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The Real Problem With Donald Sterling

Clippers owner Donald Sterling has been in the news a lot this year, and as usual, it's for all the wrong reasons. He's currently engaged in legal wranglings with former Clippers General Manager Elgin Baylor as well as former coach/GM Mike Dunleavy Sr. It also became public a few weeks ago that DTS has been heckling his own players - most notably Baron Davis - from his courtside seat at Staples Center. The guy is definitely a piece of work.

But although I am no fan of Sterling, and willing and even eager to criticize him at most any opportunity, the latest allegations from Baylor's lawsuit leave me unimpressed. I've never felt that Baylor had much of a case here - seems hard to make a racism case when the Clippers employed Baylor for 23 years, during a time when the overwhelming majority of front officie executives were white. Did Sterling not realize Baylor was African American until 2007? The team's performance during those years - only twice during Baylor's tenure did they finish with a winning record - would seem to be more than reason enough to make a change.

Ageism? Yeah, maybe I guess. Again, there were plenty of reasons that he should have lost his job, and the winning percentage would seem to take precedence over the guy's age. As for the fact that Baylor hadn't gotten a raise in years, given that he shouldn't have kept the job nearly as long as he did, not getting a raise seems secondary.

Some of the specifics from Baylor's court documents, as first reported last week by J.A. Adande, are certainly disturbing - Sterling's alleged habit of bringing women into the locker room to admire the "beautiful black bodies" is just plain creepy. But if the intent was to establish a pattern of racism, I don't believe that they succeeded.

In particular, let's look at this statement from Baylor's filings:

Because of the Clippers unwillingness to fairly compensate African-American players we lost a lot of good talent, including Danny Manning, Charles Smith, Michael Cage, Ron Harper, Dominique Wilkins, [Corey] Maggette and others.

It's a bit of a strange list of names to begin with. Cage didn't leave as a free agent, but was traded for Gary Grant and a first round pick - not a terrible trade. Danny Manning was traded FOR Dominque Wilkins, so clearly you can't use both of them as examples of African-American players lost - they could have only kept one of them. As for Maggette,although he did eventually leave, he re-signed with the Clippers in 2003 to one of the most lucrative deals the team has ever paid out, so he's hardly a good example of the organization's unfair treatment of African-American players.

More to the point, for this statement to have any resonance, one would have to show a corresponding pattern of PAYING white players. By my reckoning, in the 30 years since Sterling bought the team, they've re-signed a grand total of six players to multi year contracts - Loy Vaught, Eric Piatkowski, Maggette, Elton Brand, Chris Kaman and Sam Cassell. Now two of those six are white, and I suppose you could argue that given the percentage of African American players in the league, it indicates a preference for white players. But let's face it, the real story there is that only six players have re-signed. Six! In 30 years! Among the white players that left the team were Tom Chambers, Brent Barry and Joe Wolf

Furthermore, although the team has a terrible record of signing outside free agents, all of their more recent free agent acquistions have been black: Cuttino Mobley, Tim Thomas, Baron Davis, Ryan Gomes, Randy Foye, etc. In 2006, the Clippers signed Thomas (black) to replace Vladimir Radmanovic (white). Why? Because Radmanovic got an offer from the Lakers that the Clippers were unwilling to meet and Thomas was a less expensive alternative.

And that's the crux of the matter as concerns Donald Sterling and the Clippers. First and foremost, he's cheap. And the simple fact is, there's no law against being cheap.

Is Sterling a racist? He may well be, but there's more evidence of racism in his housing practices than in his dealings with Baylor or the Clippers. As an NBA owner, he's just been unwilling to spend money. And for those of you waiting for David Stern to step in and reprimand him, or even force him to sell the team, I just don't think it's happening. Stern is heavy-handed enough, but if Sterling's biggest sin as an NBA owner is being fiscally conservative, that's the kind of guy Stern wants on his side going into a new contract negotiation.

But I can't help thinking about March of last year. When the Clippers unceremoniously relieved Dunleavy of his GM duties a month after he had stepped down as coach, the whole affair had a surreal quality. Like for instance how it was announced during halftime of the team's game in Orlando and was a surprise to the players and the coach. Then there was the press release announcing his dismissal. Among other strangeness, the announcement included this tidbit:

The Clippers want to win now. This transition, in conjunction with a full commitment to dedicate unlimited resources, is designed to accomplish that objective.

A full commitment to dedicate unlimited resources. Let's follow up on that, shall we? Since that time, the Clippers have:

  • Made Assistant GM Neil Olshey the General Manager;
  • Hired Vinny Del Negro as head coach, fired by Chicago after just two seasons and presumably one of the less pricey candidates on the market given that the Bulls are still paying him;
  • Used their $17M in cap space to sign free agents Ryan Gomes, Randy Foye and Brian Cook;
  • Entered the season about $5M under the salary cap, with a payroll that ranks 27th out of 30 teams.

Now, don't get me wrong. I think Olshey has done a fine job so far, and Del Negro may end up being a decent choice as well. But in each case, these were inexpensive hires as compared to what was available. As for free agency, given that LeBron James was never a realisitc target, it would have been far worse to overspend on guys like Joe Johnson or Rudy Gay than to go the value route with Gomes and Foye.Then again, there's no reason to be under the cap if they don't end up using the space to facilitate a trade before February's deadline. Nothing the organization has done since March - nothing, not one damn thing - says "full commitment to unlimited resources." Rather, as always, it all screams "full commitment to turning a profit." That statement seemed bizarre at the time - and in retrospect, it's completely ludicrous.

While I was sick this weekend, I was lying on the couch with the remote in my hand and I came across Major League. I hadn't seen it in years, and was never a big fan, but it's relevance to the Clippers was something that had been percolating in the back of my brain since the heckling incident. If you'll recall, in the movie the owner of the Cleveland Indians wants to move the team to Miami and does everything she can to ensure they'll lose and draw poorly so that she can justify the move. Instead, the team bonds together and makes an improbable pennant run just to spite her.

It's hard not to notice how well Baron has played since the heckling story broke. Before the story came out, Baron had scored in double figures just twice in ten games. In the eleven games since, he's been in double figures seven times. More importantly, the team has won seven of those games. Is it so difficult to imagine this young, cohesive Clippers team takiing a "We'll show that cheap bastard" attitude and getting a little extra motivated to win, a la Major League? Let's just hope they don't have a cardboard cutout of him in the locker room that they're disrobing one win at a time.