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Sterling’s Fold

How three decades of incompetence were wiped away by three days of chaos

I dressed in black for Game 5 of the Clippers-Warriors series. I wasn’t alone. More than 40 percent of the fans wore black T-shirts, black blouses, black dresses, black everything. The cheerleaders wore skimpy black outfits. Every advertising sign or banner throughout the arena was covered in black. You looked around last night and thought about black.

Donald Sterling, who wasn’t there, usually dressed in all black. He spent three years tormenting San Diego’s Clippers fans, then another three decades ruining the Clippers in Los Angeles. He’s one of the worst sports owners ever by every calculation. And that’s before factoring in what happened last weekend, when the first wave of Sterling’s hideously racist audiotapes surfaced online, launching a three-day tornado of wrath that eventually swept him away. Only a few hours before Game 5, new NBA commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling from the league for life. There was nothing to protest. For many of us, it still made sense to wear black.

Sitting in Sterling’s seats at midcourt? Two black guys. This was one of Sterling’s favorite tricks over the years: Anytime he landed in hot water racially, because of a housing discrimination lawsuit, an inappropriate comment or something else, you could count on a minority mysteriously popping up in his seats. Everyone who played for Sterling, worked for Sterling or bought Clippers tickets knew he was slime. We rationalized it in our own ways. Chris Paul pushed his way to the Clippers because he wanted a big market. Blake Griffin passed up free agency because the Clippers offered him an extraordinary amount of money. Doc Rivers abandoned a terrific Celtics organization, and a city that unequivocally loved him, for a chance to turn the Clippers into champions. I bought Clippers season tickets in 2004 because I love going to NBA games. We all knew about Sterling. As Ted DiBiase said, everybody’s got a price.

You always heard stories and whispers about how heinous he was. The one that shocked me most: one Clippers player (still on the team) telling a friend of mine that Sterling routinely brought people into their locker room after games, then could be plainly overheard ogling their “beautiful bodies.” Like he was admiring race horses or something.1 This was a man who heckled his own players during games. This was a man who coldly ended Elgin Baylor’s 50-year association with the NBA, sending him packing with a terse PR statement and nothing else. This was a man who fired Mike Dunleavy, then refused to pay the rest of Dunleavy’s guaranteed contract; Dunleavy actually had to sue Sterling for the rest of his money.

And David Stern looked the other way for decades, waiting for a smoking gun that never came. He knew Sterling, who started out as an attorney and eventually made his billions in real estate, loved courtrooms more than he loved anything else. Fearing the very real possibility of Sterling becoming the NBA’s Al Davis, Stern never messed with him — not even in 2003, 2006 and 2009, when Sterling kept settling those housing discrimination lawsuits and being tied to offensive quotes. When the NBA briefly owned the New Orleans franchise in 2011, Stern’s office vetoed the team’s trade of Chris Paul to the Lakers. Six days later, Stern rerouted him to the Clippers and immediately turned them into a marquee contender. Shining a gigantic spotlight on their most incompetent owner … I mean, what could possibly go wrong?

At the 2012 Finals, I remember asking a high-ranking league official if the NBA could ever force Sterling out. We can’t do anything, he said. We can’t do ANYTHING. Once you own a team, you’re in. The league couldn’t even jettison George Shinn, the once-disgraced Hornets owner who turned the city of Charlotte against him so completely and totally, it briefly destroyed professional basketball there. Unless Donald Sterling screwed up or dropped dead, he would keep owning the Clippers. And everyone knew it.

I nearly relinquished my season tickets in 2010: one year after I wrote the column about the Clippers being cursed; just a few months after no. 1 overall pick Blake Griffin suffered a knee injury that forced him to miss his entire rookie season; and nine months before the cheap-ass Clippers dumped Baron Davis’s deal on Cleveland for Mo Williams, inexplicably including an unprotected first-round pick for Cleveland’s troubles that, of course, ended up winning the Kyrie Irving lottery. How many years could this keep going? Five of my first six Clippers seasons were throwaways; sometimes, I couldn’t give my tickets away. The big-brother Lakers ripping off titles in 2009 and 2010 only made it more depressing. As long as the Clippers had Sterling, everything seemed hopeless.

My friend Tollin offered to split my tickets with me. We stuck around for the next season, right as Griffin and DeAndre Jordan were creating the embryonic stages of “Lob City.” We were in Section 101 by then, near the Clippers bench, with Sterling sullenly sitting across from us. His legs always straddled the center stripe at midcourt, like he was telling himself, I AM DEAD CENTER! I AM EXACTLY DEAD CENTER! He dressed like a potbellied grim reaper. His colorless skin always made me wonder if he spent his days sleeping in a coffin. Before games, he would hurriedly arrange the seating for everyone in his extended party, ordering them into various Section 111 seats and pointing around like a drill sergeant. From there, he’d stand in front of his seat and greet everyone around him. Eventually, he’d sit down and fold his arms and never, ever, ever, ever move. He’d just sit there, his arms folded across his massive stomach. I ran out of ways to make Weekend at Bernie’s jokes about him by 2011.

Like everyone else on my side of the arena, I stared at Sterling whenever the game became depressing. When would he sell? When would he finally go away? So many sports franchises have baggage, but only the Clippers had a living, breathing personification of that baggage. There it was, wrapped up in 200-plus pounds of the worst greed Southern California could offer. Every inadequate Clippers moment could be directly pinned to him. The four-decade chasm between the Lakers and Clippers could be measured in so many different ways, but really, the owners said it all. Everyone loved Dr. Jerry Buss — his players, his employees, his family, his fans, the other owners, everybody. Nobody loved Donald Sterling.

You stared at him. You loathed him. You wished he would sell the team. You knew he wouldn’t. You hoped for a miracle.

It came in the worst form imaginable: the audio tape that revealed Sterling for who he was and is. You couldn’t script racism more purely or effectively. He believed in a world that no longer existed, a world in which minorities were allowed to coexist with privileged white people — on the latter’s terms and by their rules — and anyone close to Sterling who breached this arrangement was effectively betraying him. Supposedly there are more than a hundred hours of these tapes. Supposedly Sterling asked his assistant/girlfriend/whatever-the-hell-she-was, V. Stiviano, to start recording his thoughts because the 80-year-old Sterling couldn’t remember things as well anymore. Supposedly this is only getting worse.

And for about 48 hours there, it seemed like the worst owner in NBA history was about to derail the league itself. A distracted Clippers team sleepwalked through Game 4. Over the next 36 hours, with Sterling getting excoriated in every forum imaginable, a leaguewide defiance took hold once everyone realized that Sterling — lacking self-awareness until the bitter end — might stubbornly attend Game 5 anyway. All hell broke loose behind the scenes. All six teams threatened to boycott Tuesday night’s games. The players’ association demanded free agency for Clippers players. Civil-rights activists flooded the league’s office with calls. Even the other 29 owners were taking heat. This was suddenly one of the league’s biggest crises ever — right there with the Artest melee, the Donaghy scandal, the ’99 lockout and the Kermit punch.

These kinds of moments need a true leader, only nobody knew for sure if Adam Silver was that person. Would he freeze? Would he waver or waffle? Unfortunately, leaders become leaders only during times of turmoil — when you need someone to act quickly and decisively, to make you feel better about everything, to make you feel like you’re OK. You don’t learn how to handle these situations. You either have it or you don’t. Silver was magnificent in yesterday’s press conference. He handled all family business.

And after Silver announced that he was banning Donald Sterling from the NBA, one reporter asked if Sterling had expressed any remorse for these tapes.

“He has not expressed to me directly any other views,” Silver said. Next question.

Silver wants to find a different Clippers owner as soon as possible, knowing that a cluster of deep-pocketed suitors are waiting to bid on them. Adding Lob City, Hollywood and the second-biggest TV market to every other owner-friendly factor I described in this space two weeks ago, I can’t imagine the Clippers fetching less than $1.5 billion.2 Once the owners unanimously vote to terminate Sterling’s ownership (a foregone conclusion), the league will assume control and auction off the franchise. But what if Sterling challenges that ruling? What if he convinces himself that he’s been railroaded? What if he sues the NBA and keeps suing and suing? What then?

Will there really be a day when The Owner Who Wouldn’t Ever Go Away actually goes away?

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Nearly one year ago, I flew from Los Angeles to San Antonio for the Western Conference finals. Because we were traveling for television duties, I happened to be sitting in first class, in an aisle seat, one row behind the immortal Donald Sterling. This wasn’t a big plane — not quite a puddle jumper, but the next level up. Low roof, tight aisle, little baggage space, tiny windows. One of those planes where it feels like everyone is on top of each other. So I felt like I won the sports columnist lottery. One row behind Sterling? This would write itself!

The man delivered almost immediately. He didn’t want to sit in the first row and he didn’t want to sit in a window seat. Donald Sterling wanted to switch seats. Like, right now. He asked the flight attendant to move him. She politely declined. He quickly pulled the “Whaddya mean I can’t switch seats?” routine. The man sitting to my right jumped up, hopped into the aisle and loudly conferred with Sterling. He glanced at me, then at Sterling, then back to me again. Was this his bodyguard? His handler? I couldn’t tell.

“Hey,” he asked me. “Would you mind switching seats with him?”

I could barely conceal my excitement. This was great. Someone was asking me to do a favor for Donald Sterling.

“I like the aisle,” I told Sterling’s guy. “I’m gonna stay here.”

The guy grimaced, ultimately squeezing past me and cramming into his window seat. His name was Mo. I couldn’t tell if he was angry at me or Sterling, but the possibility of Mo stabbing me in the neck with a pencil was suddenly in play. Meanwhile, Sterling was already laying into his second flight attendant about being stuck in a window seat. There was a distinctive, gravelly whine to his voice, no different from what you heard on those audio tapes. He wasn’t overtly hostile, more disappointed and confused. He couldn’t believe that SHE wouldn’t help HIM. Reading between the lines, you could practically hear it in his voice:

Don’t you know who I am? I’m Donald Sterling! You’re making a big mistake! I AM A VERY IMPORTANT MAN!

Sterling’s female assistant stood in the aisle, navigating the situation with the same pleading, semi-terrified look that parents have when their child might melt down in public. (Believe me, I know that look.) The poor flight attendant found herself apologizing profusely, like this was all her fault. I’m sorry, I really am … we don’t have another aisle seat. We hadn’t even taken off yet and Sterling was wearing down both flight attendants. Was this what it was like to work for him? Would he just be complaining constantly about the temperature of sodas, the lady who cleaned his office, the point guard they just signed … would it just never end?

At some point, I realized that his assistant happened to be stuck in coach, which was a big part of the problem — and funny in itself, that he didn’t spring for a first-class ticket for her — because he couldn’t survive on his own. She kept barging into first class to check on Sterling. And I kept wondering if I had her pegged wrong. Was this really his assistant? Was this his girlfriend? And if this was his girlfriend, why wasn’t she sitting with him? She was under 35 years old and extremely doting, but she’d had a ton of plastic surgery already and looked a little felinelike. How many assistants have had extensive work done? What the hell was going on here?

What I didn’t know at the time: This lady was about 11 months away from having a VERY famous Instagram account. Yup … V. Stiviano.

Right before we took off, I quickly typed a “here’s what’s happened so far” email report to three buddies, just in case Mo stabbed me in the neck with a jagged Dasani bottle during the flight. Once we were in the air, Sterling offered his Wall Street Journal to the guy sitting next to him. When the guy turned it down, Sterling abrasively snapped, “What’s the matter, you don’t want to learn about the news?!?”

And then, something incredible happened — THE GUY TOOK THE NEWSPAPER! Sterling bullied him into reading it!

Maybe this is what Sterling does, I remember thinking. Maybe he just wears people down. Like a one-man Stockholm syndrome. We hit our altitude and the flight attendants started getting our food and drink orders. Sterling reacted like they were explaining the amnesty clause to him. His assistant/girlfriend/handler/lackey/whatever-she-was barged back into our aisle and stayed there. She was breaking all existing first-class/coach barriers and it just didn’t matter. She told the flight attendants that she had brought Sterling soup, so no, he wouldn’t be needing any food. Huge disappointment. I really wanted to hear him complain about airplane food.

She went back and grabbed a MASSIVE plastic bowl of soup. I love soup and I could never eat this much soup in one sitting. We’re talking 32 liters of soup. Sterling started eating the soup and flirting with the flight attendants, who suddenly adored him and laughed at his jokes. Like someone flipped a switch. What happened??? Even Mo seemed happier. I was sitting there thinking, What the hell was in that soup? Was it minestrone doused with Molly? And how can I get some?

Sterling told the flight attendants that he was heading to San Antonio for a basketball game,3 then admitted that he’d never been to San Antonio and asked what was “fun.” One of them mentioned a bar she liked.

“I don’t mean a bar!” Sterling growled. “Bars aren’t fun. I want fun!”

I missed the next part of this conversation after spending the next few minutes trying to figure out what “fun” meant. A nightclub? A strip joint? A brothel? A Satanic ritual? But everything was chummier now. Donald Sterling was holding court. He was slimy and oily and greasy and gross and weird and strangely charming. At one point, his assistant told everyone that Sterling owns his own plane but decided to fly commercial instead because “he likes United.” (Yeah, right.) Sterling followed by mumbling something incoherent that vaguely resembled a joke. Everyone laughed reflexively. He had these ladies in the palm of his hand. Naturally, he tried to set one up with Mo. Who knew Donald Sterling could be a good wingman? Mo’s a handsome guy. Mo doesn’t have a problem meeting women, all the ladies love Mo. He was hooking up Mo like CP3 hooking up Blake. For the last hour of that San Antonio flight, everyone loved Donald Sterling. For once.

Nobody loved him last night. You kept hearing Clippers players and coaches described as “victims” these past few days, but nobody mentioned the embattled Clippers employees — the ones who spent years and years living through his petty slights and tirades, his insufferable stinginess, and the ongoing humiliation of working for an unlikable human being. On Monday afternoon, with sponsors pulling out left and right and fans angrily canceling their season tickets, I called a friend who works for them to make sure he was OK. He wasn’t OK. He was devastated. Everyone in that office was devastated.

“We’re sitting here feeling like WE did something wrong,” he said. “That’s the worst part. You have people yelling at you, ‘How can you work for that guy?’ and you can’t even come up with an answer. There’s no answer.”

Neither of us was totally surprised, of course. I have spent an unusual amount of time with people who work for the Clippers. I have gotten drunk with them, played basketball with them and eaten many meals with them. Sterling’s creepy shadow loomed over every conversation. He cheaped out with everyone and everything. Eventually, they learned to work around his array of faults the same way family members work around an alcoholic father or an abusive uncle. Even when the team’s fortunes flipped these last few years — thanks to the Griffin lottery and the Paul trade — every Clippers employee waited for Sterling to screw things up.

It finally happened last weekend, right as Dallas and Memphis were giving the Spurs and Thunder everything they could handle. Clippers fans went to bed on Friday night wondering if they were one week away from stealing home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. They woke up on Saturday listening to TMZ tapes and wondering what the hell happened. Sterling reared his ugly head at the worst possible time. Maybe that’s how this had to end. Maybe you never totally escape your baggage.

We’ll remember April 29, 2014, as the day the NBA finally banned an owner for life. We’ll also remember it as the first post-Sterling game, a fresh start for everyone who ever loved the Clippers. They pulled away in the fourth thanks to DeAndre Jordan uncharacteristically draining a cluster of free throws. With Sterling finally gone, the charity stripe has emerged as the kinder, less frightening, less intrusive Achilles heel of this Clippers season.

Nobody trusts Blake or DeAndre in a big moment there. But it’s better than Sterling sitting there, that’s for sure. Jordan kept sinking those damned free throws as the crowd chanted “Dee Jay! Dee Jay! Dee Jay!” He sealed the game by accidentally banking one off the backboard, because of course he did. Everyone laughed and cheered and laughed some more. Even DeAndre laughed. The Clippers were finally getting some lucky breaks. It wasn’t a coincidence.  

Filed Under: NBA, NBA Playoffs

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Bill Simmons is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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