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Sterling v. Sterling Court Battle Gets the Old Razzle-Dazzle

Shelly Sterling leaves the court.

PHOTO BY TED SOQUIShelly Sterling leaves the court.

Donald Sterling's sanity is not on trial.

No, the trial, a dispute between real estate tycoon and Clippers owner Donald T. Sterling and his wife, Shelly, concerns itself with trusts and revocations, doctor-patient confidentiality and so on. Yet the substance of Sterling's curious mind hovers over the proceedings, his dark, private thoughts the inciting incident and chief mystery of this drama.

The moment that encapsulates this came on day three of a trial that was set to last a few hours but now will last until the end of July. The hot courtroom had a musty smell about it; Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plashke dabbed his head intermittently with a brown hand towel from home.

Donald Sterling entered with the satisfied grin of a steamship admiral, his collar starched, shirt split open wide, his hair comically dyed, his skin a peculiar brown.

He referred to Shelly glowingly:  "my beautiful wife" and "I love her." This from an 80-year-old who's led a well-documented libertine life with prostitutes and lady friends compensated for services rendered.

Asked if she and Donald were separated, Shelly testified, "Uh... sort of."

The proceedings soon focused on Donald's mind. Shelly testified: "He's been getting more forgetful, he's slurring his words, he's agitated a lot, he gets mad for no particular reason. He's just not the same person he used to be."

They live apart, but Shelly, 79, is caretaker of her husband's health and business. Though feuding over who can sell the Clippers, during a break a day earlier, he'd kissed her softly on the hand.

But this time, as Shelly approached Donald's chair on the aisle, perhaps expecting tenderness, Donald croaked, "Get away from me, you pig!"

Judge Michael Levanas, who has the patient kindness of a network TV dad, said, "Mr. Sterling, don't say anything to your wife. It's ... " he paused, searching for the word, before settling on " ... disturbing."

"It was vintage Donald Sterling," one of Shelly's lawyers, Hollywood legend Bert Fields, crowed later. "He's a destructive, abusive bully who treats his wife like dirt."

Donald's lawyer, Bobby Samini, tried out the line, "Obviously emotions were really high," delivered with the grim demeanor of a sewage technician. "That's who he is. He didn't come to put on a show for you guys. Sometimes he's combative, sometimes he's charming. It's not vaudeville."

But the trial has taken on a vaudevillian tone, as much due to the big-ego lawyers themselves, who batter home their points, leaving nothing to chance.

They are a motley old bunch. Team Shelly is headed by Pierce O'Donnell, who represented humorist Art Buchwald in his suit against Paramount Pictures for allegedly stealing his idea for Coming to America. Forbes has called O'Donnell the "Perry Mason of Hollywood."

That was before O'Donnell was banned from lawyering for six months after he illegally contributed to John Edwards' presidential campaign. The Sterling trial marks the 67-year-old attorney's big comeback.

O'Donnell has a patrician quality — he looks like a Roman senator — but his corny jokes give him away. Withdrawing a question, he told the judge, "My mother had an ugly kid, but she didn't raise no fool."

At O'Donnell's side is Fields, 85, who has represented Michel Jackson, the Beatles, Tom Cruise, George Lucas and Paramount in its dispute with, yes, Art Buchwald.

Sitting by Fields and O'Donnell is attorney Adam Streisand, whom the Daily Journal once dubbed, "The Sure Thing." He represents would-be Clippers buyer Steve Ballmer, former CEO of Microsoft.

Team Donald's Samini is joined by Gary Ruttenberg, the white-bearded beanpole given to bow ties and cowboy boots, not to mention a giant, silver belt buckle.

Finally, there's Max Blecher, a longtime Sterling associate who appears to use the same hair dye as his client. The diminutive Blecher walks with the gait of a hunchback and mumbles softly; at press conferences, he leans on the mic stand for support.

The lawyers themselves may take the stand when the trial resumes on July 21.

Donald's lawyers have subpoenaed O'Donnell, Samini and Blecher, who worked for the Sterlings after the recording containing Donald's cringe-inducing, racist statements was leaked to the press.

For decades, Sterling was among the stingiest, most hated owners in the NBA. He was sued by former Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor for racial discrimination (Sterling won) and by the Housing Rights Center of L.A. for housing discrimination (Sterling settled for a then-record amount). Yet the L.A. chapter of the NAACP actually managed to give him awards — until Sterling was recorded by V. Stiviano saying patently racist things.

The media reaction was furious. NBA commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling for life — meaning the league could essentially sell the team from under him.

This trial concerns itself with the weeks that followed the ban.

Shelly claims she suspected her husband wasn't playing with a full deck when he was interviewed by Anderson Cooper. One minute, Donald was crying. Next he was promising never to "do it" again, then he was implying that Magic Johnson had failed L.A.'s children by contracting HIV.

"I couldn't believe that was him," Shelly testified. "He started attacking Magic Johnson, talking different things that had no relevance to the questions, started saying white Jews take care of their people. Totally out of context and out of reality."

Donald was on board with the idea of selling the team before the NBA could liquidate it, according to Shelly. That is, until she sold it to Ballmer for $2 billion — by far the most ever paid for a basketball team.

Sterling considers Shelly to be far less astute than he. Some have speculated he was upset because she pulled off a major coup.

Then Donald and his attorneys turned on Shelly and her attorneys.

Court watchers were fascinated by the surprisingly sharp, even charming, Shelly Sterling as she went toe-to-toe with Blecher on cross-examination. Blecher tried to get Shelly to admit Donald was always reluctant to sell. She replied, "That's wrong! He said to me — in front of you — 'Honey, I want you to get anything you can get. I want you to be happy.' And you were there! You heard it, you even agreed to it!"

After Donald tried to call off the Clippers' sale, Shelly had doctors give him brain scans and spoken tests. They concluded that Sterling "probably had Alzheimer's."

Shelly used the diagnosis to remove Donald from the trust that owns the Clippers. Enraged, Donald said he had no idea the exams would be used for such a purpose. He wrote a letter dissolving the trust.

Which brings us to next week's installment of the trial.

Did Shelly act appropriately in having doctors examine Donald? Should his imperious letter count? (Trusts usually have to be wound down, like a bankrupt company.)

With the egos involved, and the money on the table, Judge Levanas will have to summon all the patience in his reservoir in order to untangle the whole mess.