When you desire mercy there are steps. First you must heal your damage. But not the way Donald Sterling did on Monday night. He fell back in his familiar habit of self defense, he was tone deaf. He was fascinated by his own behavior but not particularly sorry. With Anderson Cooper firing questions, Sterling failed the basic test: throw himself on the mercy of the court. A callous figure, Sterling was unable to elicit contrition or remorse, his lips dripped in arrogance and denial. He spoke to Anderson Cooper as if the situation he was in was some sort of slap on the wrist transgression instead of a far reaching, self inflicted wound.
It has been 16 days since Donald Sterling’s life took a precipitous turn south. It took him that long to get to the point where he could look another human being in the eye and speak. His recent crime has brought shame upon a professional league in the middle of the playoffs, he compromised his own team. He ruined his family’s inheritance. He debased himself. As he attempted to protect himself from Anderson Cooper’s accusations he appeared insincere, prejudiced and in denial. The more he talked about the controversy that has his ownership rights of the Los Angeles Clippers on life support, the more corrupt he seemed. The hole he dug for himself widened. The interview did what Adam Silver’s lifetime ban could not, it buried him completely.
Sterling, listening to public relations advisors, acknowledged his racist words set off a chain of events and yet in the same breath he claimed those very words were inconsequential. Several times he said he was not a racist. But you cannot have both things. You can’t accept harm and then deny harm. But his strategy was mercy, asking for it, begging for it, demanding it. He said he would do anything for the players on his team which for anyone who has followed his career as a NBA owner these past 30 years knows this as a lie of omission. He would do anything for money, for saving it, for making it, for denying it to others. But of his current Clippers team in the second round of the playoffs and tied in their series with the favored Oklahoma City Thunder, he wore the mask of contrition. “I hope it’s in their heart to forgive me for that mistake.” In the Donald Sterling way of doing math he added “it was one mistake after 35 years.” One mistake multiplied by dozens of intentional policies, of harassment strategies and discrimination verdicts and age discrimination lawsuits and heckling players and not paying coaches.
Unable to see his own reflection or any of his crimes, he turned the blame onto the messenger. “The players don’t hate me, the sponsors don’t hate me, the fans don’t hate me, the media hates. The media is pushing this.” Of course he would blame the media, everyone does. That is part of the script for whoever finds themselves on the wrong lens of a public scandal. Although the media is not blameless and has a level of complicity in their hunger for salaciousness, Donald did this to himself. His self reflection was without context. He even said, “I can’t explain some of the stupid, foolish, uneducated words that I uttered.”
For a man who started small, who started from nothing and built an empire, he hesitated with his attacks. Sterling both protected V. Stiviano as someone trying to help her family and accused her of setting him up. But it wasn’t until the subject of Magic Johnson entered the conversation that Sterling unraveled. Magic Johnson then became a caricature. He was no longer the dynamic point guard whose career was cut short, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame, whose foundation promotes HIV education and awareness, who models business ethics to impoverished children, he was Magic Johnson the enemy or Magic Johnson the fraud or Magic Johnson the sellout. He was a float in the Donald Sterling venom parade. Sterling, as if he has some sort of inner knowledge on black Los Angeles and its roots of economic and social power structure and hierarchy, said Magic Johnson did nothing to help “the black people.” It was a statement as outrageous as Donald Sterling’s arrogance is predictable. He spoke as if ridiculing a man with a disease was a badge of honor. He said Magic Johnson had not set a good example for the children of Los Angeles. “He’s got AIDS. Did he do any business? Did he help anybody in South L.A.?” Sterling’s summary of Magic as a chameleon was personal and particularly hostile not to mention nauseating. “He acts so holy”, Sterling said. “I am saying he does nothing. It is all talk. Jews when they get successful they help their people. And some of the African Americans they don’t help anybody. What has Magic Johnson really done for any hospital? What has he done for any group?”
It was a soliloquy NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver could not let pass. He apologized to Magic Johnson on behalf of the NBA and its community. Silver said of Magic, “he continues to be dragged into this situation and be degraded by such a malicious and personal attack.” Adam Silver is different than his predecessor David Stern. He is just as angry but is a generous listener, a patient thinker and inclusive of the player’s point of view. This is the second time Silver has apologized because of Donald Sterling and in doing so has aligned himself with the values of decency and honor and respect. He apologized to Magic but he was also asking for atonement. For years, too many looked the other way and now they have to fix it, excommunicate their problem child.
There is a point of view that Donald Sterling is an unstable man. Or that he is suffering from a form of dementia . Not to minimize his cognitive health, this is true too: Sterling knows who holds his fate in their hands and to them, his fellow owners he apologized. “I love every owner. Every owner knows me. I love the commissioner.” But the reality is the majority of owners have come into the league over the past decade. When Donald Sterling bought the team in 1981 many of the current owners were just finishing college. They are not of the same generation, the same value system, the same ideology. Where he sees love for them they see tolerance of him, at best. And now they see a weak link in their business empire. He is costing them money.
On the one hand Sterling said he wanted to cooperate with the league and on the other hand he said he wasn’t sure the league wanted him out even as the commissioner Adam Silver has banned him for life. The interview took a delusional turn then. “Because the media says the owners want me out doesn’t mean they want me out.” And yet he admits, or he was told to admit- he has humiliated the league, embarrassed them. He refused to say if he would fight the NBA in court but he doesn’t believe the players would boycott. As if they are blue collar laborers making minimum wage salaries and have no leverage Sterling said, “We may have to work for an employer we don’t love.” He then talked about the respect he has shown for the players and in his own small world Donald Sterling believes they love him. “They know I am not a racist.”
There is a famous saying attributed to Abraham Lincoln: better to remain silent and be thought a fool then to speak out and remove all doubt. It was what Donald Sterling did on Monday night. He opened his mouth. He spoke out. He removed all doubt. It is a footnote that on the same night Donald Sterling tried to convince the world of something not true, that he was not a racist, Lebron James, the NBA’s best player, scored 49 points, tying his career high. That too happened on Monday night. But Donald Sterling and his dark cloud erased the incredible. The thrilling. His immorality and defiance continues to hover over the NBA.