Just over five weeks ago, when the NBA banned former Los Angeles Clipper owner Donald Sterling for life, it was expected that the longtime Clippers el jefe would engage in a protracted legal battle with the league, his estranged wife, and whomever else his highly paid cadre of legal representatives felt like engaging with in an attempt to sustain both a place in professional sports, and in the headlines.
It turns out, as was hinted late Tuesday, that Sterling is going out with a whimper. A highly-reimbursed whimper, even after taxes, but a whimper nevertheless. As suits him, no pun intended.
According to Sterling’s top lawyer Max Blecher, the man who purchased the then-San Diego Clippers in 1981 for $12.5 million has decided to step aside and let the team be sold to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer for $2 billion. What a saint.
Attorney Maxwell Blecher says Wednesday that Sterling ''has made an agreement with the NBA to resolve all their differences'' and approved a deal negotiated by his wife Shelly Sterling to sell the team.
This comes a week after Sterling sued the NBA for half the amount Ballmer agreed to buy the Clippers for, and a week after firing off a nonsensical response to the NBA’s motion to gather 29 other league owners to utilize NBA constitutional bylaws to oust Sterling, who was illegally caught on tape making racist comments he later somewhat apologized for, costing the league numerous sponsors and drawing attention away from what has been one of the league’s better postseasons in years.
Sterling has decided to drop his suit against the NBA, and though capital gains taxes will eat away at the nearly $2 billion profit he’ll make in selling the team (in today’s numbers, his 1981 purchasing price would be around $32 million), Sterling will still clear well over $1.3 billion after the government takes its share.
(And, for hopefully the final time, this isn’t a government or “free speech” issue. The U.S. constitution defends Donald Sterling’s right to say whatever he wants about whomever he wants, whenever he wants to. The NBA’s private league of 30 owners, with its own collectively bargained rules that Sterling himself legally bound himself to, has a right to oust a weak link if it costs the league money. Donald Sterling cost the NBA and its team owners money. This has nothing to do with his right to free speech being violated.)
The final blow to Sterling didn’t come with Adam Silver’s banishment, nor his wife Rochelle “Shelly” Sterling’s distancing herself from him (even after initially defending him as a non-racist, statements she would later contradict on national television), nor the agreement with Ballmer, nor did it come with the disclosure that the 82-year old might be suffering from Alzheimer’s. Rather, it came with the Sterling Trust’s indemnification of the NBA in any lawsuit Donald may have tossed the league’s way, rendering Donald Sterling powerless in any legal action against Silver et al.
Extended legal action encouraged by Donald Sterling would have likely ended up with the same conclusion – again, this is a private league with bylaws that Sterling agreed to in writing repeatedly – but the indemnification and record-setting selling price (nearly four times the previous record amount that an NBA team had been sold for) combined to ease Sterling away from his final, pathetic, pursuits.
As we wrote in the early hours following the release of the then-disputed Sterling tapes, Donald Sterling was the NBA’s great shame. Former commissioner David Stern should have taken the same approach to ousting the owner once news of his settlement and borderline admission of guilt in a housing discrimination lawsuit became public knowledge – practices that outweigh the impact of his nasty racist and misogynistic conversations with a fame-seeking ex-girlfriend a trillion times over. Because those practices didn’t directly cost Stern’s league and its owners money, they allowed Sterling to prattle on.
Prattle he did, in an era when everyone’s smartphone can turn someone’s late afternoon musings into a career-killer and legacy definer. Everyone knew Donald Sterling would eventually talk his way out of the NBA, but it’s to this league’s discredit that it took so long for him to do so.
He’ll just have to retire, ashamed and alone, to his Beverly Hills hovel and billions of dollars. It’s not the ideal reward, but we’ll take it.
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- Donald Sterling