After Bold NBA Stand, Sterling Must Bow Out

Now THAT is what you call a fierce, redoubtable leader dropping a nuclear bomb on a necessary target. In nailing America’s reigning racist with a lifetime ban, NBA commissioner Adam Silver has taken a striking stance that will be remembered not only as a powerful sports decision but a landmark moment in this country’s racial history. What David Stern couldn’t resolve in 30 years as league boss, Silver purged in merely three days in just his third month on the job. He rid pro basketball of a repulsive hater named Donald Sterling, and to robust applause everywhere, he made the world a better place.

Any concern that Silver would be wishy-washy, any fear that he’d pardon one of the men who pay his salary as some commissioners do, ended when he walked into a Manhattan news conference and, in a slightly trembling voice reflecting his anger, said he will do “everything in my power’’ to force Sterling to sell the Los Angeles Clippers. As promised, Silver had spent his previous 72 hours investigating the audiotape containing Sterling’s deplorable remarks about blacks and asked Sterling if the voice indeed was his. When the answer was yes, Silver, with the backing of owners not always eager to punish one of their own, chose to mete out the harshest penalty in NBA history to its longest-tenured owner, including a $2.5 million fine.

“The central findings of the investigation are that the man whose voice is on the recordings is Mr. Sterling and that the hateful feelings are those of Mr. Sterling. The views expressed by Mr. Sterling are deeply disturbing and alarming,” Silver said. “We stand together in condemning Mr. Sterling’s views. They simply have no place in the NBA.’’

Or in life, at least in a civilized and decent society.

What comes next, we hope, is a heartfelt apology to all Americans from Sterling and a statement that he’ll cooperate with the league in quickly selling the team. I am not expecting it. The creep happens to be a fighter and an aggressive litigator — he was a lawyer before he became a slumlord and sports owner — and he’ll likely sue the league with the same fire he used in arguing with the woman who ultimately brought him down, a black and Hispanic former girlfriend named V. Stiviano. After getting word of the decision, Sterling told Fox News reporter Jim Gray that he isn’t selling the team. All it takes is a three-quarters vote from the league owners to force Sterling to sell, and even if he fights to the end, he is left with few friends and no clout and won’t find much leverage in any courtroom. “I fully expect to get the support I need from the other NBA owners I need to remove him,’’ Silver said.

Suddenly, a man who just last year was a fairly anonymous wingman in Stern’s empire becomes a unifying figure in a country still quivering with racial tension. Had Silver not acted swiftly, the ramifications could have been highly damaging. Would there have been riots in Los Angeles, a city with a history of racial tension? Would Clippers players have boycotted Game 5 or other games in their first-round playoff series with the Golden State Warriors? How would the league’s players react when eight of every 10 are African-American? SIlver answered every question in a matter of minutes with remarkable efficiency and brawn.

“Adam Silver is not only the owners’ commissioner, he’s the players’ commissioner,’’ said Sacramento mayor and former NBA star Kevin Johnson, who has been helping the National Basketball Players Association as a liaison.

President Obama, who rebuked Sterling publicly, is satisfied. Black leaders across the country are pleased, with the NAACP announcing it “is pleased the NBA is taking swift and strong action against Donald Sterling for his racist and offensive remarks. Their decision to ban Mr. Sterling indefinitely from the league, seek his removal from ownership and fine him $2.5 million — the maximum amount under NBA rules — is both welcomed and supported. The alleged statements made by Mr. Sterling were deplorable and cannot be tolerated. Bigotry and hatred have no place in the NBA or any other arena of our society.”

Of course, Silver needed the backing of the collective backing of the owners he serves. He had it, with apparent unanimity. “The commissioner was correct to ban Mr. Sterling from all official NBA business, to levy the stiffest allowable fine, and we will support his recommendation to press for Mr. Sterling to relinquish his ownership of the Los Angeles Clippers franchise,” said Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who had been known to socialize with Sterling in the past.

And the man perhaps best equipped to lead the Clippers into the future, as a rare unifying figure in a massive and diverse city, was quick to tweet his emotions. “Commissioner Silver showed great leadership in banning LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life,’’ said Magic Johnson, who was thrust into the controversy when Sterling scolded Stiviano for taking a picture with the NBA great and posting it on her Instagram account. “Former and current NBA players are very happy and satisfied with Commissioner Silver’s ruling.’’

One lingering question: What took so long to run him out? Since he bought the team in 1981, Sterling has been one of the worst owners in sports and the subject of constant accusations of discrimination and unsavory behavior, including charges that he didn’t want African-Americans, Latinos and families with children living in the apartment complexes he owns throughout Los Angeles. His own players, including Baron Davis, have spoken bitterly about Sterling’s racist comments in their presence. Oddly, Stern, tolerated these overtones.

While saying he couldn’t speak for his former boss, Silver said the league didn’t have enough evidence in the past to act. This week, the league had all the evidence it needed, on a tape verified by Stiviano, a third person who was in the room and, finally, Sterling himself. It confirmed years of stories about Sterling’s racist attitudes and overwhelmed the sleaze of his ex-girlfriend, a snake herself in selling the tape to dubious websites. Mark Cuban, the league’s most outspoken owner, was off-base the previous night when he questioned if Sterling’s free-speech rights should protect him from having his team removed.

“I think there’s a (league) constitution for a reason, right?” Cuban said. “Because this is a very slippery slope. What Donald said was wrong. It was abhorrent. There’s no place for racism in the NBA, any business I’m associated with, and I don’t want to be associated with people who have that position. But at the same time, that’s a decision I make. I think you’ve got to be very, very careful when you start making blanket statements about what people say and think, as opposed to what they do. It’s a very, very slippery slope.

“In this country, people are allowed to be morons. They’re allowed to be stupid. They’re allowed to think idiotic thoughts. 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?’’

Wait. Isn’t Cuban the owner who champions the fans? How can he be hypocritical and herald free speech when Sterling’s stance clearly is not good for the fans or the NBA business? “In no uncertain terms am I supporting what Donald Sterling said, or his position,” Cuban continued. “He’s obviously racist, he’s obviously bigoted. And in this day and age when you’re in the public eye, you’ve got to be damn careful — if that’s your position, and that’s unfortunately where you’re at, you better be damn careful what you say, even in the privacy of your own home. But regardless of your background, regardless of the history they have, if we’re taking something somebody said in their home and we’re trying to turn it into something that leads to you being forced to divest property in any way, shape or form, that’s not the United States of America. I don’t want to be part of that.”

By the next afternoon, Cuban was on board, like the rest of us who aren’t racists. “I agree 100% with Commissioner Silvers (sic) findings and the actions taken against Donald Sterling,’’ he tweeted.

Now, we await a response from the ogre. There is only one right way for Donald Sterling to react, and, as always, he’ll probably take the wrong way. And that would make a sad, pathetic story about a sad, pathetic man even sadder and more pathetic.