Just when the NBA thought the media spotlight could go back to the NBA Finals match up between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs, Donald Sterling returned to center stage. Last week ESPN reported that Sterling gave his wife Shelley Sterling permission to negotiate a full sale of the Los Angeles Clippers on his behalf in conjunction with the NBA. Sterling was quoted six days ago vowing he is ready to “move on.” The NBA and fans were led to believe this was the final move in its showdown with Donald Sterling.
The Clippers record-breaking sale price of $2 billion to Steve Ballmer, former Microsoft CEO, was significantly more than the $2.5 million fine the NBA handed down to Sterling in April. Sterling initially vowed to fight the NBA and refused to comply with the forced sale of the Clippers as well as pay the fine after TMZ leaked a conversation with his then girlfriend V. Stiviano. In the recording, Sterling’s voice audibly makes racist remarks about Stiviano taking pictures with NBA legend Magic Johnson and posting them on her Instagram account. News sources are unclear whether Sterling’s conversation was secretly recorded. Stiviano claims Sterling gave her permission to record their conversations so he could remember them.
Sterling is now firing back at the NBA. Donald Sterling’s $1 billion lawsuit filed against the NBA in federal court sets forth grounds for a legal showdown that may rival the NBA finals. On Monday Sterling’s attorney Maxwell Belcher, an antitrust lawyer, announced that he had been “instructed to prosecute the lawsuit.”
Sterling’s lawsuit claims that the NBA “violated” his “right to privacy.” According to a statement made by Belcher to the Associated Press, the NBA used an “illegal” tape recording from a private conversation as the sole reason for ousting Sterling as controlling owner of the Clippers franchise. Not backing down to Donald Sterling, Commissioner Adam Silver has warned him that the NBA is prepared to take on the impending legal battle and final court showdown with Sterling.
Sterling remains confident that the sale of the Clippers and the sanctions the NBA levied upon Sterling are in good legal standing. Silver stands behind Sterling’s fine, lifetime ban, removal as owner and forced sale of the Clippers franchise. The pending Federal law suit should bring clarity to many questions about the association and its governance. Many are curious whether the courts have the jurisdiction and authority to overrule the NBA’s penalties in Sterling’s favor.
The NBA formally charged Sterling last month claiming that he violated article 13 d of the NBA Constitution. The article states that an owner can be removed via a vote of three fourths of the league’s Board of Governors if an owner “fails to or refuses to fulfill its contractual obligations.” In this case the NBA will seek to argue that Sterling’s conversation was taken as a “public stance,” regardless of whether the conversation was illegally recorded, and caused detrimental harm to the league.
Silver and NBA officials believe opinions expressed by Sterling on the tape and later in his CNN interview with Anderson Cooper defame the league, its fans and players. Consequently, the NBA feels as though swift justice was served by banning Sterling and ordering him to pay the $2.5 million dollar fine. Sterling on the other hand went on the record Wednesday via CNN as calling the league “hypocrites,” “monsters,” and “bullies”. Sterling also claims the NBA violated his right to “due process” because no formal proceedings took place before the association levied their penalties against him.
Instead, the NBA undertook a four-day investigation and concluded Sterling should be removed from the franchise immediately. The decision to ban Sterling from NBA activities for life came during a public uproar against Sterling and turmoil among the Clippers’ players. During the first round of NBA playoffs when news first surfaced about Sterling’s racially controversial comments, LA Clippers All-Star point guard Chris Paul and Head Coach Doc Rivers stated that a boycott was considered.
Furthermore, it became abundantly clear to the NBA that if Donald Sterling or even his wife remained in control of the Clippers that things would be “very uncomfortable” for Rivers and his players going forward. Despite the fact that remarks made by Sterling didn’t “surprise” him Rivers chose to focus on basketball. Just days later his team was eliminated by the Oklahoma City Thunder in a second round playoff defeat.
Rivers also serves as Senior Vice President of Basketball operations for the franchise. Rivers’ role may have caused major organizational friction if Sterling remained in power after his remarks went viral. Sterling’s Clippers won a franchise record 57 games during the regular season. Many basketball analysts placed the franchise among the favorites to have a showdown with the Miami Heat in this years NBA Finals.
Sterling has dithered back and forth on the record as to whether he will sue the NBA. Commissioner Silver has been quick to point out that Sterling never dropped his lawsuit against the NBA even when rumors of a verbal agreement with Shelly Sterling to sell the team surfaced last week. On June 11, an LA probate court judge denied an “urgent” request from Shelley Sterling to immediately authorize the removal of her husband from the Sterling Family Trust in order to proceed with the Clippers sale agreement. However, due to the time sensitivity of the sale deadlines with Steve Balmer a judge agreed to hold a four day trial slated to begin on July 7.
The purpose of the trial is to determine the mental competency of the 80-year-old Sterling. Shelley Sterling is seeking a judge to determine that she was justified in acting on behalf of her husband, who she believed was mentally incapacitated. Sterling’s wife maintains that her husband was unable to make a competent decision regarding the future of his ownership with the Clippers franchise. According to Shelley Sterling’s attorney, Pierce O’Donnell, her husband has been ruled mentally incapacitated by three physicians. O’Donnell claimed that the trust agreement provides that if two physicians rule either party to be incompetent the party can be removed from the trust.
Confirmation via court ruling would immediately validate the sale of the LA Clippers. However, a ruling in favor of Donald Sterling may not take the potential sale agreement off the table. If a determination is made by the court that Sterling is competent to maintain his stake in the Clippers, the NBA will continue with its removal process. Regardless of the outcome, Donald Sterling and the NBA will have their own showdown that will certainly linger longer this years NBA Finals rematch.
Commentary by Brandon Wright