The Sterling Stall Threatens Clippers’ Future

Not to suggest that the Los Angeles justice system is vulnerable to bribery — never, ever would I have a reason to go there — but let’s say Donald Sterling decided to write a fat check. Or cash in an old marker. Or remind someone in power that Sterling bought him a call girl 25 years ago. You do realize, if this happened, that he is capable of dragging his court case through the summer and into October, to the point where Doc Rivers quits, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are boycotting practices and LeBron James is leading a charge of NBA players who refuse to play games as long as Sterling and his wife are connected in any way to Clippers ownership.

Yes, Sterling is having a last laugh at America’s expense.

What commissioner Adam Silver misjudged three months ago, when he attempted to ramrod Sterling out of the league in a single news conference, is that the Beverly Hills racist is an L.A. litigator by trade. Not only does he know influential people in the local legal racket, he knows how to manipulate the system. Sterling still stands little chance of winning back control of the franchise, having made a mockery of himself in probate court by calling his wife “a pig’’ and generally acting like a curmudgeon who doesn’t appear to be as much “mentally incapacitated’’ — as his wife, Shelly, is trying to claim — as he is old, crotchety, stubborn and mean. By filing a suit this week that asks for damages from his wife, the NBA and Silver, Sterling is attempting to freeze Shelly’s $2 billion sale of the Clippers to Steve Ballmer and derail the league’s grand plan to reboot the franchise with a stable, well-heeled owner.

For now, the curmudgeon is succeeding.

The first sign of concern came last week, when Silver warned that the Sterlings still might technically own the team when training camp starts. “I can’t say with certainty because it’s in the hands of the probate court right now, and Donald is in the process of suing us for lots of money and we’re defending ourselves against those lawsuits,” Silver said. “It’s difficult to say anything with certainty in a situation like this. I can say with certainty that we are doing everything in our power to move Donald out as an owner in the NBA.”

Then came the warnings this week from Dick Parsons, the league-appointed interim CEO of the Clippers, who testified in court that Rivers has said he’ll resign as team president and head coach if the Sterlings aren’t swept away like beach debris in the coming weeks. You take this threat seriously for many reasons, including Rivers’ profound lack of respect for Sterling but also because the Lakers, rather curiously, have yet to hire a head coach and could snare Rivers without having to call him a moving van.

“He has told me he doesn’t think if Mr. Sterling remains that he wants to continue as coach. He’s told me that at least three times,’’ Parsons said. “If Doc were to leave, that would be a disaster,” Parsons said. “Doc is the father figure of the team. Chris is the on-court captain of the team. But Doc is really the guy who leads the effort. He’s the coach, the grown-up, he’s a man of character and ability — not just in a basketball sense, but in the ability to connect with people and gain their trust. The team believes in him and admires and loves him. If he were to bail, with all the other circumstances, it would accelerate the death spiral.”

The comments could be rhetoric to accelerate the legal process. Fact is, it’s summer, and no one in the league is hyperventilating about the outcome quite yet. Last we saw Griffin, he was stifling a laugh at the ESPY awards when host Drake cracked a one-liner about Sterling. But in due time, the Sterling Stall could drive away lucrative sponsorships and kill whatever momentum the Clippers have gathered in their new era of winning and prosperity. “If none of your sponsors want to sponsor you, your coach doesn’t want to coach you and your players don’t want to play for you, what do you have?” Parsons told the court.

Even Ballmer’s attorneys are starting to make demands, saying the former Microsoft CEO could pull out of the deal if a verdict isn’t reached soon. Sterling claims he could lure more than $2 billion for the team if he was involved in the sale, which isn’t far-fetched given the ongoing boom in sports franchise in TV values, and while he did meet with Ballmer days ago at his Beverly Hills mansion, nothing was resolved.

The panic date is Sept. 15. If Donald and/or Shelly Sterling have control of the team on that date, the NBA owners will vote to oust the Sterlings and then commence with its own sale of the team. This is an option the owners have avoided because they don’t want their own personal baggage going public, with Sterling claiming he has hired an army of private investigators to dig up dirt on them. Let’s say he is voted out that day. You know what’s next

He’ll file a new lawsuit in Los Angeles.

And the NBA will have to sit back and wait for months.

If Rivers is wondering, the Lakers’ practice facility is in El Segundo, seven miles southwest of the Clippers’ facility in Playa Vista. It may be well worth the extra drive.