Racist NBA Owner Donald Sterling Has Been Banned for Life. But This Story’s Only Just Begun.

by Marc Tracy | April 29, 2014

Frequently during his press conference Tuesday afternoon, National Basketball Association commissioner Adam Silver, who started the job just in February, referred to “the NBA family.” Compared to the other leagues, it’s small (relatively young, and with 12 players per roster, compared to 25 in Major League Baseball and 53 in the National Football League), with lots of father-son pairings, lots of ex-players in management and broadcasting, and a strikingly homogenous player composition—in 2013 more than three-quarters black. It is hard to picture even NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell reserving one of the first questions at a major press conference for Harlem Community Radio, as Silver did. This felt like a family affair. And one member of the family is no longer welcome.

Silver killed it. He instituted a lifetime ban on Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling following the release of tapes allegedly recording Sterling saying extremely racist things. (Reports circulating minutes before the press conference had it as “indefinite suspension,” which would have been less serious.) Silver imposed the maximum, $2.5 million fine (proceeds from which will go to anti-discrimination charities). Maybe most importantly, Silver asserted that the NBA’s finding, following an investigation that included an interview with Sterling, is that “the man whose voice is heard on the recording ... is Mr. Sterling and that the hateful opinions voiced by that man are those of Mr. Sterling.” He spoke with resolution and an amount of equivocation so small that not even a dog could sniff it out. He announced he will do “everything in my power” to persuade the other owners to use their authority to force Sterling to sell the team, which, he said, they may do by three-quarters vote.

What if they refuse to exercise that authority? “I fully expect to get the support I need,” Silver said flatly, clarifying that while he didn’t poll all the owners, he did speak with several, all of whom expressed their support. Okay, but what if they refuse—does Sterling get to attend his team’s games and such? Wouldn’t the lifetime ban be lifted? “The lifetime ban is done,” Silver thundered, almost annoyed.

Some on Twitter ridiculed the fine as chump change to the billionaire Sterling. It is chump change. But did they hear the part about the lifetime ban? Or the part about how Silver’s going to force him to sell the team? Or that it’s the maximum the NBA’s constitution permits Silver to fine Sterling? These are the same people who complained that Silver did not go far enough in his first press conference on Saturday. Get over yourselves. We will look back on this in a few years—or a few weeks—as remarkably swift and harsh justice.

So now to the bad. The uncomfortable subtext—and, when several reporters raised it, actual text—was that the NBA probably should have done this a long time ago. Everybody has known about Donald Sterling for years. Silver inadvertently highlighted this when he said, “I’ve known Donald for over 20 years, so I suspected it was his voice”—a reference purely to the sound of his voice that, to my hearing, sounded like a bit of a guilty conscience. Silver clarified that, although the NBA owners will “take into account a lifetime of behavior” when they vote on forcing Sterling to divest, he himself made his decision based solely on the tapes. It’s awkward because Silver has been in this position not four months, and it is overwhelmingly his predecessor, David Stern, who failed to act against Sterling (and even abetted him, as when he re-directed star point guard Chris Paul to his team) all these years. Silver was Stern’s longtime protégée; Silver’s father was chairman at the law firm Proskauer Rose when Stern first took on the NBA as a client in the 1970s. Some Oedipal stuff there, in other words. Family stuff.

And what about the Clippers, whose owner, though absentee, still gets to collect profits for the time being? “My message to Clippers fans is this league is far bigger than any one owner, any one coach, any one player,” Silver said. “This has been a painful moment for all members of the NBA family. I appreciate the support and understanding of our players during this process, and I am particularly grateful for the leadership shown by Coach Doc Rivers, union president Chris Paul [who is the Clippers point guard], and Mayor Kevin Johnson of Sacramento, who has been acting as the players' representative.” This echoes what Rivers said Monday about encouraging the Clippers, currently locked in a tough first-round playoff series with the Golden State Warriors, to try to win: “My belief is the longer we win, the more we keep talking about this, and I think that's all good.” They play the fifth game of 2-2 series tonight, at 10:30 Eastern, at the Staples Center.

The juiciest rumor circulating—and it’s not really a rumor when Yahoo!’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the NBA’s most plugged-in national beat reporter, reports it—is that the Clippers will be sold to Magic Johnson and his backers at Guggenheim Partners, who recently bought the Los Angeles Dodgers. It would not only be kind of neat to see the all-time greatest Laker swapping purple-and-gold for red-and-white. It would be justice: Sterling allegedly reprimanded his ex-girlfriend specifically for posting a picture of herself with Johnson, who is black. “Magic Johnson knows he’s always welcome as an owner in this league,” Silver said when asked about this describing Johnson as “a close friend of the NBA family.”

How did I know (if I may take a brief bow here) that Sterling was not going to last as an owner, as I wrote Sunday? As players lined up to cheer the news, it became evident that Silver could hardly have behaved differently—which isn’t to say he doesn’t deserve plaudits for the swiftness and firmness of his decision. The NBA is not a democracy. But as dictators have learned throughout history, even undemocratic governance requires a measure of consent from the governed.

This story isn’t over. Sterling is incredibly litigious, and if you think he would just as soon not own his team, ask yourself why he hasn’t already sold it. (Wojnarowski reported Tuesday morning that this scandal if anything further endeared Sterling to his ownership, because he once again is the star of his franchise.) And even the “happiest” ending now will see Sterling turning a $12.5 million investment in 1981 into a sale of anywhere from $575 million (Forbes) to $1.5 billion (Bill Simmons), or about $750 million if you asked for my guess. That sucks. But then it will be over, and the NBA family can go forward, a little more together than before.

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