Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: NBA has a real mess on its hands

Ailene Voisin
Ailene Voisin

The hand-wringing and the news conferences and the player protests are predictable and appropriate. Who isn’t outraged by the disparaging and discriminatory comments attributed to longtime Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling?

If you have a heart, you want to wring his neck.

If you knew him when, you know him now.

NBA executives for decades have dreamed about waking up and hearing that Sterling planned to sell his franchise. David Stern despised the man. Players have complained about their boss forever. Journalists have dogged the Beverly Hills billionaire into side rooms, court rooms, out of the spotlight and into the background, until of course, someone recorded him allegedly uttering racial slurs while chatting with a female friend.

First-year NBA Commissioner Adam Silver inherited an absolute mess. Within a matter of seconds, his league went from global to viral. So what does he do now? What exactly are these “maximum sanctions” the players are seeking, according to spokesman and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson? Suspension? A fine? A suspension and fine?

Banning Sterling from all NBA buildings for the foreseeable future is a start, a no-brainer. But getting rid of him permanently is both the ultimate goal and the most vexing issue. Rest assured that every legal expert in Manhattan spent the weekend examining the issues and discussing the options.

The precedent for fining, suspending and publicly flogging professional sports owners is well established. Former Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott offers a close parallel. The zany, uncontrollable Schott was banned for the 1993 season for her vile remarks about African-Americans, Jews and gays, then booted a second time before she succumbed to negative sentiment and sold the franchise.

In a perfect world, a similar scenario transpires. Sterling sells his team and is neither seen nor heard from again, enabling his players and coaches to breathe again, to play basketball again. The tension inside Oracle Arena for Game 4 of the Warriors-Clippers opening-round series Sunday was stifling, intense, bizarre.

There was Johnson, a former All-Star, speaking on behalf of the players in his role as union consultant; Silver, not even three months into the job, walking briskly from one private meeting to another; the Kings’ Vivek Ranadive, the league’s first owner of Indian descent, acknowledging he was shocked by his colleague’s remarks but leaving the details to the lawyers; Clippers players wearing black socks and black wristbands in protest, and enduring calls of “racist, racist” from some in the crowd.

Sterling, 80, just needs to do everyone a favor and go away. Just leave. He has been the worst owner in professional sports since he bought the team in 1981. The Maloofs were in another league by comparison. Who does this? Assembles a championship-caliber roster for the first time and then destroys the moment and the franchise?

Well, Sterling. His Clippers were doomed from the start. In his plot to relocate his franchise from San Diego to the L.A. Sports Arena, he gutted his roster, kept costs to a minimum, destroyed his product. He yanked health insurance from employees, forced former players to court to collect salaries, hosted lavish lunches and then refused to pay the bill.

Once, a hotel in San Antonio balked at accommodating the team in the midst of a grueling trip until the trainer put down his personal credit card. On a trip to Seattle, the players squeezed into the economy section in a cost-cutting move in violation of the collective bargaining agreement. After dislodging his 6-foot-9 frame from a middle seat, Joe Bryant (Kobe’s father) suggested a call be placed to former union executive director Larry Fleisher; Stern sanctioned Sterling accordingly.

This is the same owner who counter-sued when Stern attempted to preclude the move to L.A. in 1982, who packed up the trucks and headed north in 1984, whose behavior led to ongoing litigation and tremendous angst for both his employees and the San Diego community.

The Clips have continued to litter courtrooms, though the damage Sterling has inflicted this time on the most progressive and inclusive sports league is staggering, unfathomable. On opening night, 75 percent of the players were African-American and 92 were born overseas. Thirty-nine countries were represented. African-American coaches are the norm, no longer anomalies. That was the story anyway.

“We’re going home now,” a visibly exhausted Clippers coach Doc Rivers said after his club stumbled through a 118-97 loss. “Usually that would mean we’re going to a safe haven. I don’t even know if that’s true, to be honest.”

And this is just the beginning. Just the beginning.

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