If it started as a madcap Hollywood scandal — a glorified call girl taping the racist ramblings of an 80-year-old coot who claimed his comments were in the context “of trying to have sex with her’’ — the Donald Sterling case now is becoming increasingly bizarre and disturbing for the NBA. Sterling and his estranged wife now are in the creepy mode of conducting celebrity interviews, Donald with Anderson Cooper and Shelly with Barbara Walters, which is their way of announcing, from separate camps, that each is lawyered up and ready to rumble against the league’s attorneys.
It means a complex legal entanglement has little chance of being resolved quickly, and that even if the league is successful in purging Sterling’s ownership of the Los Angeles Clippers, it may not have legal recourse preventing Shelly from continuing to control 50 percent of the team, a share to which she is entitled under terms of a family trust. The proceedings likely will drag into next year, if not beyond, and that isn’t what players in a predominantly African-American league want to hear only two weeks after NBA commissioner Adam Silver banned Donald Sterling for life. It only increases the possibility that the game walkouts tentatively planned two weeks ago, before Silver announced the sanctions, will happen en masse next season.
“The players will boycott,’’ Magic Johnson predicted on ABC.
You thought the big, bad wolf was gone? He may be battling cancer and dealing with “the onset of dementia,’’ as Shelly told Barbara, but The Beverly Hills Donald has only begun to fight. He seems determined not to bow out but to reclaim what he believes is his, as it has been since 1981. For now, he is content to beg for mercy and forgiveness, which is not a good look, knowing the man is bloated with b.s.
“I’m not a racist,” Sterling told CNN’s Cooper. “I made a terrible mistake. I’m here to apologize. I’m a good member who made a mistake and I’m apologizing and I’m asking for forgiveness. Am I entitled to one mistake, am I after 35 years? I mean, I love my league, I love my partners. Am I entitled to one mistake? It’s a terrible mistake, and I’ll never do it again.”
He’s a little late on the apology, copping to being “emotionally distraught’’ since the V. Stiviano tape, but Sterling is convinced his NBA ownership partners will rally for him. “If the owners feel I have another chance, then they’ll give it to me,” Sterling said. “The reason it’s hard for me, very hard for me, is that I’m wrong. I caused the problem. I don’t know how to correct it.’’
Sterling can correct it by agreeing to sell the team. Now. Problem is, Shelly doesn’t want to sell her share. Her lawyer, Pierce O’Donnell, says he’s trying to work out an arrangement with Silver for his client to keep her stake while taking a non-active role in the franchise’s operations. If nothing is resolved? “I will fight that decision,’’ Shelly told Barbara on ABC. If I was Walters and retirement was nearing, I’d be trying to break real stories, not interviewing nut cases.
These legal threats and volleys are marring one of the great NBA postseasons in memory, with the Clippers in the center of the on-court drama with their thrilling series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. LeBron James, the most powerful voice among the league’s player ranks, made it clear that the players won’t be satisfied until all the Sterlings are gone. Or else.
“As players, we want what’s right and we don’t feel like no one in his family should be able to own the team,” James said. “At the end of the day, this is going to be a long litigation when it comes to that. This guy who’s owned the team since the ’80s is not going to just give the team up in a day. So we understand it’s going to be long, but we want what’s right.”
Translated, James is letting Silver know that the players will be patient for only so long. At some point, as long as a racist and a wife who allegedly has made racist comments continue to own the Clippers, the league is in danger of a player walkout. Sterling is a litigator by trade in the corrupt legal community of L.A., where judges and attorneys are in bed with each other and easily can be swayed by an owed favor, a payoff, a dalliance. Sterling graduated from law school in L.A. in 1960, when he still went by his birthname of Don Tokowitz, and he has been a massive if sometimes dubious presence in the city’s law and real estate communities since then. Be reminded that Sterling won the case in an L.A. courtroom when his former general manager, Elgin Baylor, sued him for racial and age discrimination.
So why do the NBA’s lawyers think they have a slam-dunk case here when if they beat one Sterling, they’ll still have to contend with the other? The league views Donald Sterling as the only controlling owner and that Shelly Sterling, without any controlling power, can be removed easily. In a statement, the league said, “Under the NBA Constitution, if a controlling owner’s interest is terminated by a 3/4 vote, all other team owners’ interests are automatically terminated as well. It doesn’t matter whether the owners are related as is the case here. These are the rules to which all NBA owners agreed to as a condition of owning their team.”
That is the NBA’s side. The L.A. legal system might see it differently, starting with Sterling’s expected injunction filing once he realizes the owners aren’t going to give him a second chance, not when he has had too many chances in the past. L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti states at every opportunity that new ownership “is in the best interests of the fans and our city,’’ but the NBA doesn’t have the anti-trust powers and latitude of Major League Baseball. Know this about both Sterling challenges: Neither will be flimsy.
Despite the ugly backdrop, the Clippers mounted one of the better comebacks in NBA playoff history, returning from a 22-point deficit to win Game 5 and tie a magnificent series at 2-2. Had they lost? Well, 96.3 percent of teams that trail 3-1 in a postseason series eventually are eliminated.
“Everybody kept telling each other, `Chip away, chip away,’ ” Blake Griffin said. “That was kind of our mentality for the rest of the game. We just kept fighting.”
“The whole time I’m thinking, `We can’t be down 3-1, we just can’t be down 3-1 going to Oklahoma,’ ” said Darren Collison, the hero with eight points in the final three minutes.
It’s a team that deserves its own stage, having waited so long to thrive in the playoffs while its owner bumbled around for three decades as a laughingstock. But with the Clippers just two victories from the Western Conference finals, the Sterling menace is in the way like never before, in double-whammy form. Both of these people should cede to the league, sell the team for $1 billion-plus, split the money and get out of each other’s lives — and ours.
Instead, they’ll keep torturing us.