LOS ANGELES -- NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced the will of 29 of his employers Tuesday -- namely, that the 30th is no longer welcome among them.
Silver announced that Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling has been “stripped for life” of any involvement with the Los Angeles Clippers or the NBA and fined $2.5 million, the maximum allowed under league bylaws. The announcement stopped short of delivering a crushing end to Sterling’s 33-year stewardship of the Clippers. The suspension, however, is largely believed to be the first step toward forcing Sterling to sell the Clippers outside his family’s control.
Sterling, who made a series of overtly racist comments to a former girlfriend regarding her decision to post a picture of her with NBA star and former owner Magic Johnson and Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp, admitted to Silver his voice was the one on the two notorious tapes given first to TMZ and Deadspin. Silver said they did not discuss anything else.
After apologizing to former NBA players Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper, Sweetwater Clifton, Bill Russell and Johnson for Sterling’s tape, Silver outlined the punishment further, saying he was “banning Mr. Sterling for life from any association with the Clippers or the NBA.” That included any games or practices, entering any facility, having any business or player personnel decisions involving the Clippers, or any Board of Governors meetings or other league activity. “I will urge the Board of Governors to exercise its authority to force a sale of the team and will do everything in my power to assure that happens.”
He also said he expected to get that support from the owners, 23 of whom would need to provide the requisite votes for that removal. And that the matter of granting free agency to any Clippers players who wished to leave the team was not discussed.
Sterling’s response came minutes later, when he allegedly told reporter Jim Gray, “The Clippers are not for sale.” Thus begins the expected war for control of Los Angeles’ second biggest franchise.
Silver said Sterling’s past actions were not taken into account in this ban, but that it will be considered in further actions pursuant to a final judgment.
In a subsequent press conference on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall, Sacramento mayor and NBA Players Association advisor Kevin Johnson said, “The players believe Adam Silver has done his duty, and we are proud that he is our commissioner.” For the moment, the union seems satisfied that Silver had said what they wanted to hear.
Former player Roger Mason said in a meeting with some players that they were ready to boycott further games if Silver’s actions were insufficiently satisfying. He said the union’s executives were content with Silver’s statement, but “there needs to be more.” He explained later that he meant that any sale needs to occur “ASAP.” Los Angeles Laker Steve Nash called it, “a proud day for all us players.”
Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was also at the NBPA press conference, said he was “thrilled that Commissioner Silver got on the case,” and that Silver’s actions “were on the mark.” He said the players watching the press conference applauded during Silver’s press conference. It remains to be seen, of course, whether the union has full unanimity, but there seems to be little opposition to the league’s plan for punishing and removing Sterling.
The Clippers issued a statement which read simply, “We wholeheartedly support and embrace the decision by the NBA and commissioner. Now the healing process begins.”
This marks the third time in the last 30-plus years that an owner has been stripped of operational control of an NBA franchise. The first of those, in 1983, occurred when Ted Stepien was removed as owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers after three years of documented mismanagement and an infamous quote he gave saying he thought the Cavaliers should always have a 50 percent white roster for marketing purposes.
The person guiding the transfer of that franchise from Stepien to Gordon Gund was league counsel David Stern, who is now being criticized for having ignored Sterling’s history of racially charged business practices.
The second, in 2010, happened when George Shinn was stripped of control of the New Orleans Hornets for financial reasons. Shinn, who had earlier moved the Hornets from Charlotte in part because of a sexual assault scandal in 1999 that he believed caused the city to abandon its support for his team. That Hornets team featured as its best player Chris Paul, who is now the best player on the Clippers as well as president of the NBA Players Association.
Sterling’s history of aggressive litigation is believed by some to have materially affected Stern’s view of his powers. Stern fined Sterling $25 million after Sterling moved the Clippers from San Diego to Los Angeles without league permission. Sterling, in turn, threatened to sue the league for $100 million, and Stern reduced the fine to $6 million. Several owners have come out stridently against Sterling’s continued involvement, but they have not yet explained their silence on Sterling’s behavior of the last 11 years.
Sterling’s history compromised the league going back to 2003, when he was first investigated by the Justice Department for discriminatory rental practices, but he was never challenged within ownership for those judgments. Silver said that in both the Justice Department case and the Elgin Baylor lawsuit alleging age and racial discrimination, although Silver said, “I can’t speak to past action, the league monitored but did nothing because there was no official finding of guilt in the rental discrimination case (though there was a $2.9 million settlement) and that Baylor’s lawsuit was dismissed.
The Clippers players were expected to be available later Tuesday to react publicly to the decision.