And so a miserable ogre gets what he wants. Not once during his three-week run of madness did Donald Sterling give an impression that he cared whether the team he loosely owns, the Los Angeles Clippers, won an NBA title. What Sterling ached for was a legal brawl with the league, arguing that a racist rant is insufficient reason for commissioner Adam Silver and the other 29 franchise owners to railroad him from the NBA.
Now, he has the spotlight to himself, having alerted Silver via letter that he won’t pay a $2.5 million fine because “no punishment is warranted’’ and that he intends to sue the league because he wasn’t accorded his “due process rights’’ when Silver banned him for life. The NBA doesn’t think his argument will hold up, nor do most legal experts, but as a litigator by trade, Sterling does have the experience and the audacity to drag the case into limbo for weeks, months and maybe years. That means the Clippers, who discussed a boycott as players after their owner’s repulsive comments on a leaked tape, will have to make monumental decisions with the rest of their NBA brethren when training camp approaches in October.
If the thought of boycotting games and losing paychecks seems unfair, nothing was fair about what they’ve had to endure amid an unprecedented ordeal. As if finally wilting in exhaustion over the intense fallout from his racist rant, the Clippers collapsed in the second half of Game 6 and were eliminated from the Western Conference semifinals by the irrepressible Kevin Durant and the Thunder. Jack Nicholson even showed up at Staples Center, abandoning his allegiance as the supreme Lakers fan to enjoy legitimate basketball, but Durant was too good, scoring 39 points on only 23 points and giving the NBA three powerhouse teams — Thunder vs. Spurs in the Western finals, Heat in the East finals — to join the baffling Pacers in the final four.
Doc Rivers and his players don’t want to give Sterling the satisfaction, so they refused to blame the scandal for their failure. But they are human. And just as they blew a late 13-point deficit to lose Game 5, they coughed up an early 16-point lead against a quiet crowd almost resigned to their fate. They’re still the Los Angeles Clippers, after all. And though Sterling wasn’t allowed to attend their games, he still wielded his bad karma, as he has for most of his 33 years of bumbling ownership.
“We’ve gone through a lot of stuff over the last three or four weeks. I don’t think that was why we didn’t win,’’ Rivers said. “I don’t think we should use that as an excuse. We’re a team in process. I believe we were good enough to win it this year. Oklahoma City told us we were not.”
In the end, the Clippers didn’t have enough championship-level pieces to surround Chris Paul, whose Game 5 meltdown will haunt him all summer if not the rest of his career. Like his coach, Paul refused to blame Sterling, saying, “To tell you the truth, we don’t think about that. The least of our worries is him. We just lost the damn series. I’m sorry, but we don’t care about that. That’s the last thing on our minds. We give him too much attention as it is.”
But the Clippers lacked energy and resilience when it was needed most, continuing a pattern of inconsistency. Some night, they performed like a potential title night; other nights, they were, well, the Clippers. Paul, who never has advanced beyond the second round of a series, is starting to hear whispers that he’s a postseason underachiever. He bristles at the thought.
“I’m going to prepare every offseason like I always do,” Paul said. “This ain’t tennis. It ain’t just me. We don’t play one-on-one. It’s not just to get out of the second round, it’s to win a championship. I don’t know anybody in our league that plays for the finals, for the Western Conference finals. That’s not enough.
“It’s tough. You don’t get a chance to be on teams like this that often, you know. Oklahoma City absolutely deserves it. We had a really, really good team, a great team. Before the game, Doc talked about it. I told somebody at halftime: It’s crazy — you play all season long, and the last few games we really started to figure out who our team was and how to play. And it’s crazy that it’s over. Man, we really do have a great team, a collective group of players. It’s tough to realize that it’s over.’’
He couldn’t get Game 5 out of his head. “It’s probably the toughest thing basketball-wise that I’ve ever been through,” Paul said. “I don’t know. It felt like the only way I could get it out of my mind was to play again. I got a great group of teammates that texted me all night last night and yesterday — and it’s going to hurt for a while because we should have been here up 3-2 with a chance to close it out. It’s a long summer, I can tell you that much.”
The finality may be permanent. While Paul, Blake Griffin and a talented core return, how many players will want to suit up for a team that still belongs to Donald and/or Shelly Sterling? How many fans will show up? How many sponsors will keep supporting the franchise? What free agents would want to sign with the Clippers? Rivers, who vows to stay and fight with league-appointed CEO Dick Parsons, sees the defeat as a challenge for Paul and a wounded team.
“We got out of the first round, advanced. We had a chance in this series, clearly. I just feel awful for him,’’ Rivers said of Paul. “Just point-blank, I do. He’s the spirit of our team, and right now, his spirit is broken. He’s going to have all summer to work and get ready for next year, but he’ll be back. He’ll be ready. He’ll be better next year.’’
As for the Clippers, they aren’t the Thunder and they certainly aren’t the Spurs. But they’ve come far from their previous laughingstock existence. “I think we started coming together, but time ran out,” Rivers said. “I was around Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) a lot and Duke basketball. You know exactly what Duke basketball is because he’s been there forever. Early in the year, I heard ‘Clipper basketball,’ I was like, `What the hell is that?’ We’re trying to figure out what that is. I thought during this playoff series, we started figuring out exactly like what Clipper basketball is and will be. I just kept thinking, `Man, if we can get through a couple more games, we’re there.’ You can feel it.
“And time ran out. That’s the tough part.”
Sterling, too, ultimately will lose in court because he violated Article 13(d) of the NBA constitution, which allows for the removal of an owner should he “fail or refuse to fulfill” responsibilities “in such a way to affect the Association or its members adversely.” Sterling will argue that he has committed no crime, that he can’t be banned because of one freedom-of-speech debacle.
“I’m apologizing and I’m asking for forgiveness,” he told Anderson Cooper on CNN this week. “Am I entitled to one mistake? After 35 years. I mean, I love my league, I love my partners. … It’s a terrible mistake, and I’ll never do it again.
“I’m not a racist, I’ve never been a racist and I’ll never be a racist. I can’t explain some of the stupid, foolish uneducated words that I uttered.’’
Of course, minutes later, he was stupid, foolish and uneducated in his thrashing of Magic Johnson, criticizing the basketball great for not being a healthy role model because he contracted “those AIDS’’ in 1991 — actually, the HIV virus — and because he doesn’t do enough to help disadvantaged African-Americans. In truth, Johnson has donated tens of millions to HIV/AIDS and African-American causes.
Why would Sterling think the owners would give him another chance when he has been — and continues to be — such a creep? “I don’t know. I guess I have to, you know, look into the heart. You know and maybe give me a chance. Give me another chance.
“Maybe it’s fair. I mean, for all of the aggravation, all of the embarrassment, all the humiliation I caused them.”
It is fair, purging him from the NBA and the public eye. But before he goes away, an 81-year-old freak show wants to take down others with him. Count his players among the victims.