Sports is our national pastime. Race is our never-resolved American issue. An 80-year-old racist sports owner inadvertently brought sports and race together this week, and Tuesday we experienced a feel-good moment. But this is not over. It will never be over.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver, three months on the job and unknown to most of us, stood at a podium in New York Tuesday afternoon and dropped the hammer on Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Three days after damning audio tapes were leaked to TMZ, the boss of the NBA banned Sterling for life, fined him the maximum allowed ($2.5 million, which is chump change for him), and made it clear that league owners will force Sterling to sell the Clippers as soon as possible.
The new Commish hit all the right notes. He said he had spoken with Sterling about the owner’s anti-black remarks, receiving no defense or remorse from him.
“The hateful opinions . . . are those of Mr. Sterling,’’ said Silver.
The commissioner expressed “personal outrage,” apologized to fans, coaches, players, partners of the league, and NBA pioneers. He said Sterling’s views “have no place in the NBA,’’ and pledged, “I fully expect to get the support I need from the other NBA owners to remove him.’’
Ever heard of judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis? He’s the man who was brought in to clean up baseball after the Chicago White Sox threw the 1919 World Series. The ballplayers were acquitted in a court of law, but that didn’t stop baseball’s first commissioner. Landis identified eight players involved in the scandal and banned them for life. Eight Men Out.
Tuesday we had One Man Out: Donald Sterling.
There is dissatisfaction in the knowledge that Sterling has been an owner since 1981 and his trail of alleged transgressions includes housing discrimination, sexual harassment, a (failed) lawsuit that charged him with operating a “Southern plantation-type structure,’’ and general buffoonery that has made his franchise a laughingstock for the better part of three decades.
Critics of Silver and the NBA raise legitimate questions about the NBA being late to the party in disciplining Sterling. Former commissioner David Stern, knighted by most of us during his wildly successful tenure, now looks like a guy who ignored the inconvenient truths and retired with his reputation intact.
But we all know that without the proverbial smoking gun, the NBA was neither encouraged nor empowered to remove Sterling. And most of the other 29 fellows in the NBA lodge were happy to have Sterling around. He was good for business. He had money, he botched his roster, and he never seriously competed.
There’s nothing noble about punishing Sterling for his blatantly racist rant. It’s easy to hate on Sterling now. But Silver’s decisiveness is appreciated and rare in a litigious society that encourages/demands process.
Fortunately, Sterling made it easy for Silver. He didn’t deny his words, nor (more astonishing) did he apologize. And so Silver was able to do something baseball couldn’t do with racist/anti-Semitic Reds owner Marge Schott in 1993.
Schott was banned for a year. Sterling is banned forever.
Anything less would not have done.
There was a decidedly combustible climate across NBA America in the hours and days after the Sterling tape leaked. Before their Sunday playoff loss, the Clippers staged a quiet protest, turning their warm-ups inside-out to hide the Clipper logo.
Meanwhile, celebrity coach Doc Rivers, who jilted the Celtics to flee to the Clippers last summer, was questioned for taking a job from the likes of Sterling; President Obama denounced Sterling; and NBA megastar LeBron James was quick to state that Sterling has no place in the NBA.
But life went on. The playoffs went on while we wondered what the new guy (Silver) would do. On Monday, it was announced that Silver would make a statement on Tuesday. Meanwhile, ESPN commentator Keith Olbermann called for the Clippers to boycott Tuesday night’s pivotal Game 5 playoff contest against the Warriors at the Staples Center.
In an oddity of timing, Tuesday marked the 22d anniversary of the deadly Los Angeles riots that were triggered by the Rodney King verdict. Before Silver’s statement. Karma works in mysterious ways.
There was no word from Donald Sterling after Silver’s press conference. We know Sterling to be a man who loves courts and loves a fight. He bought the Clippers for $12.5 million and his franchise is estimated to be worth $575 million at this hour. Silver said he believes he has the votes necessary to force a sale (he needs 22 of 30 NBA owners to agree), but Sterling has demonstrated that he will not yield easily.
With these new conditions, there can be little joy left for Sterling as owner of the team. He can no longer participate in anything involving the Clippers. The Clippers are now nothing more than part of his stock portfolio.
Basketball fans are flummoxed. Do you root for the Clippers to win the NBA championship, which would only highlight Sterling’s absence? Or do you root for them to bow out of the playoffs to diminish their sale value?
On Tuesday, justice was firm and swift. It was a good American moment. But we all know it’s never over.