“Donald Sterling is dead.” A solitary heckler spit at the moment of silence before the Clippers-Warriors playoff game last night. The half-minute of mourning was ostensibly a tribute to Dr. Jack Ramsey, the recently deceased coaching legend. But it was usurped to sing “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” on the fresh grave of Sterling, the bigoted slumlord-ghoul of L.A., booted for life by NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver.
No one in Staples Center missed the horny toad. Not Clippers Coach Doc Rivers nor the fans chanting “We Are One.” They wore homemade t-shirts that read “Fuck the Owner,” “Sterling Out, Equality In” and waved “We Stand with our Team” signs. The cheerleaders wore black. The Clippers staffers wore black. The players themselves looked like a karmic hex had been lifted, outmuscling the Warriors 113-103, finally freed to concentrate on basketball.
Nothing fosters community like a common enemy. And Donald Sterling boasts a rare unpopularity usually only seen in avaricious nuclear power plant owners or aristocratic Dalmatian killers. When a sign depicting Sterling with devil horns flashed on the big screen, the crowd exploded. It might be the last time in professional sports history that you ever see an arena scrubbed clean of advertisements – as all the Clippers sponsors bailed shortly after TMZ first leaked the tape of Sterling.
The emotional mob formed hours before tip-off. Outside of the arena, small crowds clotted to gawk at the circus and offer quotes to the abundant news cameras. ESPN 710 AM set up a live broadcast at LA Live to bray brimstone rhetoric about the exiled pariah. “No Bigots Allowed” signs and “Is Basketball More Important than Our Dignity?” signs abounded. One man fulminated about how black people lack the foot soldiers of Martin Luther King's era. “WE ONLY HAVE KINGS AND QUEENS NOW,” he shouted at the top of his lungs as the cameras pounced and the nightly news producers mouthed to the shooters: “Are we recording this?”
There were flyers for an upcoming Louis Farrakhan meeting. Al Sharpton's action network was there. Well past the street corner soapbox stage, Jesse Jackson sidestepping the outside commotion to go straight into the arena, idling near Donald Sterling's vacant seat before tip-off while trap beats boomed. There was even an appearance from Shelley Sterling, wife of the Donald, flanked by a half-dozen ominous bodyguards.
The mood was one-third civil rights rally, one-third jazz funeral, one-third group therapy session. Doc Rivers spoke before the game about the emotional drain felt by both players and fans. Staples Center was one step away from collectively bowing to its knees, holding hands, and having Drake lead the unnerved in a cover of “Kumbaya.”
I spoke to several people before the game. All offered various shades of condemnation for the ostracized owner. There was Clint Dennis from Hawthorne, an African-American man draped in all black, a fan of the Clippers since they moved here from San Diego three decades ago. He described Sterling's comments as a “bowl of old soup that's been heated up… .what he said needed to be known. He disgraced the players and the city itself.”
There was Eddie Leu, an Asian-American man from Walnut, who wore a black Clippers hat with a strip of electrical tape over the logo. He told me how he inadvertently became a fan in 1989 when he purchased a 10-games for $100 package to the Sports Arena. Since then, he's watched Donald Sterling conduct a bumbling campaign of accidental sabotage so acute that you'd think it was a Buss family conspiracy.
For Leu and many fans, the latest racist statements felt particularly damning due to the timing. As with everyone I spoke with, Leu claimed that Sterling's grotesqueries were irrelevant to fandom.
“Everyone had heard about his racist tendencies from the lawsuit filed by [former General Manager] Elgin Baylor and the housing discrimination settlement. To hear him verbalizing it was the real shocker,” Leu said, adding that he's wearing black to support the Clippers players. If there's a Game 7 at Staples Center, he mentioned that he'll sport red and blue. “It's a good thing, but it's a Band-Aid. It's not about to end racism or anything.”
The rawest interpretation of the situation came from Elijah Woodson, a former schoolteacher from Inglewood with salt-and-pepper dreadlocks and a sign maligning negative stereotypes against black people. He wasn't much of a basketball fan, but he came down after he saw someone on MSNBC discussing how the situation was about the culture more than the Clippers.
“What's a $2.5 million fine to an old fart? The entire institution needs to be looked at,” he said, gratefully resting his sign after learning that the interview wasn't for TV. “He was just pissed because a black man was screwing someone he liked. Some it was envy; some of it was jealousy. I'd be resentful too. He's wrinkled. He's got bad memories. There's not enough Viagra in the world for someone 81, so why you playing?”
Shortly before tip-off, Clippers players were given cards that read “I Love You” with their names written on it. From the big screen dangling above center court, phrases flashed: “We Are As One… Welcome Home to Our Team..Your Spirit… Your Courage.” It did everything but offer an #emorevival hashtag.
The tactics might've been mildly saccharine and overwrought, but the sentiment was heartfelt. For the last 30 years, the franchise has been effectively been held hostage by a prejudiced buffoon reputed to heckle players and pinch female patrons and pennies. Within a chaotic 72-span, Sterling went from a corpulent plutocrat to a disgraced pariah. It validated the terrifying power of social media and collective outrage. It unified the city behind a common villain. For the first time in their franchise history, the Clippers had a chance to become LA's team – or at least L.A.'s team when L.A.'s other teams aren't winning.
See also: Donald Sterling's 6 Other Greatest Hits
After the game, the coaches and players offered the perfunctory clichés. Mental toughness. They “gutted it out.” They were “fighters.” For once, they seemed a little more valid. You didn't have to be a Clippers fan to admire the victory or root for them to keep winning in the playoffs. The perennial underdogs have become a symbol of solidarity after nearly a lifetime of futility.
The social compact of LA has no room for “We Are One” sloganeering. It's the city where you go solo: solitary commutes, quixotic campaigns to become a star, VIP rooms that keep on getting more exclusive until you're all alone and swaddled in velvet and champagne. The scars of racism run deep. The Zoot Suit Riots. The Watts Riots. The '92 Riots. So there were combat-ready police casing the perimeter of Staples Center all night, just in case something went wrong.
But it didn't. With four minutes left inside the arena, the crowd started chanting “We Are One” over and over again. It contradicted the constitution of the city, but everyone was more than happy to let it slide, for at least one night.