The NBA was shocked – shocked! – when it suddenly discovered this past weekend that Donald Sterling was a toxic human being, a bad boss and a slumlord who harbors racist and misogynistic thoughts about his employees and tenants and has no compunction about spewing those thoughts out to his black/Latina “girlfriend.”
As the NBA front office completes its initial investigation and prepares to bring down the hammer this morning – a source familiar with the investigation tells the Weekly that new Commissioner Adam Silver will issue an “indefinite suspension” unless Sterling agrees to step down and sell the team – there is no need for the league to round up the usual suspects who are responsible for letting the Sterling situation fester for so long before finally exploding in the last 72 hours.
All the other 29 owners have to do is take a moment from frantically issuing their self-serving condemnations of Sterling's racist comments and look in the mirror. And for a complete group portrait of Sterling's enablers, they should invite former commissioner David Stern to sit front and center.
Stern, who retired on Feb. 1, ran the league with an iron hand for 30 of the 33 years that Sterling has owned the Clippers. Yet never once did Stern move to discipline Sterling in any way, despite a long litany of well-documented incidents and allegations that exposed Sterling's private racism and misogyny to the light of day. Quite the contrary: he rewarded Sterling's bad behavior by negating the trade of Chris Paul from New Orleans to the Los Angeles Lakers in December 2011 and instead approving a Paul trade to the Clippers four days later.
Without Paul coming to the Clippers, there was no way budding superstar Blake Griffin was going to sign a five-year, $95 million contract extension, as he did in July 2012. And without Griffin on board for the long haul, there was no way Paul was going to sign a five-year, $107 million contract, as he did before the start of this season. And without those two superstars, there was no way Coach Doc Rivers was going to bolt the re-building Boston Celtics last summer and head for the Clippers and a shot to win his second NBA championship ring.
In a league where you need superstars to win championships, Sterling lucked into drafting Griffin via his usual method: the Clippers had the first pick in the 2009 draft because they were so bad the season before.
But it's also a league where superstars attract other superstars because no one can win a title by themselves – see Kobe Bryant, 2005-08, LeBron James 2003-10 or Carmelo Anthony for his entire career – and Stern's decision to negate the Lakers trade and instead gift Sterling with Paul was inexplicable in light of the Lakers long tradition of excellence and the Clippers long tradition of incompetence.
By now, after the saturation scandal coverage of the last 48 hours, anyone who can read has heard about Sterling's derogatory comments about black and Latino tenants living in his apartment buildings around L.A. And anyone who wanted to educate themselves about Sterling's attitudes toward women needed only to read his pre-trial deposition in a sexual harassment case.
But Stern and the league's 29 other owners – 28 of them rich white guys, and the other the proudly apolitical Michael Jordan – live in an NBA-centric world where they either knew or should have known about these incredibly disturbing Sterling quotes long before this past weekend.
In 1983, a drunken Sterling met prospective coach Rollie Massimino at LAX and asked him: “I wanna know why you think you can coach these niggers?”
In 2002, one of his property supervisors swore under oath in a housing discrimination suit that Sterling said: “That's because of all the blacks in this building, they smell, they're not clean.” That same suit yielded other Sterling gems: “And it's because of all of the Mexicans that just sit around and smoke and drink all day”… .”I don't like Mexican men because they smoke, drink and just hang around the house”… .”Is she one of those black people that stink?…Just evict the bitch.”
In 1988, with Stern reportedly in the room while negotiating with top draft pick Danny Manning, Sterling said: “I'm offering a lot of money for a poor black kid.”
As far as women, in a pre-trial deposition Sterling said he wanted women who will “let me put it in… or suck on it.” Later he made his attitudes even clearer: “When you pay a woman for sex, you are not together with her. You're paying her for a few moments to use her body for sex. Is it clear? Is it clear?”
So why did his fellow owners never make a move to expel Sterling from their exclusive club? First, he was so incompetent they enjoyed having a patsy in Los Angeles where they could expect to win a game after the traditional loss to the powerful Lakers.
And second, a lot of these guys have their own dark sides and didn't want to set a precedent that could later be used to remove them should they become embroiled in some kind of off-court scandal. The general feeling was: If something has to be done, leave it to Stern to take care of the Sterling problem. Instead Stern went out of his way in an unprecedented use of his broad power to screw the Lakers and help the Clippers.
Now Silver has to clean up the Sterling mess that Stern left behind. And good luck with that: Not only is Sterling racist and misogynistic, he's also eccentric and head-strong in the way that only old rich guys can be. Under its by-laws, the league can't force Sterling to sell the team. So Silver has to hope that pressure from fans, media and defecting sponsors will convince Sterling to take his huge profit – he paid $12.5 million and the team is now valued at $575 million by Forbes Magazine, but he could get more than $1 billion if he holds an open auction – and laugh all the way to the bank.
In his Sunday press conference, Silver was asked why, given his racist history, Sterling had never been sanctioned. Silver gave a non-answer answer: “I am not here to talk about the past.”
Now, finally, the NBA will be forced to talk about the past, no matter how recent it may be.
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