I've said it before and hopefully I won't have to say it again too many more times. Donald Sterling is a bad, bad man. In 2009 I described Sterling as a sepulchral cloud that hangs over the franchise, a turn of phrase of which I am somewhat proud, if only for the use of the word "sepulchral".
Of all the bad things that Sterling is, and he is many bad things, there's one description to which I always return. Yes, he's a bigot, a racist, a misogynist, a lech, arrogant, cheap and dishonest to name a few. We didn't need V. Stiviano to prove any of that, though for some reason the recordings she made of him finally raised awareness of Sterling's misanthropy high enough to finally force the NBA to act: better late than never, I guess.
But there's one thing that Donald Sterling is above all else: Donald Sterling is tone deaf.
Sterling is a very visible person who for some reason is hopelessly, shamelessly almost comically tone deaf. I'm not referring to his musical talents of course, though I suspect he'd be a disaster at the Karaoke bar downstairs at one of his Koreatown apartment buildings. Sterling has zero self-awareness, no understanding of how others perceive him, and absolutely no feel for the tone of the things he says and does.
In 2010, as the Clippers were preparing to make a contract offer to the biggest free agent on the planet, LeBron James, Sterling decided to stop paying the coach and GM he had fired a few months before, Mike Dunleavy Sr. Sterling had pulled this stunt before, most notably with coach Bill Fitch, and Dunleavy, a former stockbroker and by no means naive in the world of business, had made damn certain that his contract was ironclad before he signed on with the Clippers. The case went to arbitration, where it was determined that Sterling had to pay Dunleavy what he owed him, which everyone knew full well would be the outcome. Meanwhile, while it's not as if LeBron was really going to sign with the Clippers, Sterling made King James' decision to pass up a chance to play in the Los Angeles market next to an emerging superstar in Blake Griffin an easy one -- I'm LeBron James, I can play anywhere for anyone, why would I play for that idiot? (It's worth noting that among active players, James has been by far the most vocal about the need for Sterling to be removed from the league.)
Residents of Los Angeles are quite aware of the laughably weird ads that Sterling constantly runs in the Los Angeles Times. The ads look like they are simple cut-and-paste jobs -- I'm not talking about CTRL-C and CTRL-V in Photoshop, I mean literal cut-and-paste with scissors and Elmers glue -- by someone with absolutely no training in graphic design. And it turns out, they are. A friend of mine used to be head of ad sales for the Times, and she tells stories of waiting for hours for Sterling to meet with her; as one of the biggest single advertisers in the paper and one who had been buying lots of ad space for many years, Sterling had a ridiculously low rate and felt quite comfortable treating the people at the paper badly.
The ads, which Sterling lays out himself, are graphic disasters -- as grade school collages, they'd be in the middle of the pack. The message is always self-serving, commemorating some party he has thrown or touting his "charitable" acts. Several years ago the LA Weekly exposed as fraudulent Sterling's claims that he was building a homeless shelter on Skid Row; no one associated with Sterling made any concrete effort at any time, and no money was ever spent, to even pursue such a project. No land was purchased, no Skid Row advocates were consulted; the sum total of evidence for a Sterling Foundation homeless shelter was contained in advertisements Sterling himself designed and purchased. The story in the Weekly made him stop referring to the project -- but he never acknowledged the mendacity of the ads. Nor, evidently, did he learn his lesson. A new set of ads now refers to a summer camp for disadvantaged inner city youth, where they can play golf and ride horses in the hills of Malibu (I won't even touch the implications of a rich Jewish businessman imagining that what inner city youths really want and need is to be able to play golf and ride horses). But when the Times investigated, it found no evidence that any such summer program actually existed.
In a way, I guess it's not surprising that Sterling long thought he could get away with all of this: because he had. His money had made lawsuits go away (he's settled for millions upon millions of dollars in multiple suits, but never admitted wrongdoing). His money had even created the illusion that he was a champion of race relations as opposed to the inveterate racist he actually is, securing a "lifetime achievement award" from the local chapter of the NAACP. A second such award (which seems strange, since the first presumably took a lifetime to achieve) was due to be presented to him but has since been cancelled, and the scandal has cost the president of the LA NAACP chapter his job. Sterling has always believed that his money could fix any problem, and until this month, it always had.
His Anderson Cooper interview on CNN this week is just another chapter in this story -- destined to become one of the greatest hits of tone deafery. One wonders if he even bothered to hire a public relations firm or publicist, or if he decided he knew best what to do to ameliorate his image after the scandal broke. After all, all those years he had created such great ads without the help of a graphic artist -- why would he need a PR professional to fix this problem? What do those guys even do? (This seems to be a theme with Sterling: he is forever hesitant to spend his money on professional services. Until Mike Dunleavy began to force some change, he did the same thing with the Clippers: keeping the incompetent Elgin Baylor on as GM because he was inexpensive, having his team work out at local colleges and health clubs, etc. One envisions him showing up at his apartment buildings to unclog drains because he doesn't want to spend money on a plumber.)
But let's face it: no one in the world aside from Donald Sterling could possibly look at the situation he found himself in and conclude "The best thing to do right now is to go on the attack; this whole thing will go away if you just trash Magic Johnson."
Forget anything else he said on the Anderson Cooper interview (though the part where he asks the openly gay Cooper if he ever got really jealous of a girlfriend is pretty tough to ignore I suppose). None of it matters: none of it makes much sense, frankly. But the idea that a scandal that began when he objected to photos of his "personal assistant" with the beloved NBA legend and Los Angeles icon Johnson could be smoothed over if only everyone could see that Magic was really a hypocrite and a bad role model for the youth of LA is mind numbing. It's just so... tone deaf.
But that's what Sterling is. More than anything else, he's just amazingly, astoundingly, unfailingly tone deaf.