Sterling just keeps turning Clippers mess into a crazy show

Posted: June 01, 2014

WELL, as Terrell Owens once said, "Get your popcorn ready, 'cause I'm gonna put on a show."

Of course, T.O. was referring to himself, but his point can easily be applied to the apparent imminent legal showdown that will take place between the National Basketball Association and banned Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling.

Yesterday, Sterling filed a $1 billion lawsuit against the NBA in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

"The [termination] charges in the lawsuit are an invasion of his constitutional rights, violation of antitrust laws, breach of fiduciary duty and breach of contract," Belcher told ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne in discussing the lawsuit.

Sterling was banned from life from having any dealings with the Clippers or the NBA and fined $2.5 million by NBA commissioner Adam Silver on April 29 after audio of a private recording of a conversation with his mistress was released to the public a few days earlier.

Sterling's made several comments disparaging to African-American men and set off a firestorm that had players and fans threatening to boycott the NBA playoffs.

Silver calmed the waters by also saying that the NBA would start proceedings to force Sterling to sell all interest in the Clippers.

The NBA was using a generous interpretation in its bylaws to say that the league could force Sterling to sell if 75 percent of the other 29 franchise owners voted that way.

Last night, after Sterling sued, the NBA made a brilliant flanking move by canceling the special meeting of the Board of Governors - those other owners - scheduled for Tuesday, when it was expected to get the votes to force Sterling to sell.

How did this all happen?

Late Thursday night, news broke that Shelly Sterling, Donald's estranged wife, agreed to sell the Clippers to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer for a record $2 billion, nearly four times what the Milwaukee Bucks were sold for just in April.

Shelly Sterling made the sale claiming her authority as the sole trustee of the Sterling Family Trust.

In canceling Tuesday's meeting, the NBA released a statement saying the league, "Shelly Sterling and the Sterling Family Trust today resolved their dispute over the ownership of the Los Angeles Clippers.

"Under the agreement, the Clippers will be sold to Steve Ballmer, pending approval by the NBA Board of Governors and the NBA will withdraw its pending charge to terminate the Sterlings' ownership of the team . . .

"Mrs. Sterling and the Trust also agreed not to sue the NBA and to indemnify the NBA against lawsuits from others, including Donald Sterling."

Donald Sterling can still sue the NBA for $1 billion, but he now has no basis to do so. Officially, the Board of Governors never took a vote on terminating the Sterling family's ownership.

Shelly Sterling, acting in her role as sole trustee, voluntarily sold the team.

According to ESPN, she gained that power when two neurologists did brain tests on Donald Sterling and diagnosed the 80-year-old to be mentally incapacitated and likely to have had Alzheimer's disease for years. Other media outlets also reported the diagnosis of Alzheimer's, citing sources.

Belcher confirmed to ESPN that Sterling had the evaluations, but added that the results were "grossly exaggerated" and that "Mr. Sterling is far from mentally incompetent."

That doesn't really matter, because the rules of the trust did not require a court hearing to declare Donald incapacitated, so Shelly Sterling was able to negotiate directly to sell the team.

What happens over the next few days will be interesting.

This will likely be one of the fastest ownership approvals in the history of professional sports.

The 29 other NBA owners have a billion reasons to welcome Ballmer into the fraternity. His ownership effectively blocks the basis for Sterling's suit against the NBA, while simultaneously getting the league what it wanted most - Sterling's removal as the Clipprs owner.

Donald Sterling cannot actually claim the NBA took his team, because it did not. Shelly Sterling voluntarily sold the team to Ballmer. The fact that a May 22 letter written by another Donald Sterling attorney says that he intended to sell and that Shelly had permission to negotiate a sale only strengthens her position.

"That's a different kettle of fish," Belcher said. "There's been no decision made on that yet."

But if Donald Sterling can't show that Shelly Sterling had no right to sell the Clippers, what exactly would be his damage claims against the NBA be?

The Board of Governors never officially voted to terminate his ownership, and it is only speculation that it would do so.

On the financial side, a property Donald Sterling bought for around $12.5 million in 1981 was sold for $2 billion. I can't find any damages in that.

Since the NBA had no involvement in the release of the audio recording, any damage to his reputation was caused by Sterling's own actions, not the league.

I am no legal expert, but it seems to me the only way Donald Sterling could have a chance to win a lawsuit against the NBA would be to first get a court to block what looks like a legitimate sale of the Clippers to Ballmer, who has even deeper pockets to carry on a fight for the team.

Then, if, after years of litigation, Sterling won, then the NBA Board of Governors actually would have to vote to terminate his ownership.

Then Sterling could sue the NBA again and get ready to fight 29 billionaires in the courts for another few years.

I don't understand how billionaires think, but Sterling might just be stubborn enough to provoke this unwinnable battle to hold on to the Clippers.

As T.O. said, "Get your popcorn ready."


Email: smallwj@phillynews.com

Columns: ph.ly/Smallwood

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|