A tap on the shoulder for Donald Sterling

Posted: May 05, 2014

Once a year, every year without fail, in the middle of a blind-sweat West Coast deadline frenzy, there would be a tentative tap on the shoulder delivered by a member of the Los Angeles Clippers publicity staff, and that person was usually sweating pretty good, too.

"Mr. Sterling would like you to come over and say hello if you have a few minutes," the staffer would say, and you could tell he or she didn't care for either the mission or the prospect of having it turn out unsuccessfully. If eyes can really plead, as they do in all the books, this was close.

Those 15 precious minutes of halftime, when there might actually be hope a game story could be salvaged while the clock ticks three hours faster on the East Coast, were about to disappear because someone in the media business was afraid to tell Donald Sterling, "This might not be a good time for that."

I was on the NBA beat six years. This happened six times, exactly that way every season, with the unspoken understanding that someone would lose a job if the owner of the Clippers didn't get schmooze time with the visiting media. It even annoyed Phil Jasner, who usually liked that kind of stuff, but off we would go, circling around to the other side of the court and the eminent presence of the oily Mr. Sterling.

Those scenes came back last week when Sterling finally got himself into some trouble his fellow NBA owners could no longer pretend wasn't there. He wasn't just an autocratic egotist with a sketchy business track record. He wasn't just a tin-pot potentate on a tacky throne ordering people around in a cobwebbed corner of their league. No, he was the nightmare everyone within the league hoped would never become fully apparent.

Sterling instructed his girlfriend, or his "archivist," as her lawyer terms the relationship, to record his thoughts and conversations, and that turned out to be the sort of decision that also ended poorly for Richard Nixon. Those wonderful private thoughts were made public by a third party to whom she gave the recordings, also according to her lawyer.

In the recordings, only a smattering of which have been heard, Sterling said some really stupid, racist things, and everybody went understandably nuts. What he said wasn't just standard racist nonsense, but words that betrayed a plantation-owner-to-field-hand mentality. The fact that he regards everyone that way - employees, players, visiting media members - wasn't going to lift him from the hook this time.

The commissioner suspended him and fined him and instructed the board of governors to begin proceedings that would strip him of the franchise. Sterling is expected to challenge the legality of the decision, and the league has unquestionably waded into murky water, not that it had a choice, as teams were preparing to boycott games and sponsors were running away at a fast clip.

How it all plays out won't be known for a while. There are too many variables. If Sterling's estranged wife files for divorce tomorrow, for instance, she could become 50 percent owner of the team because California is a community-property state. How would the league's plans be affected while that mess winds its way through the intestines of the legal system?

The irony is that because of this twisted, hateful story, Sterling finally has the attention he always wanted within the league. He always wanted to be the big shot, even though his dreadful teams played for years in the dank Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, which always smelled as if the circus had just left town. He wanted to be the epitome of Hollywood glitz, even though the real thing was found across town at the fabulous Forum, and its reflected glow never traveled to the little gym hard by the freeway.

During those halftime meetings in the Sports Arena, Sterling would introduce us to whatever B-list entertainment figure had been lured to his lair for the evening. Usually, it was someone from a bad sitcom. Not even the star, but the kooky sidekick. Across town at the Forum, Lakers owner Jerry Buss had Jack Nicholson and Rob Reiner. Sterling would introduce you to Willie Aames from Charles in Charge.

"So, what do you think of how we're doing with the team?" Sterling would say, and there wasn't a lot to say in those days about the bright futures of Benoit Benjamin, Danny Ferry, and Norm Nixon. We would say it anyway, and then get out of there, shaking hands and nodding to Willie Aames as we made our escape.

In answer to that old question, Sterling's team finally started doing well in the last couple of years, and there's another irony for you. He sat midcourt through all those terrible seasons - which he had a lot to do with - and now he is gone as the Clippers, playing in the same arena as the faltering Lakers, finally get interesting.

It took long enough, and the NBA let him get away with sleazy stuff for far too many years, but even Donald Sterling finally got a tap on the shoulder last week that he couldn't ignore.


bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports

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