The main takeaway I can’t escape from the five-part podcast about Donald Sterling released by 30 for 30 Podcasts and The Undefeated this week is that the NBA got really, really lucky with Donald Sterling.
Consider how the NBA actually got Sterling out of the league after his racist remarks came out on TMZ via a tape from his fame-seeking, vendetta-settling mistress: Sterling’s estranged wife sneakily had him diagnosed with dementia and taken off their family trust, giving her full authority to sell the L.A. Clippers out from under him. It’s easy to imagine that not working according to plan!
In the podcast series, ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reports that Sterling was underrepresented legally: his longtime personal lawyer was in his 80s and losing steam, and he had hired a new lawyer during one of the dementia exams! Had Sterling had competent, stable legal representation all along this process, from the start, this gambit to quickly take Sterling off the trust and sell the team to Steve Ballmer may not have worked.
Had Sterling’s wife Shelly decided she didn’t want to sell the team, she just wanted to get her husband out of there, none of this works.
Had Sterling’s wife Shelly stood by the disgusting, conniving, racist Donald, none of this works.
It seems worth noting that in the five years since the NBA banned Sterling and fast-tracked the sale of the team to Ballmer, Shelly has indeed stood by and stuck with the disgusting, conniving, racist Donald. They remain married and are no longer estranged, according to the podcast series.
What if those feelings overwhelmed Shelly’s thirst for vengeance and the NBA’s pressure in 2014? Would Donald Sterling still be an NBA franchise owner, albeit one banned from anything to do with the franchise?
When Shelly’s dementia gambit paid off, the NBA league office had been planning to push the Board of Governors to hold a vote on expelling Sterling from the league. This came after Silver’s stunning announcement four days after the tape dropped that Sterling had been banned from the league and fined $2.5 million (the maximum allowable).
But Silver needed 23 of the 29 other franchisees to agree to boot Sterling. One, the Mavericks’ Mark Cuban, had already expressed consternation by that point about taking that step. It never got to a vote, so we don’t know if six more governors would have joined Cuban in resisting the drastic but obviously necessary step.
And this was Donald Sterling, the most cartoonishly disgusting sports team owner imaginable. He treated his players like property. He treated his coaches like Dixie cups. He was constantly in court over breaking personnel contracts and over housing discrimination against black and Latino tenants. A slumlord racist caught on tape telling a mistress 50 years his younger to stop posting photos of her hanging out with black people like Magic Johnson.
The NBA got really lucky with Donald Sterling. He was such an obvious villain that if it came to it, Silver might have gotten the 23 votes. Sterling was so obviously addled and clueless about where the NBA was heading that he likely would have continued digging himself deeper, like he did in the infamous Anderson Cooper interview that turns into a vicious attack on Magic.
There are other elements of luck here. What if David Stern had retired months earlier? Stern had looked the other way when it came to Sterling for literally decades. As the podcast series reveals, Stern even initially saved Sterling’s ownership in the early 1980s when the league (then run by Larry O’Brien) considered forcing him out over a botched relocation gambit and admission of tanking. Stern, an executive vice president, salvaged Sterling’s ownership by sending a caretaker.
Sterling relocated to L.A. without permission two years later anyway. Welp.
Would Stern have pressed so hard on the Board of Governors to act? Would Stern have been nimble enough to read the situation and lay the hammer down on Sterling within four days? As the podcast series makes clear and as was reported at the time, both Warriors and Clippers players were planning to potentially boycott Game 5 of their playoff series the Tuesday after the tape got out. A crowd led by players’ union officials and others was gathered at Los Angeles City Hall, ready to protest if Silver’s punishment was weak.
If Stern were still commissioner, would the NBA have exploded into an internal war that very day? Would it have cost a playoff game on national TV?
On the one hand, Stern was a brilliant commissioner rarely caught flat-footed. He can read collective moods and piece together endgames. On the other, Stern looked the other way when it came to Sterling for decades, through the court battles with coaches and housing discrimination charges and accusations of sexual harassment and what Elgin Baylor called the “plantation mentality” Sterling pressed onto his franchise. Stern never did anything about Sterling. He couldn’t have avoided doing something in 2014. Would he have done what Silver did? We’ll never know.
What if this didn’t happen in 2014, but in 2019? What if Sterling imploded now, in a nation led by this president and with this media culture? This is a particularly disturbing counterfactual I’m going to avoid exploring further to avoid breaking my brain permanently. If you are tougher than I, please do assemble the appropriate safety gear and venture down the rabbit hole.
Everything in 2014 happened so fast that no one really had a chance to imagine a world in which Sterling remained at the head of the Clippers, even in name only. I’m not sure we realize how thin the margin was between what happened — a quick resolution and a relatively satisfying outcome for the NBA and players — and the ongoing disaster that could have been instead.
A failure to grapple how this could have ended — or more pointedly, not ended — leaves the NBA exposed to the next nightmare franchisee. You wonder if that keeps anyone at the league office up at night.