Two Sterlings and the NBA Dig In for L.A. Clippers Custody Battle

Two Sterlings and the NBA Dig In for L.A. Clippers Custody Battle
Clippers co-owner Shelly Sterling, right, watches the Clippers second round NBA playoff series match against Oklahoma City Thunder, on May 9
Photograph by Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

It’s been almost two weeks since National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver banned Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling from the league, and the other owners have yet to vote on stripping  him of his ownership. The 10 owners on the NBA’s advisory and finance committee are scheduled to discuss the matter again this week. The vote, which is widely expected to go against Sterling, will signal the opening shot in the battle for ownership of the Clippers. In the meantime, Sterling, his wife Shelly, and the league have been taking up positions for the fight.

After the ban, Sterling first popped up in the pages of the luxury magazine Du Jour to say that he wished he had just “paid off” his mistress V. Stiviano, who was his interlocutor on the now infamous recording. Then came more “leaked” audio, this time from Radar Online, in which Sterling explained that he is not a racist and was only saying racist things because he was “trying to have sex” with Stiviano. (Nota bene: This is not a valid defense.) The most important line from the Radar tapes is Sterling’s claim that “you can’t force someone to sell property in America.” This would seem to have signaled that he intends to dispute any attempt to take away the team.

In a sit-down interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, however, Sterling tempered his approach. “If the owners feel I deserve another chance, then they’ll give it to me,” he told Cooper in a tone familiar from his efforts to seduce Stiviano. He also suggests that he doesn’t have the stomach for a fight with his “partners” in the NBA. “At the end of the road, what do I benefit, especially at my age?” he asks. This could be strategic self-pity, a ploy to try to sway the vote, but the league will be hoping that the new, docile Sterling is the real thing.

His wife does not intend to go quietly. After branding herself as the Clippers co-owner and a partner with the league in pushing out her husband—a posture met with silence from the NBA—she told ABC’s Barbara Walters that she would “absolutely” fight to keep her 50 percent stake in the team. The league responded with this statement from spokesman Mike Bass:

“Under the NBA Constitution, if a controlling owner’s interest is terminated by a 3/4 vote, all other team owners’ interests are automatically terminated as well. It doesn’t matter whether the owners are related as is the case here. These are the rules to which all NBA owners agreed to as a condition of owning their team.”

Shelly Sterling’s lawyer, Pierce O’Donnell, called this a “self-serving interpretation of [the NBA's] constitution” and suggested he will challenge it in state and federal court. It’s no accident that the league’s statement does not come from the commissioner and does not make any direct reference to either Sterling. The league wants to address the question of Shelly Sterling’s claim as a settled point of fact, nothing personal. Her lawyer portrays the league as acting out of convenience and finding justification where it can. “I’m wondering if a wife of one of the owners, and there’s 30 owners, did something like that, said those racial slurs, would they oust the husband?” Shelly Sterling asked Walters.

The NBA constitution, now a public document (pdf), says that the “Membership of a Member or the interest of any Owner may be terminated by a vote of three fourths,” which would seem to leave room for interpretation. The way it looks now, the NBA’s biggest challenge will come from Shelly Sterling. It’s a thorny spot for the league. It’s doubtful that the various constituents outraged by Donald Sterling’s comments, including players and sponsors, would be satisfied with his wife maintaining her stake in the team, especially since it is unclear the extent to which she and her husband work in concert. Yet ousting Shelly Sterling leaves the hold of every other NBA owner, from managing partners to minority shareholders, more tenuous.

For now, the league has named former Time Warner Chief Executive Richard Parsons as interim head of the Clippers. Parsons took over Time Warner in 2002, just after the disastrous merger with AOL. He later became chairman of Citigroup just after that bank accepted $45 billion bailout from U.S. taxpayers. He’s basically the Mr. Clean of boardrooms.

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