It was delayed justice. The man who gave his tenants no mercy was given no mercy himself. He was stripped of everything by the NBA ruling class. It was a punishment that was deserved and it was a punishment that was late in coming. A long time ago, Donald Sterling deserved to carry the burdens of those he harassed. He deserved the same cruel world he created for his victims. That is the sad thing about all of this. At the very end of his tenure with the NBA, when his team is sold, Donald Sterling will profit a billion dollars. This for a racist who gave to charity but had a messy affair that exposed the rest of him: immoral, depraved, soulless. Donald Sterling profited off of crimes partly because his peers looked the other way and partly because wealthy men are entitled to their damage. All of it has finally come into focus, into view. The racial bigotry which has ruled Donald Sterling’s life for decades has accomplished what 26 losing seasons could not. It has pushed him over the edge of a cliff. The surprise is that it took this long.
Many years ago, Kobe Bryant was a few hours away from becoming a Donald Sterling footnote, another black player to buffer his superiority complex. But a phone call warned him of the obvious: you can’t trust Donald Sterling. That was a decade ago. In the ensuing ten years there was a discrimination lawsuit brought against him by the Department of Justice. There was an age discrimination lawsuit brought against him by Elgin Baylor. There was the arbitration hearing he lost after he fired a coach and refused to pay him. There was the belittling of his own player from his front row seat. The ruling cartel of millionaires and billionaires of which he belongs, a cliquish club of 30 members, overlooked all of his abuses of power. But. You plant what you plant. You reap the rewards of your own inhumanity. Even if a fire was not your intention, it still rages out of control.
Words can be poetic and words can be seductive and words can be hateful. Donald Sterling’s words on a tape are hardly surprising considering his history. The issue, though, is far deeper than the language of one racist man. It is of a culture prevalent in the NBA offices that allowed the disease of Donald Sterling to turn into the cancer of Donald Sterling. For many years the Clippers were the sad little team that had the audacity to occupy the same city as the Lakers. But behind the scenes their bigoted and venal owner was manipulating lives of the poor and black and powerless as he calculated the enormity of his power. In that way he was a predator. He was the kind of owner that felt so entitled he used the n-word in a job interview with Villanova coach Rollie Mossimino. He asked Mossiminio, while holding a bottle of champagne and with a feckless blonde at his side, “I wanna know why you think you can coach these niggers?” Empathy was not something Sterling valued. When one of his assistant coaches developed prostate cancer, he refused to pay for the surgery so the players chipped in. In 2001 he was sued by the City of Santa Monica for harassing tenants he tried to evict. He didn’t approve of the potted plants they put on their balconies. In 2003, one of his tenants, Kandynce Jones, an African American senior citizen who was paralyzed on one side of her body and legally blind, who always paid her rent on time, suffered a stroke and eventually died in part from the stress of his harassment techniques. In 2006 he purchased property in eastern downtown Los Angeles and vowed to build a $50 million housing refuge for the homeless. He took out full page ads promoting and celebrating its existence. By 2008 permits had not been submitted to the city council for approval. Still he trumpeted this absent housing development as often as possible in advertisements in the Los Angeles Times reminding people of his greatness.
In their game against Golden State on Sunday afternoon, the team with the worst owner in sports, the players whose salaries he pays, gathered in a circle. It had been a tough twenty four hours, for some a sleepless one. Many of them wore the stain of fatigue, overwhelmed as they were by the vestiges of their own rage. They gathered in a circle and threw down their Clippers warms up in anger as if they were throwing off the chains of an oppressor. The clothes hit the floor in an odd diagram, like a child’s underclothes before he climbs into the washtub. It appeared odd, all of those crumpled garments untended, just laying there. They players wore their t-shirts inside out so the Clippers name would not show. But you can defrock a priest two ways. You can take his parish away from him for good. But you can also take his name away, you can erase his existence in the world in which he lives.
For decades the NBA had no conscience. Not once in the past 30 years had the NBA issued a warning, a public relations statement, a rebuke, a condemnation, a warning, a slap on the wrist in regards to Donald Sterling and the excessive fines he has had to pay to settle discrimination and harassment lawsuits. It is a cruel irony for a league that believes in justice for players. When forced to deal with the ramifications of their bad behavior players have to submit to the NBA police and ask for mercy. All Donald Sterling had to ask for and what he received was privacy. There is something wrong with that on so many levels, justice in reverse tiers, a parent saying to a child: do what I say, not what I do. And one more inconsistent piece to this puzzle. Several years ago the Clippers on air announcers, the revered Ralph Lawler and his too talkative partner Mike Smith, were suspended for mispronouncing the word “Iranian” and for referring to Hamed Haddadi, the first Iranian player in the NBA, by the name of Borat, the fictional character immortalized in film. It was a mistake and it was a four game suspension reduced to one game. Of course the world is unequal, is not a meritocracy. If all things were equal Donald Sterling would have had to face his crimes a long time ago.
Tuesday afternoon, the newly installed NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver, presented the nuclear option. Donald Sterling was banned for life. He was no longer allowed at team games, functions activities. He was no longer allowed to have anything to do with the business side of running an organization, whether that be player personnel, finances, advertising. He was no longer allowed at the Board of Governor’s meetings. In effect the team Donald Sterling purchased in 1981 for 12 million dollars on the advice of Jerry Buss, the team now valued at over 600 million, all of it, the perks and the celebrity and profile, it is gone. The nuts and bolts of it will come from the owners. They will strip Donald Sterling of his team, they will take a vote. No franchise could withstand the public backlash of a vote in favor of Donald Sterling, the racist. Already Mark Cuban tweeted he is in favor of Sterling losing his team.
A long time ago in Congress, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the blunt and outspoken white haired politician from Cambridge, Tip O’Neil said “All politics are local.” It was the truth. It was how Sterling got away with his crimes; they were local, Southern California only. And then the Department of Justice broadened the scope of the Donald Sterling narrative when they sued him for strategic and systematic discrimination against African American, Latino and Korean renters. Kandynce Jones, the elderly disabled tenant who paid her rent on time, had a leaky refrigerator, a broken dishwasher and her apartment was flooded. She wanted to be reimbursed. Instead Donald Sterling instructed his rental manager to evict her. She died while waiting for repairs to be done. The three year case against Sterling was finally resolved when Sterling paid the largest settlement in U.S. history for a housing discrimination lawsuit, 2.7 million dollars. But he claimed no liability. It was a technicality. The world knew who Donald Sterling was at that moment. The NBA knows who Donald Sterling is at this moment. “Thank you for saving our beautiful league”, Lebron James said this afternoon.
Last year Donald Sterling buried his own child. The fugue of hatred that had surrounded him for some many years softened. It wasn’t the punishment he deserved but it was the punishment handed to him by fate. It is a year later and here we are with one sad chapter left in this tale of everyone knowing everything and no one doing anything. Better late than never. The NBA played the only card they had to play. There were rumblings about players wanting free agency in July. There were rumors about Doc Rivers wanting out. So the NBA and Adam Silver did not hesitate as they remembered the league’s beginnings and the black players who sacrificed to make it what it is today. Adam Silver was thinking of them as he stood at the podium to announce the punishment. He was thinking of Earl Lloyd and Chuck Cooper and Sweetwater Clifton and Bill Russell, players who left a trail and a path that Donald Sterling was attempting to darken. Adam Silver would not allow a racist that privilege. He gave Donald Sterling the death penalty. It was a win for humanity.