To understand why Donald Sterling loved the Clippers so much and why the sale of his team is such an annihilating blow you have to go back 57 years. You have to know a man named Bob Short.
Bob Short, a sluggish faced lawyer and businessman, bought the Minneapolis Lakers in 1957 when the team was a shell of its former self. Gone were the championship days of George Mikan. Mediocrity had little company in Minneapolis; fans stayed away. In Short’s first year of ownership the Lakers finished in last place but acquired Elgin Baylor in the draft. The Lakers made the playoffs the next year but were swept by the Celtics. It was the first playoff sweep in NBA history. In Elgin’s second year, as the Lakers returned to mediocrity, Bob Short noticed something.
The Brooklyn Dodgers had moved to California and were being feted by massive crowds. The businessman in Short salivated at the idea of all of that money. He let it marinate: move the team west and rake in thousands. Minneapolis was becoming a hockey town anyway and so Short latched on to his relocation plan. He tried Chicago and San Francisco first. And finally settled on Los Angeles.
Bob Short’s instincts were correct- in that he was ahead of the curve. He did make money in Los Angeles, the Lakers were a huge financial success. But something happened months before moving to Los Angeles that changed everything. The Lakers drafted Jerry West.
In 1960, in this palm tree lined city of transplants, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor on the Lakers roster were riveting and dynamic, a show in a town of show people. By virtue of their two talented stars the Lakers attracted a different type of crowd than Bob Short ever anticipated. The movie stars came out to the Sports Arena in droves, hungry for the type of entertainment West and Baylor provided by way of their immense talent.
The Sports Arena was opened by Vice-President Richard Nixon in 1959. It hosted the Democratic National Convention in 1960. It was the Lakers home arena from 1960-1967. It was where Elgin Baylor provided thrilling inspiration to those who watched him fly through the air. It was where Jerry West drained jumper after jumper, stoic and ruthless.
Elgin’s first year in Los Angeles he averaged 35 points a game. He had 71 points and 25 rebounds against the Knicks that year. His teammate had a good rookie year; Jerry West averaged 17 points and 7 rebounds. It was more than enough to draw the interest of Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. and Warren Beatty and hosts of others who couldn’t stay away, not with Elgin defying gravity and every principle of physics. Not with the willful and clutch scoring of Jerry West. Once the games were over luxurious and generous after parties toasted the celebrities.
Bob Short sold the Lakers in 1965 to Jack Kent Cooke and then ran for public office but he lost every congressional race he entered. Jack Kent Cooke who also owned the Washington Redskins sold the Lakers in 1979 to Dr. Jerry Buss.
Dr. Buss exponentially increased the entertainment value with cheerleaders and a live band and more celebrity parties. What Buss did was simple: he catered to the celebrities sense of privilege. He gave them the best seats, access, and a place where they could spend a few hours away from the dramatic reality of their lives. In turn the celebrities turned the Lakers and the Forum into their own private mecca.
Dr. Buss, a former chemist and real estate magnate, talked about this new way of life to one of his closest friends. He told him about the celebrities. He raved about the parties and the beautiful women. He glowed as he recounted the exploits of his team who by now had won a NBA championship. The Lakers in 1981 weren’t the most famous team in town, the Dodgers were, but the Lakers were on the L.A. map in a big way. The salesman and gambler in Buss told his friend, Donald Sterling, that he had to do this too, he had to buy a NBA team.
Two years earlier Sterling helped Buss close the Lakers deal by buying property worth $2.7 million dollars so Buss could free up cash. Buss never forget his kindness. He insisted to Sterling they could be owners together. And they would have more fun than they ever had.
In 1981 Donald Sterling followed Jerry Buss’ advice. He bought a NBA team, the San Diego Clippers. He moved the Clippers to Los Angeles without the NBA’s approval incurring a fine but not expulsion from the league which is what the NBA threatened to do.
All Donald Sterling wanted was the famous parties Buss raved about. He wanted to sit in the front row and gaze at the celebrities. He wanted to throw his ‘white party’ and have famous people walk through his house. The kid who had grown up without privilege all of a sudden had something the privileged admired and lusted over. For the first time in his life he was important to the “it” crowd.
People wonder why Donald Sterling never sold the Clippers; this is why. He never sold the Clippers because they gave him something money alone could not. Money bestows materialism. The Clippers bestowed relevance. The poor kid who had always been an outsider found a way to insert himself into a group of people who otherwise would have ignored him. It is why Donald Sterling never moved the Clippers to Orange County. In celebrity impoverished Orange County it would be his life all over again, the kid from Boyle Heights having to scrap and fight. Donald Sterling wouldn’t matter.
Donald Sterling was the same kind of man as Bob Short, he wanted to make a lot of money. He understood the value of a buck. And Donald Sterling was the same kind of man as Dr. Buss. He loved pretty women and he wanted a party.
As fate would have it half of Donald Sterling’s desires have come true. He has the money now, 2 billion dollars. But he doesn’t have what money cannot buy. He doesn’t have a reputation. He doesn’t have influence. He doesn’t have the power that is attached to sports ownership.
There are still parties but for Donald Sterling the invitations are no longer in the mail. The door is shut and locked and Donald Sterling is on the outside looking in, the way he used to do a long time ago. For the first time in 33 years he has no opening night. He has nowhere to go on Saturdays and Tuesdays. He has no hostesses to train, no mistresses to entertain with his courtside seats and backstage parties. He has no players to belittle and berate. Or to humiliate in the locker room as he parades his rich friends through and examines the players’ physiques like a slave owner would do at market.
No one cares who Donald Sterling is anymore because in this town, all of a sudden, he doesn’t exist. He is invisible, erased from the outside in because he was always a figure drawn in pencil, never taken seriously. He lost what made his life important and luxurious and unique. It was the Clippers that were special all along. It was never Donald Sterling.
It is not a sad story when you get what you deserve after so many years of getting over. It happens sometimes, sometimes you lose it all. Sometimes you do stupid things you can’t make go away. Sometimes you return to your roots, to who you used to be before you got lucky. This is Donald Sterling’s life after 33 years in the NBA. It is the hand he played; he did this to himself.
The world turns, another NBA season is upon us. Donald Sterling is just one more example of a guy who amassed riches over time and allowed his excesses to ruin him. He has a lot of money, 2 billion dollars to be exact. He suffers through the ravages of dementia. He is known by his prejudiced past and his insufferable lack of humanity. And so all he is now, at the end of this chapter, is an average man no one cares about anymore. That is exactly how it should be.