On this day in 2014, “revenge” gossip transformed the Los Angeles Clippers’ history for good.
TMZ had an explosive audio recording of Clippers owner Donald Sterling talking on the phone with his mistress, V. Stiviano. The conversation was months old, but Sterling’s transparently racist comments ignited a firestorm.
The initial explanations over the tape at the Clippers blamed Stiviano, claiming she wanted to exact revenge on Sterling when he tried to cut ties with her. There were stories about lawsuits flying left and right between her, the Sterlings and various other parties, in what can be kindly called an unconventional web between them.
But this was a case where digging dirt on the woman with sour grapes backfired spectacularly. Instead of public opinion debating Stiviano’s role in all of this, Sterling was universally condemned for his comments. Adding this bizarre, rambling and straight-up racist recorded conversation to his track record, with the Clippers and as a landlord, meant this was the final straw.
Sterling was known for his tight budget, for making moves directly detrimental to the team’s quality for the sake of the bottom line, for the Clippers being a doormat most of the his tenure. Said to be one of the few owners who consistently earned a profit from his NBA team, Sterling’s top priority was to line his pockets, at the expense of the team itself.
But being thrifty is one thing. Sterling had a public track record of racism, too. He was sued multiple times, including by the federal government, for discrimination and poor treatment of people of color who were tenants of his properties. He heckled his own players, including Baron Davis, during games and in public. Longtime Clippers executive and NBA legend Elgin Baylor sued him for discrimination (although Baylor did lose that suit).
Needless to say, even before the tape was released, Sterling’s problematic nature was a known and very public item.
Two things happened that changed it all: NBA players, particularly at the Clippers, began to indicate publicly they could boycott games, in the playoffs, and head coach Doc Rivers supported their stance; and Adam Silver was the newly-installed NBA commissioner.
If players boycotted playoff games, the time in the NBA season when attention was highest for the league, it would be an enormous black eye. Beyond failing to fulfill the TV and sponsorship obligations, public opinion was firmly on the players’ side in this situation, and that gave them the leverage.
The other factor was Silver. Still new on the job as the league boss, his predecessor David Stern had established the precedent — intentionally or not — that the status quo was just fine. While most fans were desperate for Sterling to sell the Clippers, the previous 25 years didn’t force the NBA to do anything drastic, and Sterling certainly wasn’t going to willingly part ways with his profit machine.
Silver took the leverage of public opinion and the players’ proposed boycott and forced Sterling out, banning him for life and fining him the maximum amount under the NBA constitution, $2.5 million. Sterling’s wife Shelly, a curious figure in this entire saga, both pitied and reviled, became the primary owner of the team, with the expectation she would sell in short order or have the franchise taken from her for nothing. She did sell, to Steve Ballmer for a whopping $2 billion.
The Sterlings still made out like bandits, getting paid unbelievable money to go away. Donald Sterling is perhaps the worst owner in American pro sports history — his legacy is a joke, he willfully hamstrung his own team continually, and he’s an awful racist.
But on the bright side, he was out of the NBA, and more importantly, gone from the Clippers. What would the franchise look like with a competent owner? With a good owner?
It’s safe to say Doc Rivers likely wouldn’t have lasted as long at the team if Ballmer hadn’t taken over. It’s a certainty neither Kawhi Leonard or Paul George would have joined the Clips, either.
So in the end, that “revenge” tape that started a years-long public mess turned out to be one of the most important moments to date in Clippers history. Many thanks to V. Stiviano for getting that fateful conversation into TMZ’s possession.