Donald Sterling rears his ugly head

Ronald Martinez

It had been almost four years since Donald Sterling had done something really bad. It was nice while it lasted.

It had been awhile. It had been a good long while since Donald Sterling had forced me to write about him, to acknowledge the heavy psychic toll of rooting for a team owned by a terrible human being. Various stories about Sterling meddling in the Doc Rivers affair, or of Sterling trying to put the kibosh on the J.J. Redick acquisition, or of Chris Paul being upset over comments Sterling made about why and how Vinny Del Negro was not brought back were not really up to DTS's accustomed level of scumbaggery. After all, Paul signed an extension and Rivers and Redick are both Clippers, so even if he was meddling, he didn't get his way, which is actually a good sign.

Going back a bit further, the departure of Neil Olshey, which was due in part to the lack of a long term contract from the team and the imbroglio over Clipper Darrell, but those again were pretty small potatoes. Sterling was famously tone deaf in those dealings as he almost always is, but they didn't amount to much.

Really, you have to go back to 2010 for any truly Sterlingesque behavior, at least anything that made it public. And he was in fine form in 2010. There was the bizarre Mike Dunleavy affair, in which MDsr was relieved of his coaching dutiesbut kept on as GM in what seemed like a mutual decision, then fired as GM during halftime of a game no less, all followed by Sterling trying to get out of paying the remainder of MDsr's contract and being taken to arbitration -- amazingly terrible timing considering that the team was trying to court the biggest free agent on the planet at the time.

That year also brought us the various accusations of the Elgin Baylor lawsuit ("beautiful black bodies" has to be included on any greatest hits list for DTS) and in a more humorous but nonetheless disturbing development the revelation that Sterling would frequently heckle Baron Davis, his own player, from his courtside seat. So really, it's been about four years since I've really had to ask the "Why must we put up with this bastard?" question.

Until now.

The by now famous audiotape of Sterling -- and it's almost certainly him on there, as the denials would have come fast and furious if there were any way he could reasonably get away with denying this -- going on a racist rant is at once the worst thing he's done and perfectly in keeping with everything he's done. There are so many interesting aspects of this story that they tend to get lost. I mean, we're talking about an 80 year old man who is married, his 20 year old girlfriend -- and that's the part of the story that everyone readily accepts!

Bear in mind that in this case, Sterling believed he was having a private conversation and had no idea he was being recorded. This is a guy who says plenty of horrible things to employees and even to newspaper reporters when he should be aware that his words will or at least could become public. Who knows how much money V. Stiviano made selling this tape to TMZ, but why would we be the least bit surprised that Sterling would say things like this in private? The answer is no one paying any attention should be.

The most amazing thing to me is that this incident sprang from Sterling's objections to an Instagram photo of Stiviano with Magic Johnson. Earvin Magic Freakin' Johnson! Is there a more widely loved sports icon in Los Angeles? In the NBA for that matter? This is the guy who along with Larry Bird saved the league in 1980. The modern NBA doesn't exist as a global juggernaut that signs billion dollar TV deals without Magic Johnson. The idea that the owner of an NBA team in Los Angeles doesn't want someone he associates with to associate with Magic Johnson is mind-numbing beyond belief. It's not like the Instagram photo was of her with Chris Brown. Magic Johnson owns the freakin' Dodgers for FSM's sake!

So to recap: Donald Sterling is a bad man. This is not news. We knew that. If you've forgotten other stuff he's done, you can read the 2009 story from ESPN the magazine. Or go back through the archives of Clips Nation. (This post is probably the best of the ones I've written over the years, at least in my opinion.)

The question now is, what happens next? The Clippers finally released a statement a little before 3 this afternoon. It reads in its entirety:

We have heard the tape on TMZ. We do not know if it is legitimate or it has been altered. We do know that the woman on the tape -- who we believe released it to TMZ -- is the defendant in a lawsuit brought by the Sterling family alleging that she embezzled more than $1.8 million, who told Mr. Sterling that she would "get even." Mr. Sterling is emphatic that what is reflected on that recording is not consistent with, nor does it reflect his views, beliefs or feelings. It is the antithesis of who he is, what he believes and how he has lived his life. He feels terrible that such sentiments are being attributed to him and apologizes to anyone who might have been hurt by them. He is also upset and apologizes for sentiments attributed to him about Earvin Johnson. He has long considered Magic a friend and has only the utmost respect and admiration for him--both in terms of who he is and what he has achieved. We are investigating this matter.

Not exactly a denial. Oh, and by the by Donald, maybe don't say really horrible things that could get you thrown out of the league to someone who has vowed to "get even."

The NBA has taken the unusual step of actually investigating this incident. Sterling has run afoul of the law on many occasions, but his various lawsuits are almost always settled out of court with no admission of wrongdoing on his part, leaving the league with an unsavory story, but no specific malfeasance to which to object. Besides, the league is always going to be hesitant to move against its owners, for obvious reasons. And while the other owners no doubt dislike that Sterling reflects so badly on their cohort, they would only support league action against an owner in the most extreme of circumstances because of the precedent (i.e. if the league can force Sterling out, what's to keep them from doing the same thing to me).

At the same time, there's a real opportunity here. David Stern never so much as reprimanded Sterling for his reprehensible behavior -- and that might have been at least partly because of the fact that Sterling ran his team in a manner that Stern wished other owners would adopt. A fiscally conservative owner in a big market, one that had never gone over the luxury tax threshold and rarely went over the salary cap? Sterling was Stern's dream owner in terms of controlling costs.

But Stern is gone and Adam Silver is the new sheriff in town. What better way for Silver to establish himself as the new commissioner than to take on Sterling? Sterling is one of the longest tenured owners in all of pro sports -- he's owned the Clippers for over 30 years -- but everyone knows he needs to go. Silver can make a statement that his stewardship will be about more than the bottom line and appearances by taking a stand here.

The irony of course is that even if the NBA does decide to force out Donald Sterling, it's not as if he's going to suffer any consequences. If he does step down, either he'll pass the team to son-in-law Eric Miller or sell it for a record sum (if the Sacramento Kings are worth $534M then the mind boggles at what the Clippers are actually worth). So even if Sterling 'loses' he'll win -- either in keeping the team in the family or in reaping a massive profit on his investment.

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