I went to a pair of Donald T. Sterling’s lottery parties.
This was in the late 1980s, when his Clippers, thanks to his managerial ineptitude, coupled with his penuriousness, were near-annual participants in the NBA draft lottery while the Lakers were near-annual participants in the NBA Finals.
Sterling threw these galas at his Beverly Hills mansion to celebrate the lottery drawing. I had my picture taken with him and the likes of John Wooden and Orel Hershiser. The food was good and the liquor flowed. I must say he was a fine host.
At that point in time, we only knew him to be rich and, well, a bit goofy. He was no good at running an NBA team, but he appeared to be harmless as a person. Rich guys come in all sizes, shapes, and mentalities, you know.
As years passed, a fuller portrait of this real estate mogul took shape. He had to deal with lawsuits concerning sexual harassment and tenant discrimination, and when they wound up in costly settlements, a clear picture emerged. This was definitely not an exemplary human being.
But the bigotry that has manifested itself in the appalling audio tape that is current Page 1 news was not directly evidenced by his hiring practices with the Clippers. His first coaching hire was Paul Silas, a very forceful individual who happens to be African-American. His current coach is Glenn “Doc” Rivers, a very forceful individual who happens to be African-American.
He has also employed as a head coach Don Chaney, an extremely dignified individual who happens to be African-American, and Alvin Gentry, yet another very forceful individual who happens to be African-American.
In addition, Sterling’s general manager for 22 years was yet another African-American, the great Elgin Baylor, a man who influenced how offensive basketball is played more than anyone in the past 60 years.
Unfortunately, Baylor could not transfer his playing genius into sound front office thinking. He was every bit as bad a GM as his old Laker teammate, Jerry West, was a brilliant one. And yet Sterling kept Baylor on the job for more than two decades, the only possible reason being that he genuinely liked him as a person.
In fact, it was easy for me, as much as I admired Baylor the player, to side with Sterling when Baylor lost his job and sued his boss for age discrimination. I was one of many who thought Baylor should have been eternally grateful for the good fortune of being employed for all those unproductive years by Sterling.
So, you see, the word “contradiction” comes into play when we examine Sterling’s reprehensible utterings on the infamous tape. (I am assuming, of course, that the voice in question is his.)
People are asking why the members of The Club — i.e. the other 29 NBA owners — have tolerated him in their midst. I can only speculate, but the answer seems rather obvious. Why would they wish to oust him when his very presence, for the better part of three decades, represented a competitive advantage — for them?
It is impossible to overstate the astonishing ineptitude of the Clippers franchise since Sterling bought the team prior to the 1981-82 season.
Consider that in 33 years of Sterling stewardship the Clippers have
■ lost 50 or more games 22 times.
■ lost 60 or more games eight times.
■ lost 70 games once.
This does not include the shortened 1998-99 season, when they were 9-41, clearly en route to another 60-loss campaign, or — who knows? — maybe even 70.
They also have won, to this moment, 19 playoff games. That’s games, not series. The Lakers during that same span have played in 15 Finals, winning 10, with 251 playoff victories.
Why would any opponent want such a patsy out of the league?
Here’s the rub: Donald T. Sterling is the longest-tenured owner in the NBA. He has vetted all of them, not the other way around. Given the gravity of the present situation, this is a truly sick irony.
But it’s really not funny. The Clippers and Donald T. Sterling have been an embarrassment to the league. Ask Bill Fitch, who had to sue Sterling to get his money when he was let go as head coach.
It was all laid bare in a 2009 ESPN The Magazine article. Sterling was exposed as a bigot who discriminated against blacks and Mexicans in his real estate practices. He was revealed to be a lecherous boss. But the exposé had remarkably little traction. The Clippers’ sordid life carried on.
This is no longer remotely possible. He must be suspended and fined to the max. The money won’t matter to him, but it can go to charity. The other owners must apply pressure on him to sell.
He will walk away with an enormous profit on what was a $12.5 million investment 33 years ago (Forbes has pegged the Clippers to be worth approximately $575 million now). He’ll have that satisfaction, but they can’t worry about that. The league must rid itself of him.
Those photos of mine from the lottery parties? I used to show them around for a laugh. Now I just feel creepy.