What if the league's response is insufficient?

Streeter Lecka

The Donald Sterling story has taken over the Clippers-Warriors series. NBA Commissioner has scheduled a press conference for tomorrow to announce a decision on Sterling, but what happens if the punishment is viewed as too lenient?

The Los Angeles Clippers lost a playoff basketball game yesterday. You cannot say unequivocally that the Clippers lost the game as a direct result of the firestorm of controversy that has swept over every aspect of the team since owner Donald Sterling's racist comments were broadcast over the weekend, but it didn't help. The team cancelled practice today on the eve of a crucial Game 4, and instead Doc Rivers was forced to hold a conference call -- one featuring questions from CNN and Inside Edition, not just from Brad Turner and Dan Woike -- regarding the controversy. Rivers has been stalwart throughout this imbroglio, but he didn't ask to be the spokesperson for tolerance, and in fact he has a different, rather important job to do right now. As to the question of whether the team was distracted Sunday, I know this much. In reviewing game video, Rivers and his staff determined that the Clippers blew their defensive coverages on 70 percent of the Warriors' possessions. That's not a late rotation or a physical mistake -- that's simply not following the game plan, on the vast majority of possessions. That sounds like a team lacking focus to me.

Even with the Game 4 loss the series is still tied 2-2 and the Clippers still hold the home court advantage with two of the remaining three games to be played in STAPLES Center. But what happens if the Clippers can't bet past this? In seven games series tied 2-2, the team that wins Game 5 goes on to win the series 86 percent of the time. So yeah, Game 5 is big.

The Clippers have had more time to acclimate themselves to the controversy -- but in a way that just means they've been more worn down by it. How many questions have they answered on this? From reporters? From friends? From family? How much sleep have they gotten? We know they didn't review all of those blown coverages today, because Rivers wanted to give them a break. But one wonders if a closed basketball practice might not have been a relief to them.

New NBA commissioner Adam Silver has promised a decision on Sterling before Game 5, and the league has scheduled a press conference for 11 AM PT tomorrow. But what are they going to say? Is there really any satisfactory resolution to this situation that the league will be able to reach in four days? It seems at this point that anything less than a complete ouster of Sterling is going to be deemed insufficient -- and there's simply no way that the league can do that by tomorrow. The most anyone can hope for -- the MOST -- is million dollar fine and a suspension until further notice. Would that be enough? Would it be enough if it included a provision to continue to pursue additional sanctions?

I know that Silver believed it was being helpful in trying to acting quickly and decisively on this matter -- but the timing of the press conference is actually pretty terrible. The Clipper players -- young men dealing with the pressure of the playoffs and now the pressure of a highly visible and highly charged issue -- are going to have to hear the decision, assimilate it, react to it, and then play Game 5: all with a matter of eight hours or so. That's just wildly unfair to them.

The best case scenario remains a quick sale of the team -- but again, nothing is going to happen that quick. The Clippers lost essentially every major sponsor during the course of the day Monday -- Virgin Airlines, Chumash Casino, Carmax, Kia, State Farm, etc. -- if any sponsors stayed with them, I don't know who they are. I'm not sure what's going to happen in the Arena tomorrow night. What will they do during the first quarter break when they usually do the Chumash Casino shoot out? What will happen with signage? What commercials will they show during the Prime Ticket broadcast? Will Kia and State Farm pull their commercials from the TNT broadcast?

The simple fact of the matter is that the sponsors have been the most decisive and hopefully influential entity in this situation. DTS feels it when you hit him in the wallet. The tickets for Game 5 are already sold, the broadcast rights are long since paid for. But losing sponsors is real, and it's hurting the team's valuation. Sterling is a stubborn motherfucker, but even he may see that backing away, announcing that the team will be sold in an orderly manner to an appropriate buyer, is far and away the best recourse. As I mentioned when the story first broke, the "worst" thing that happens to Sterling here is that he sells the team at an all time record price -- possible north of a billion dollars. That would really suck for him, huh?

Or he could stubbornly hold on, resist pressure from the league, his fellow owners, the sponsors, the fans and his own team to walk away, and drive the value of the team into the ground. Doc Rivers would likely leave -- he can get any coaching gig he wants, and in the meantime he could make as much money as a TV analyst. Every free agent will leave at the first opportunity. And the team that had finally begun to overcome its history would finally pay the karmic toll that the owner has accumulated.

What can the fans do? It's obviously ridiculous to suggest any sort of boycott, as Mark Jackson has. But as John O'Connor pointed out on these pages earlier today, Clippers fans have always been fans despite Donald Sterling. Support for the players and the team does not and should not wane because of the actions of the owner. If anything, it should become stronger. After all, the players are going through so much they need the support of the fans more than ever.

I do however feel that black shirts at Game 5 would be an appropriate and powerful gesture. The tradition in NBA playoff games in recent years has been to hand out (sponsored) T-shirts at games and present the TV cameras with a sea of red/blue/yellow/whatever. Wear it tomorrow night. (Not even because its supporting "black" people -- you could wear rainbow T-shirts for all I care. But red, blue and yellow are all out for obvious reasons. Black is distinct, it's something everyone owns, and it dovetails nicely with the black socks and black armbands message the players themselves have orchestrated.)

Honestly it would be the most "Clippers" thing ever if they lost this series because of Sterling -- and that's a distinct possibility. They've lost in the past because of Sterling's policies, because of his parsimony, and arguably because of his bad karma. But they lost on Sunday because of him -- only him, directly him. And they could lose Game 5 and the entire season for the same reason. I can only hope that it doesn't happen. Adam Silver's announcement tomorrow will have a say in how this plays out.

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