A racist with cancer is still a racist. Not to be cruel, but Donald Sterling’s longstanding battle with prostate cancer, as reported late Thursday night, should not interrupt the NBA’s efforts to ban him from the league for life and remove him as quickly as possible as owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. In what has been a surreal week, news of Sterling’s condition spread numbly Thursday night as the Clippers failed to advance in the NBA playoffs, losing to the Golden State Warriors to force a seventh game Saturday in an exhausting first-round series.
If we feel bad for the man, we cannot give him a cushion for his ugly words, which continued Friday when he spoke for the first time since the scandal in an interview with DuJour.com. “I wish I had just paid her off,’’ Sterling reportedly said, with the site’s interviewer adding that Sterling had “expressed remorse.’’ History would not want the NBA to let him off the hook for such continued ignorance, even if some of his players somehow are finding compassion for him.
“If that is true, my thoughts and prayers are with him,’’ Clippers star Blake Griffin said after the 100-99 loss in Oakland. “Nobody deserves to go through something like that.’’
“Truly unfortunate,’’ said guard Chris Paul, president of an NBA players’ union that was ready to boycott games if Sterling wasn’t banned for life.
I do not apologize for my initial reaction: Does he really have cancer? Given his long trail of trying to slither out of trouble, could we put it past Sterling that he actually would contrive a cancer story and leak it to the New York Post? As the night progressed, legitimate confirmation arrived, and the question became whether the 80-year-old billionaire would move forward with his anticipated legal fight against the NBA or choose the decent path of announcing he’ll cooperate with a sale of his franchise while apologizing for the repulsive racial rant that led to commissioner Adam Silver’s sanctions. There still has been no hint of an answer from Sterling or his legal reps, and he is said to be holed up in the penthouse of a mostly empty office building he owns on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, an ailing pariah shielded from the scrutinizing lights of a stunned city and disgusted nation.
If any sympathy was starting to build toward the tyrannical owner, a reminder came of why Sterling still should be loathed. Three years ago, former NBA player Kim Hughes said Sterling refused to pay for Hughes’ prostate cancer surgery while he was an assistant coach with the Clippers. “I contacted the Clippers about medical coverage and they said the surgery wouldn’t be covered,” Hughes told The Journal Times of Racine, Wis. “They said if they did it for one person, they’d have to do it for everybody else.” It took several Clippers players to pay the $70,000 bill for Hughes’ procedure and recovery.
Sterling has the money to pay for the best doctors and medicine in the world. It’s just that he has few friends to share what remains of his life. If he wants to feel love, he would admit to his failures, spend a few years taking courses in racial studies and sensitivity training and let the Clippers move on with a new owner.
And here we thought Sterling was starting to fade from the public eye. Silver’s 10-member committee to rub out Sterling’s ownership met earlier Thursday and said it “”unanimously agreed to move forward as expeditiously as possible,’’ agreeing to meet again next week. As for coach Doc Rivers and the Clippers players, they finally were refocused on basketball and looking forward to closing out the Warriors. “I don’t know if we’re there completely but we’re getting closer,’’ Rivers said. “They’re in a better spirit, there’s no doubt. They’re actually joking again. They’re making jokes about their coach again. I think that’s good. There’s still stuff, obviously, and we’re still talking about `it.’ I don’t know what we call `it’ but I think we’re getting closer to playing basketball. I think the discussion will be here and that’s fine by us. I think our guys have been around it long enough now to deal with it and put it in its right place, but I think we’re getting closer and closer to talking about just basketball.’’
Then came the news of Sterling’s cancer fight. Coupled with emerging details that Sterling owns the team in a trust with his family, the vigorous celebrations of Tuesday melted into the sober reality that this curmudgeon of a man — a lawyer by trade — may tie up the case in the court system for years as an aggressive, brawling litigator. As Silver pointed out, the league sanctions only apply to Sterling. What stops him from handing over reins of the team to his wife, Rochelle? Or, what stops either him or his wife, in the wake of his affair with the racist-tape-tattling V. Stiviano, from filing for divorce and holding up the NBA’s attempt to force the sale? This could drag out for a hell of a long time, and Sterling’s lawyers surely will challenge the right to force his ouster based on private opinions released in what appears to be a set-up conversation with a girlfriend on a tape purchased by two sleazy websites. Haven’t other NBA owners voiced controversial views? Didn’t the DeVos family, which owns the Orlando Magic, speak out against gay marriage? Take it a step further — wasn’t Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission? Can’t Sterling’s people argue that he is the victim of selective punishment, despite his long trail of racist behavior in the past? If he is ejected from the owners’ club, why not others?
Sterling and his lawyers can argue anything they want. As long as they do, injunctions will be filed and delays will take place, throwing the entire mess into a lengthy limbo. Will Rivers want to stay when he has expressed no interest in remaining if Sterling is still connected to the team? Will the league do something radical such as shutting down the team and rebooting it with another nickname, if not moving it to another city such as Seattle? And after Griffin and a hobbling Paul struggled against an undermanned Warriors team, is it possible the Clippers will wilt in Game 7 and be remembered as a team that was worn out unfairly by a monumental scandal? “We understand the journey,” guard Jamal Crawford said. “It won’t be easy.’’
Whatever happens, the glee from a seminal moment has been reduced to a somber reality. A man who was banned for life is not fighting for his life.