Unless you wear a white hood or support the views of a Nevada cattle rancher named Cliven Bundy, who recently suggested that black people are “better off as slaves, picking cotton,’’ you are repulsed by Donald Sterling today. You completely understand why Sterling’s coach, an African American, is contemplating quitting after the season, and why Sterling’s players, most of whom are African American, aren’t enthusiastic about winning a playoff series for his franchise, wearing black wristbands and socks in solidarity after staging a silent pregame protest against the owner by shedding their “CLIPPERS’’ warm-up jackets and wearing logo-free red shirts. This isn’t just another ignorant lout making some ugly news.
This is a referendum on racism in America, a checkpoint in history, with the predominantly black and eminently prospering NBA as the stage. This is about underlying tension among players who left the negotiating table bitterly two years ago, thinking David Stern and the owners he represented as commissioner were a little too “plantation’’ for their 21st-century tastes. This is about LeBron James wondering a few weeks ago why baseball’s Miguel Cabrera could sign a record-shattering 10-year, $292 million contract extension while James, the country’s most celebrated athlete, has his salary capped with a six-year, $109 million deal. This is about Stern, in a curious decision that helped Sterling’s business when the commissioner should have been more aggressively investigating his history of racial discrimination, allowing star point guard Chris Paul to join the Clippers in a 2011 trade after vetoing a deal that would have shipped Paul to the far more successful Los Angeles team, the Lakers.
This is big enough for President Obama to admonish Sterling. “The owner is reported to have said some incredibly offensive racist statements that were published. I don’t think I have to interpret those statements for you; they kind of speak for themselves. When people — when ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance you don’t really have to do anything, you just let them talk. And that’s what happened here,’’ Obama said. “Obviously, the NBA is a league that is beloved by fans all across the country. It’s got an awful lot of African-American players. It’s steeped in African-American culture. And I suspect that the NBA is going to be deeply concerned in resolving this. … The United States continues to wrestle with the legacy of race, slavery and segregation. That’s still there — the vestiges of discrimination. We’ve made enormous strides, but you’re going to continue to see this percolate up every so often. And I think that we just have to be clear and steady in denouncing it, teaching our children differently, but also remaining hopeful that part of why some statements like this stand out so much is because there has been this shift in how we view ourselves.’’
This is big enough for Magic Johnson, who might be the best candidate to buy the Clippers, to say Sterling no longer should own the team. This is big enough for Michael Jordan, sometimes reluctant to make social statements, to say he is “disgusted’’ and “outraged’’ by Sterling’s “sickening’’ views. “There is no room in the NBA — or anywhere else — for the kind of racism and hatred that Mr. Sterling allegedly expressed,’’ Jordan said. “I am appalled that this type of ignorance still exists within our country and at the highest levels of our sport. In a league where the majority of players are African-American, we cannot and must not tolerate discrimination at any level.” This is big enough for community leaders in Los Angeles and around the country to rebuke Sterling, for black leaders to suggest black fans boycott Clippers games starting with Tuesday night’s Game 5 of the Clippers-Golden State series. This is so big that even Sterling’s wife, Rochelle, showed up in Oakland for the game after the new commissioner, Adam Silver, asked Sterling not to appear.
“I do not condone those statements that you heard. I do not believe in them,’’ she said. “I am not a racist. I never have been, never will be. The team is the most important thing to my family.’’ It was her way of making it known that the Sterling family, if the team is taken away from him, still wants to own the Clippers, and also a way to show her face as she and the family sue the woman in the now-infamous audiotape, V. Stiviano (one of several names she goes by), for allegedly “embezzling’’ more than $1.8 million from Sterling during an intimate relationship that began in 2010.
Yes, the Sterling debacle is about much more than a basketball series.
But the best way for the Clippers to exact revenge on Sterling — and all the evils his words reflect — is by winning this basketball series. And the next one. And the one after that. And the one after that, which would be the NBA Finals, which would announce with a bullhorn to Donald Sterling that they rose above him.
“If we can pull this off all the way,’’ said the coach, Doc Rivers, “I think that would be a terrific message. Our message is to play. Our message is that we’re going to let no one and nothing stop us from what we want to do. And I think that’s a good message.’’
“We’re going to be one, everything we do, we do it together. Our message — it sounds simple — it’s stay together, play ball,” Paul told ABC. “We worked really hard to be where we are. I couldn’t imagine going through anything like this with anybody leading us other than Doc. He’s been amazing and for us, we have to focus on what we’re trying to do.’’
Yet with all due respect to symbolic solidarity, the Clippers were distracted by it in a 118-97 blowout loss in Game 4. Energy was going to be a problem for the players after the whirlwind events of the previous 36 hours, starting when TMZ posted the audio of Sterling’s racist comments during a March conversation with Stiviano, whose questions sounded like a set-up. As Paul said, they need to listen to Rivers, who would have preferred they devoted all their thoughts and energies to the game instead of going through protest rituals.
“I knew about it. I didn’t voice my opinion,” Rivers said. “I wasn’t thrilled about it, to be honest. But if that’s what they want to do, that’s what they want to do.
“I’m not going to deny we had other stuff. I just believe when the game starts, the game starts and nobody cares anymore. Golden State surely didn’t care.”
It would be a damn shame if the Clippers lost this series because they were weighed down by Sterling’s shame. They are right to target him as the enemy, and they’ve made their collective statement about what they think of his franchise. But they cannot fold simply because he signs their paychecks. And they can’t wilt to pressures from black groups to take a grand stand and boycott a game, which likely would have been ruled as a forfeit by the NBA. To boycott would be to quit. And quitting would be the worst alternative at this point.
Winning is the best option. They can’t win when they’re thinking about protests.
“Maybe our focus wasn’t in the right place would be the easiest way to say it,” said guard J.J. Redick, who happens to be white.
They return to Staples Center for Game 5. Expect an insane scene of activism, media frenzy and angst in a city with a history of racial violence. “We’re going home now, and usually that would mean we’re going to our safe haven. And I don’t even know if that’s true,’’ RIvers said.
Said Paul: “I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about what it is going to be like. Because our fans have been amazing all season long, and obviously I hope that it will be the same. You just never know. They’ve been amazing, and we wouldn’t be where we are without them. But it’s tough.”
Would they understand if Clippers fans boycotted the game? “I would understand,” Rivers said. “I hope not. We need them. I can tell you that. We need everybody. We play for them. We always have. So we do need them. We’re going to need them bad on Tuesday. We’re going to need them there. We’re going to need them in our corner. But, listen, I get all of it. Like I said to the gentlemen, someone wants to do it another way, I get that, too, and I have no problem with that either.”
It is hoped that Silver, as he said Saturday night, will act swiftly and at least suspend Sterling indefinitely before Tuesday night arrives. Just as important will be what Rivers and the players say and do in the coming hours. RIvers admitted he should have done more homework on Sterling’s racist past before taking the job last summer. He said Sunday that he isn’t sure he’ll return next season if Sterling, for some ungodly reason, is still the owner.
“Don’t know yet,’’ he said. “I’m going to leave it at that.’’
As layers of anxiety hang thick over Los Angeles and a nation, we wait on the new commissioner. The NBA Players Association wants Sterling punished with the maximum possible penalties and doesn’t want him anywhere near his team or the public eye during the postseason. “The players are waiting for the commissioner to act decisively,” said Sacramento mayor and former NBA star Kevin Johnson, who is helping guide the union in this matter. “They want the maximum of what the constitution and bylaws will allow and we’re trying to figure out what that is. They want the maximum. They want a decision to be made quickly and decisively. If you don’t respect the players in this league, then the values that we all espouse are for naught.”
Donald T. Sterling should be banned for life by the NBA. Anything less may cause a racial uprising in this country. While hoping Silver realizes that, I also hope Rivers and the players realize that winning not only can ease some of the tension, but also create a proud, honorable place for this team in American history.