Much like John Carlos and Tommie Smith from nearby San Jose State more than 35 years ago, the Los Angeles Clippers made a statement before and during Sunday’s NBA playoff game against the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena.
Carlos and Smith forever will been known for their 1968 Olympic protest, black-gloved fists raised on the medal stand, drawing attention to the plight of African Americans.
On Sunday, about 36 hours after a recording surfaced in which a man said to be Clippers owner Donald Sterling makes offensive comments about African Americans, the Clippers players made clear their feelings about their owner.
They dropped their warmup jackets at midcourt before the game. They wore their shooting shirts inside out. They all wore black socks, and some opted to wear black wristbands, too.
The recordings of the remarks attributed to Sterling – among them his insistence that his girlfriend not bring African Americans, including Hall of Famer and former Lakers great Magic Johnson, to Clippers games – dominated the Internet on Saturday and Sunday, overshadowing a weekend full of playoff games. Even President Barack Obama, during a trip to Malaysia, weighed in, condemning the “incredibly offensive, racist statements.”
Audio of the comments, first released by celebrity gossip site TMZ, seems to catch Sterling criticizing his girlfriend for posting pictures of herself online with African American men, including Johnson.
“Don’t put him on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me,” the man said. “And don’t bring him to my games. Yeah, it bothers me a lot that you want to promo, broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?”
On the court, the fourth game in the Western Conference first-round playoff series was dominated by the Warriors, who jumped on the Clippers early and coasted to a 118-97 win to tie the best-of-seven series 2-2. Point guard Stephen Curry led the Warriors with 33 points, seven rebounds and seven assists.
“Maybe our focus wasn’t in the right place would be the easiest way to say it,” Clippers guard J.J. Redick said. “It wasn’t just the distraction of everything that’s happened in the last 24 hours. Golden State played a great basketball game, let’s keep that in mind. They came out and threw the first figurative punch, and we never recovered from that.”
The Clippers didn’t offer much detail about the pregame display, except to say it was a sign of team unity.
“It was just talked about as a team,” point guard Chris Paul said. “At the end of the day it had nothing to do with the game.”
The game, however, became a vehicle to address race relations in a league in which the majority of the players are African American and most of the owners are not. Vivek Ranadive, principal owner of the Kings, and Michael Jordan, who owns the Bobcats, are minorities who are principal owners of NBA teams.
Paul, also the president of the National Basketball Players Association, has asked Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson to “expand his responsibilities” with the union and help “determine our response and our next steps.” Johnson, a former player with the Phoenix Suns, was appointed April 7 as chairman of a search committee to find a new executive director for the union.
“What they’re doing is giving me an opportunity to stay locked in with my team and what we’re in the playoffs trying to do,” Paul said. “For us, it’s all about winning basketball games, nothing else.”
Johnson met with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver before Sunday’s game and said he’s spoken to union reps and owners.
The players have five points they want addressed, according to Johnson:
• They do not want Sterling allowed at any more games this season because they consider him a distraction.
• They want to know why prior accusations against Sterling did not result in sanctions.
• They want the range of sanctions for Sterling addressed.
• They want the union engaged in the process.
• They want Silver to act swiftly in punishing Sterling.
“The players are not going to be silent,” Johnson said. “That day has come and gone. These players are engaged.”
When the recordings became public on Saturday, Silver promised a quick ruling on the situation, though it remains unclear if the NBA will fine or suspend Sterling, 80, or attempt to force him to sell the team.
The audio recordings aren’t Sterling’s first brush with racially charged controversy.
Sterling agreed to pay $2.73 million in 2009 to settle government allegations that he refused to rent to Latinos, African Americans and families with children in Los Angeles. That same year, former Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor – one of the NBA’s all-time great players – filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit, contending Sterling had a “vision of Southern plantation-type structure” for his organization. A jury rejected Baylor’s claim.
Sterling also ran an advertisement in 2011 for a Black History Month celebration in March, even though Black History Month is in February. And on Sunday, the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP announced that it has dropped plans to give Sterling the group’s lifetime achievement award at its May 15 banquet.
Also on Sunday, the sports website Deadspin released an extended version of the conversation in which a woman mentioned that most of Sterling’s team is black.
“I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses,” the man reported to be Sterling replied. “Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them? Do I know that I have – Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners that created the league?”
The woman in the recordings, identified as V. Stiviano, has frequently been seen with Sterling at Clippers games at Staples Center. Stiviano identifies herself as Mexican and black.
Last month, Sterling’s wife filed a lawsuit against Stiviano, alleging that she owed the Sterlings money because Sterling had showered Stiviano with millions of dollars worth of gifts and money.
Players across the league weighed in during media sessions or via social media, but much of the pressure was directed at the Clippers, because they play for Sterling. Some players called for the team to boycott Sunday’s game. Others want the Clippers players to speak out against Sterling beyond symbolic gestures.
“I knew about it,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said of the silent protest. “I didn’t voice my opinion. I wasn’t thrilled about it, to be honest. But if that’s what they want to do, that’s what they want to do.”
Added Clippers guard Jamal Crawford: “You have so many people, we all do, in our lives that are concerned. Other than that, there’s no excuse.”
With Game 5 in Los Angeles on Tuesday, no one is sure what will happen next.
Protesters are expected outside Staples Center, and there’s no predicting how fans will react to players. Some will cheer, while others might be bothered that the players continue to play for Sterling. And some might not show.
One thing is certain: For many basketball fans in Los Angeles, Tuesday’s game will be about more than basketball.