NEW YORK — Adam Silver just killed off the Frankenstein monster that his mentor David Stern helped create, and everyone will line up now to give their “attaboys” to the rookie commissioner. Silver banned Donald Sterling from the NBA for life, and charged the board of governors to force the Los Angeles Clippers owner and real estate mogul to do what he never does — sell — after Sterling admitted that was his hateful voice on the TMZ audiotape.
Silver did everything in his Manhattan news conference Tuesday but break out some video-game weapon and vaporize Sterling’s image on the spot.
But really, this was no time and place for the NBA to be doing any end zone dances. In fact, the league should be ashamed that it ignored Sterling’s long history of racist and offensive conduct before doing what any right-minded observer knew had to be done as soon as he or she heard the owner unplugged over the weekend.
And in case you are scoring at home, go ahead and blame Silver’s predecessor for that.
David Stern never had a problem punishing his players for saying or tweeting remarks deemed offensive. When he fined Kobe Bryant $100,000 over his one-and-done use of an anti-gay slur, Stern said the following: “Kobe and everyone associated with the NBA know that insensitive or derogatory comments are not acceptable and have no place in our game.”
Really, David? Donald Sterling had been saying insensitive and derogatory things for years, and what exactly did you do about it?
Stern fined Heat owner Micky Arison $500,000 for tweeting about a lockout, and Mavericks owner Mark Cuban about $2 million in all for criticizing the refs. He fined Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor $3.5 million, took three of his first-round picks, and suspended him for a year for basketball’s answer to Michael Pineda’s pine-tar crime: He got caught playing the kind of funny salary-cap games a lot of executives were playing.
Stern fined then-Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy $100,000 for saying a league official had warned him that Yao Ming would be targeted by refs for illegal screens, and added that Van Gundy was “not going to continue in this league” if he kept talking. Stern fined Spurs coach Gregg Popovich $250,000 for daring to rest his stars in a regular-season game against theMiami Heat. In a different life, Stern even fined Sterling $25 million for moving his franchise from San Diego to Los Angeles without permission before reducing the penalty to $6 million — this as a counter to Sterling’s choice to sue the league for $100 million.
But Stern didn’t bother to hit the Clippers’ owner, or at the very least investigate him, when he gleefully admitted to trading money for sex. Or when he paid a $2.7 million settlement to the U.S. Justice Department after he was accused in a federal discrimination suit of saying that “black tenants smell and attract vermin” and that “Hispanics smoke, drink, and just hang around the building.” Or when Elgin Baylor accused Sterling in a wrongful termination suit of establishing “a vision of a Southern plantation-type structure” for the franchise and of wanting a team of “poor black boys from the South” that, of course, would play for a white coach.
So what, if Baylor lost his suit. He’s one of the greatest players of all time, and a known gentleman, and his word apparently meant nothing to Stern, or to his deputy Silver, or to many of the same fellow owners now expected to vote Sterling off their island.
“He’s never been fined or suspended by the league,” Silver conceded, citing the lack of a finding of culpability in court as a reason the owner was never punished. Asked how a league could ignore Baylor’s charges, given the Hall of Famer’s standing in the sport, Silver said those charges “concerned us greatly” and then pointed again to a scoreboard showing Baylor as the loser in that case.
Well, who’s the loser now? Sure, Sterling is a miserable 80-year-old man whose public life has been destroyed, and whose bigoted beliefs landed him with the Marge Schotts, Jimmy the Greeks, and Al Campanises of his time. But Sterling is also a businessman who bought the Clippers for $12.5 million in 1981, and who might now sell them for about three-quarters of a billion dollars.
A league forever credited for its diversity allowed Sterling, the ultimate hater, to become its longest tenured owner without throwing any roadblocks in his way. So yes, the NBA lost almost as much as Sterling lost on the court — his Clippers won 37.1 percent of their games, the worst record in major North American team sports — and in his taped conversations with his much younger girlfriend.
“The views expressed by Mr. Sterling are deeply offensive and harmful,” Silver said. “That they came from an NBA owner only heightens the damage and my personal outrage.”
Through the tremors in his voice, Silver appeared genuinely hurt and enraged that Sterling’s actions “came from within” his league, inspiring his direct apology to pioneers Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper, and Sweetwater Clifton, and to legends Bill Russell and Magic Johnson.
But in saying he couldn’t “speak to past actions” by Sterling, and by claiming the Justice Department and Baylor cases “are the only cases that have been brought to our attention” (when there were others), Silver was likely trying to protect the man who made his career.
David Stern was always known as an ultra-demanding boss and negotiator, a commissioner who could shout down an adversary with the best of ’em, and yet he was never tough enough with Sterling. Maybe that $100 million lawsuit over the Clippers’ move to L.A. scared Stern. Maybe he figured he could keep Sterling locked in his attack and just wait for him to grow old and fade away.
If so, Stern lost that gamble. He gift-wrapped the Clippers a quarterback named Chris Paul, they became a Western Conference contender, and suddenly Sterling was seen and heard climbing down from that attack, asking his girlfriend to quit posting photos of herself with black men on Instagram, and to quit bringing them to his games.
The lifetime ban and the forced sale to come were the headliners, of course, but both were no-brainers even before the sponsors started bailing, and before President Obama weighed in from Malaysia, and before the ever-neutral Michael Jordan took a strong social stance.
Silver said he’s known Sterling for 20 years and yet had never seen signs of the behavior documented in court records and news accounts. He said that he didn’t weigh Sterling’s past in deciding Tuesday morning to ban him for keeps, but that the board of governors “will take into account a lifetime of behavior” when determining if he’s fit to keep his team.
Why didn’t Stern take that lifetime of behavior into account? A request for an interview with the former commissioner was met by a league spokesman’s response that Stern was not available for comment.
His inaction had said it all, anyway. The man who took the game global, who turned the NBA into a juggernaut, was supposed to leave his protégé, Silver, with Shaq-sized shoes to fill.
Those shoes never looked smaller than they did on the last day of Donald Sterling’s NBA life.