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For Donald Sterling, A Spotty Reputation Further Tarnished

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling and V. Stiviano watch the Clippers play the Los Angeles Lakers during a 2010 NBA preseason game.
Danny Moloshok
Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling and V. Stiviano watch the Clippers play the Los Angeles Lakers during a 2010 NBA preseason game.

If you're a basketball nut, last week was heaven. Nearly all of the series in the first round of the NBA playoffs have been intense affairs with dramatic finishes. Several teams that barely squeaked into the postseason might upset some of the league's powerhouses. It was an uncommonly exciting week of hoops.

Then Donald Sterling happened.

On Saturday, TMZ released a nine-minute recording that allegedly captures Sterling, the billionaire who owns the Los Angeles Clippers, expressing disapproval to his former girlfriend V. Stiviano for posting a picture of herself on Instagram with former Lakers great Magic Johnson — because Johnson is black. Indeed, Sterling wanted her to remove all of her Instagram photos in which she appears with black people. (Worth noting: Stiviano is reportedly black and Mexican, and she reminds Sterling repeatedly during the conversation that she is "mixed.")

"It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you're associating with black people," Sterling allegedly says to Stiviano in the recording. "Do you have to?"

The person TMZ identifies as Sterling goes on. "I'm just saying, in your lousy [expletive] Instagrams, you don't have to have yourself with, walking with black people. ... Don't put [Magic] on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me. And don't bring him to my games."

On Sunday, Deadspin published a longer version of the audio. In Deadspin's transcript, Stiviano asks, "Do you know that you have a whole team that's black, that plays for you?" In response, the alleged Sterling says, "Do I know? I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses."

David West, the Indiana Pacers' power forward, provocatively characterized the exchange in a tweet:

West used the phrase "plantation politics," summoning the 19th century optics of the situation. Sterling owns the labor contracts of his team's players, who are mostly black and are paid to entertain. His erstwhile girlfriend is herself black. The fracas again draws attention to the complex racial dynamics of the NBA, which is overwhelmingly black on the court and overwhelmingly white in the owners' suites.

Of course, West's allusion has some obvious limits: Slaves could not enter or opt out of their contracts, nor were they compensated; Chris Paul, the Clippers' stellar point guard, is a millionaire dozens of times over. But asJosh Levin of Slate points out, there are racial implications in the power imbalance between players and owners.

Reaction To The Recording

The story quickly eclipsed everything else that happened in the NBA this weekend.

Studio analysts opined on it at length. LeBron James, the league's marquee player, said, "There's no room for Donald Sterling in the NBA." (James also said that if he were on Sterling's team, he might not suit up for the playoffs.) Michael Jordan, the biggest star in NBA history and the owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, told reporters that he was "completely outraged." And for good measure, Magic Johnson tweeted that neither he nor his wife, Cookie, would attend a Clippers game as long as Sterling remained the team's owner.

Clippers coach Doc Rivers told reporters Saturday that the team's players briefly discussed a boycott. Paul, the team's point guard — who also happens to be the head of the NBA players union — said the union was aggressively considering next steps.

Before Sunday's game against the Golden State Warriors, the Clippers came out onto the court with their warm-up jerseys turned inside out, so the team's logos were obscured, and wearing black wristbands and armbands in protest. In that same spirit, the team's center, DeAndre Jordan, posted a plain black screen on Instagram. The team was soundly drubbed in its game after the story broke.

Adam Silver, the NBA's new commissioner, held a news conference Saturday night in which he said the league was investigating the allegations and that Sterling deserved due process. And while Silver said he wasn't yet taking action against Sterling, he said Sterling agreed not to attend Sunday's game.

But Rochelle Sterling, Donald Sterling's wife, showed up at the game anyway. (Did we mention that Donald Sterling has a wife? Oh, yeah. Our bad. Donald Sterling has a wife.) She said she didn't subscribe to the beliefs reflected in the audio, although she would not comment on whether the voice in the recording was her husband's. In a statement issued via spokesman, Donald Sterling questioned whether the recording is legitimate or has been altered and said Stiviano is currently the defendant in a lawsuit he filed against her, implying that she set him up.

The story got so big so quickly that even President Obama was asked for his opinion on it during a news conference in Malaysia. "When people — when ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance, you don't really have to do anything. You just let them talk," he said.

It's not clear whether Sterling can survive this degree of controversy, even if the voice on the tape is found not to be his. It's already had repercussions. The Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP was scheduled to fete Sterling and give him a lifetime achievement award next month — which would be his second NAACP honor. (The NAACP's interim president said Sunday that it will no longer do so.) The most devastating consequence might be that this incident has shone a spotlight on Sterling's checkered history. This is hardly the first time he's been reported to have said weirdly racist things.

It's not even the ugliest racial controversy he's been at the center of.

'No Blacks, No Mexican-Americans'

If you took all of Donald Sterling's racial scandals together, you might have a hard time distinguishing him from a villain in a blaxploitation movie. (Critics would complain that the character was too broadly drawn.)

This story has blown up more than Sterling's other racial controversies, which were almost certainly of more consequence. It's telling of our current media moment: Sterling's record settlement in a federal housing discrimination lawsuit received relatively scant national media attention. But catch someone saying something awful on tape, and the floodgates open.

Sterling made his fortune in real estate — he was the largest landowner in Beverly Hills — but he had a reputation among his tenants of being petty and discriminatory. During a lawsuit, a former employee said Sterling would not rent to blacks, Latinos and people with children, according to a 2009 article inESPN: The Magazine:

"Cultivating his image, [former employee] Davenport said, meant no blacks, no Mexican-Americans, no children (whom Sterling called 'brats') and no government-housing-subsidy recipients as tenants. So according to the testimony of tenants, Sterling employees made life difficult for residents in some of his new buildings. They refused rent checks, then accused renters of nonpayment. They refused to do repairs for black tenants and harassed them with surprise inspections, threatening residents with eviction for alleged violations of building rules. ...

"When Sterling first bought the Ardmore, he remarked on its odor to Davenport. 'That's because of all the blacks in this building, they smell, they're not clean,' he said, according to Davenport's testimony. 'And it's because of all of the Mexicans that just sit around and smoke and drink all day.' He added: "So we have to get them out of here.' Shortly after, construction work caused a serious leak at the complex. When Davenport surveyed the damage, she found an elderly woman, Kandynce Jones, wading through several inches of water in Apartment 121. Jones was paralyzed on the right side and legally blind. She took medication for high blood pressure and to thin a clot in her leg. Still, she was remarkably cheerful, showing Davenport pictures of her children, even as some of her belongings floated around her. ...

"Davenport reported what she saw to Sterling, and according to her testimony, he asked: 'Is she one of those black people that stink?' When Davenport told Sterling that Jones wanted to be reimbursed for the water damage and compensated for her ruined property, he replied: 'I am not going to do that. Just evict the bitch' ."

During the lawsuit, it was also alleged that Sterling's wife, Rochelle, would show up at their properties and falsely identify herself to tenants as a government official so she could inspect their apartments and inquire about the ethnic backgrounds of the folks therein.

Sterling's subsequent $2.7 million settlement of that lawsuit was the largest-ever payout for housing discrimination in a case brought by the Department of Justice involving rentals. The NBA did not issue any penalties against Sterling related to that case, which was largely ignored by national sports outlets.

Implications For The NBA

On the basketball side of things, the Clippers' recent evolution into title contenders has been an aberration in Sterling's decades-long stewardship of the team. Coupled with Sterling's reputation as a cheapskate, the team had long been a laughingstock, and talented young players bolted as soon as their contracts expired, while marquee free agents steered clear. In the 33 years Sterling has owned the franchise, the Clippers have advanced past the first round of the playoffs just twice. (Their reputation wasn't helped by the fact that they shared a town — and now a building — with the LA Lakers, who have 16 championships, more than all but one other NBA team.) But NBA franchises are famously appreciating assets — the reliably mediocre-to-terrible Milwaukee Bucks were purchased for $19 million in 1985 and were sold for $550 million two weeks ago — which means Sterling stands to make money regardless of how good his team actually is on the court.

There's also not a lot of precedent for penalizing an owner for bad behavior, and it's unclear just what the NBA can do. The other notable analogue in major pro sports is Marge Schott, the longtime owner of Major League Baseball's Cincinnati Reds, who was removed from running the team after making racist and anti-Semitic remarks.

The hullabaloo has been especially glaring for the NBA, which has cultivated an image as forward-thinking on issues of race and identity. The league regularly scores high marks for racial and gender diversity in its hiring, and it aggressively markets to fans of color. And the league, of course, is overwhelmingly black. "We believe this is a defining moment for the league," said Kevin Johnson, a former NBA star and the current mayor of Sacramento, Calif., who is also an adviser to the players union. "It's a defining moment for the commissioner and a defining moment for all the players in this league."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.
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