve the dispute amicably sound suspiciously easy. Terminating ownership requires a three-fourths vote of the board of governors, and while Silver is confident he has 23 owners in his back pocket, Sterling has retained prominent attorney Maxwell Blecher, threatened to sue and refused to pay the $2.5 million fine.
Sterling has until Tuesday to respond, and he can appear at the June 3 hearing in front of the league’s 29 controlling partners. But that isn’t the way he operates. He sneaks in through back doors, strikes when and where least expected, counterattacks with misdirection plays, and overwhelms his victims – dozens who have accused him of racial discrimination related to his real estate holdings and rental properties – with protracted litigation.
Historically, he settles the lawsuits, parts with a few million, attempts to restore his credibility by purchasing newspaper ads touting his charitable gifts, and ultimately prevails.
The league has never beaten the man, either, though most legal experts seem to believe Sterling is finally doomed. NBA bylaws can terminate the ownership of partners who engage or support “a position or action which may have a material adverse impact on the league or its teams.”
Sterling’s racist ramblings on a secretly taped conversation with a female companion triggered widespread outrage among league officials, other owners, fans and players, some of whom threatened to boycott games if the longtime Clippers owner isn’t ousted. Several companies canceled sponsorships. If his original remarks weren’t damning enough, Sterling destroyed any potential shred of sympathy – privately recording the rantings of an 80-year-old who doesn’t appear to have full control of his mental faculties is unseemly and exploitative – by repeating and embellishing his remarks during a lengthy interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
And this time, Sterling took on the wrong man. He messed with a legend. Interjecting Magic Johnson into the conversation, in essence scolding one of sport’s most beloved figures for contracting HIV, elevated the situation to an entirely different level. To a life-and-death level in this sense: When the Lakers superstar was diagnosed with the disease in 1991, the perception worldwide was his death was imminent.
In response – and in one of the league’s finest hours – NBA executives consulted the leading experts on AIDS and embarked on a mission to educate players, coaches, team executives and, by example, the public and dispelled one myth and misconception after another.
As USA Basketball czar and former Suns owner Jerry Colangelo reminded me recently, “We just didn’t know enough. We were all afraid of the disease, how contagious it was, whether it could be transmitted by sweat by players bumping into each other on the court.”
Taking on Magic was sheer lunacy.
This wasn’t Mark Cuban speaking candidly about racism in America and triggering an impassioned debate that persisted throughout the weekend. This wasn’t Michael Sam discussing homophobia or the misogyny so prevalent in locker rooms and clubhouses.
This was Donald Sterling finally caught in the act. After all these years. After all those lawsuits. After gutting the San Diego Clippers for the sole purpose of guaranteeing relocation to Los Angeles, stripping employees of insurance benefits, failing to pay hotel and restaurant bills, then circumventing league bylaws and sneaking the team to L.A. in the dead of night.
Eighteen years later, after the league helped broker a deal to move the Clippers from the ancient Sports Arena to the Pond in Anaheim, Sterling was at it again, slipping out a side door while the parties sat around waiting to sign the final papers.
Truth, justice, the American way?
This is Donald Sterling. Buyer beware.