Racist comments from Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling sparked a firestorm of criticism from the media, NBA players, and NBA fans and non-fans alike, and it even prompted a public reaction from President Obama. But for those acquainted with Sterling’s shameful record on race, not to mention his unscrupulous business history and his horrendous ownership of a major-market professional basketball organization, the news is not surprising at all.
For many NBA experts and Los Angeles residents, it’s bewildering that it has taken this long for Sterling’s ignorance to garner national attention. His lifelong ban by NBA commissioner Adam Silver on Tuesday is a relief not just to those who reject racism in all forms but also to those who support the health of professional basketball.
"He has a bad reputation, as far as I'm concerned. ... I'm not surprised by this very much, and that's really the most unfortunate part of this," retired NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who served as a Clippers assistant coach in 2000, told CNN.
Longtime Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor, an African-American and one of the greatest forwards in NBA history, filed a wrongful termination suit against Sterling in 2009. Baylor alleged that he was underpaid and treated “as a token because of his race.” He also contended that there was a “plantation mentality” within the organization.
Born Donald Tokowitz in 1934 and raised in the then-predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Boyle Heights in Los Angeles, Sterling made his fortune in real estate after years of working as a personal injury lawyer. It was the billionaire’s dealings with his apartment tenants that raised much of the initial concern about his views on minorities.
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Sterling faced discrimination lawsuits in 2003 and 2009, and he agreed to a $2.765 million settlement with tenants after the U.S. Department of Justice alleged that he discriminated against African-American, Latino and Asian tenants in 2009.
The comments in the suits were perhaps more damaging than the ones overheard in the recordings with his girlfriend, V. Stiviano, in which he objects to her appearing in photos with African-Americans.
Some of the alleged comments from Sterling in the lawsuits include that Latinos “smoke, drink and just hang around the building,” and that South Koreans will “live in whatever conditions” he gives them and “still pay the rent without complaint,” as well as “black tenants smell and attract vermin.”
Then there was the incident in 1983, when Sterling interviewed Villanova head coach Rollie Massimino for a job and allegedly referred to his players by using the N-word.
Given the scope of those alleged comments over more than three decades, Sterling should consider himself quite fortunate to have avoided intense scrutiny until now.
A possible reason for Sterling’s escape from condemnation and vigorous investigation might have to do with a lack of specifics over previous statements, in addition to his well-known philanthropy. This time, Sterling’s comments were recorded, and there was no escaping them.
“I can't speak to past actions other than to say that when specific evidence was brought to the NBA, we acted,” Silver said at Tuesday’s press conference.
A closer look into Sterling’s generosity by Los Angeles Times reporter Sandy Banks in January 2010 paints a rather distorted picture of a man who “might be a tight-fisted egomaniac” and his charitable motives. The article cites how Sterling made multiple misguided references about ethnic groups at the Donald T. Sterling Charitable Foundation Summit when he offered $1 million to 10 high schools and 20 charities in Los Angeles County.
Banks, an African-American who has been with the Times since 1979, inferred that Sterling's donations were perhaps used to cover up his insensitive comments or feelings about non-whites. For his financial contributions, Sterling received a Humanitarian Award from the Black Business Association and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The big question surrounding Sterling is how he could have lasted in the NBA as long as he did. It is no secret he had a strained relationship with former NBA commissioner David Stern, who had presided over the league from 1984-2014.
Stern was absolutely exhausted with Sterling’s frugal ways and for his unprofessional behavior. Just a few of the stories of Sterling’s disinterest in running a normal-functioning basketball organization include how he asked former head coach Paul Silas if he'd tape his players' ankles to avoid employing a team trainer, not paying for the medical bills of an assistant coach's prostate cancer surgery, and being sued by a fan for not paying the cash prize for a free-throw shooting contest.
Sterling was rarely fond of having a competitive payroll. For example, in the 2001-2002 NBA season, the Clippers were ranked last in terms of NBA team payrolls, at $33.8 million (No. 29). The Detroit Pistons came in at No. 28, at $42.3 million, which is $8.5 million more. Sterling had opportunities to sign players to bolster the team’s chances of making the playoffs, but would often decline to sign them because he didn't want to add to his team's meager payroll.
Stern had pushed Sterling to sell the Clippers or relocate the team to Anaheim, where the Clippers would regularly sell out games at The Pond. Sterling wouldn’t budge, even though the Clippers struggled to sell out games in L.A.
It seems naïve to presume that Stern didn’t know of Sterling’s racist comments. Stern most likely wanted Sterling out of the league without making a stink about race and had hoped that Sterling would sell the club for financial reasons rather than be forced out, as is the case now.
Through it all, Sterling wouldn’t sell. It didn’t matter that there were better opportunities for the club to move to a market where the Clippers could be the lone sports club in their city, like in Oklahoma City, where the Thunder sell out every game.
Sources within the organization had frequently spoken about how Sterling didn’t care about winning or losing. He owned a team that was growing in net value and could sit courtside at home games, and that was enough for him.
Sterling purchased the San Diego Clippers for $12.5 million in 1982 and then moved the team to Los Angeles, where the team would be a laughingstock for decades while the other team in L.A., the Lakers, would go on to win numerous championships. The Clippers-Lakers rivalry was an example of the sharp contrasts in the city’s basketball ownership. While Sterling would spend the bare minimum and unabashedly accept the team’s inferiority, longtime Lakers owner Jerry Buss spent lavishly to put out the best product possible with a fierce desire to not just win, but succeed with style.
It may not have been an awful business decision for Sterling to keep the team in L.A., as the Clippers’ net worth skyrocketed there, most likely due to their visibility in the No. 2 media market in the nation. Sterling’s relatively meager investment eventually ballooned to an estimated value of $575 million, even though the team has languished as perhaps the least successful pro sports franchise over the past three decades. Meanwhile, Forbes estimates Sterling’s net worth at $1.9 billion, due mainly to properties he owns and his ownership of the Clippers.
The true fallout for Sterling remains unclear. Forcing him to sell the team could result in multiple lawsuits. Even Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who is easily the most visible owner in the league, has alluded to how private comments shouldn’t necessarily cost an owner their team.
"In this country, people are allowed to be morons," Cuban said on Monday. "They're allowed to be stupid. They're allowed to think idiotic thoughts … Within an organization like the NBA, we try to do what's in the best interest of the league and that's why we have a commissioner and a constitution and I think [Silver] will be smart and deal with [Sterling] with the full extent available.
"But, again, if you're saying a blanket, 'Let's kick him out'-- I don't want to go that far, because it's not about Donald, it's not about his position, it's about his mess -- and what are we going to make a decision on?"
Since the advent of his ownership, Sterling has proved that he is immune to humiliation, and he may choose to fight to keep the Clippers, no matter how long and painful the fight might be.
He might not leave kicking and screaming, but it's doubtful he'll go quietly. This is a man who has no problem suing people, and who loved owning a basketball team.
There's something almost Nixonian about Sterling. He seems oblivious to how clueless he is about race and his prominent role in his industry. He is a man who dates a woman of black and Mexican descent, yet complains about her association with non-whites. He has spent decades showing up to watch a sports team in a glitzy city, but he rarely cared about their success.
No matter what the future holds for Sterling as an owner, his ban is enough to finally rid the NBA of his toxic presence.