Banned-for-life Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling has reportedly agreed to cede control of the organization to his wife, Rochelle "Shelly" Sterling, to negotiate with the NBA on a sale of the franchise that could be worth billions, and that would bring the disgraced Sterling's time as the NBA's longest-tenured owner to a long-awaited end.
TMZ Sports first reported Friday morning that Sterling had "just surrendered control" to Shelly, his wife of 58 years, and that she "is now secretly negotiating with the NBA to sell the team:
Our sources say Shelly and her lawyer, Pierce O'Donnell, have been secretly meeting with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and NBA lawyers to "resolve the dispute amicably." We're told Shelly realizes the NBA wants the team sold, but she has significantly more leverage and credibility with the league than Donald. Her end game is simple -- she won't object to the sale, but SHE wants to call the shots.
ESPN's Ramona Shelburne followed up with a report that confirms the main point — Donald's allowing Shelly to take the reins in working out a deal — but still refers to any prospective agreement as a "forced sale" and notes that, since the NBA would have to sign off on Shelly acting as the focal point for decision-making and negotiations, this development likely wouldn't result in Shelly "calling the shots," per se:
Shelly Sterling and her lawyers have been negotiating with the NBA since her husband was banned for life by commissioner Adam Silver on April 29. While the league has yet to formally accept this arrangement, sources said, if she is willing to sell the team in its entirety, this could bring a startlingly quick end to what appeared to be a protracted legal battle.
In a sign the NBA has yet to officially approve any arrangement, the league said Friday it is still moving forward with the June 3 hearing and vote to oust Sterling as owner.
"We continue to follow the process set forth in the NBA constitution regarding termination of the current ownership interests in the Los Angeles Clippers and are proceeding toward a hearing on this matter on June 3," NBA spokesman Mike Bass said.
The Los Angeles Times reported one potential hangup in negotiations, quoting an unnamed "Sterling confidant" as saying Shelly Sterling would still want an ownership stake in the franchise.
The confidant said the arrangement can only go ahead “if the league will allow her [Shelly Sterling] to retain some ownership,” adding: “My sense is that it’s not a done deal. The issue is whether she gets to keep an interest” for the purposes of the sale.
While Sterling's history of problematic racial attitudes and actions has long since been established, this particular saga began nearly a month ago, when audio recordings featuring the longtime Clippers owner chastising former assistant/alleged girlfriend V. Stiviano for “associating” with minorities, "promoting" said associations by posting pictures she'd taken with black people on her Instagram account, and potentially bringing African-Americans — most notably Magic Johnson — to Clippers home games, among other things — were published online.
After an investigation into the recordings confirmed that it was indeed Sterling making those racist remarks, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling for life, fined him $2.5 million and announced that the league would invoke a clause in the league's constitution to begin the process of terminating his ownership of the Clippers franchise he purchased in 1981 and forcing its sale to an outside buyer.
Shortly before the ban came down, Sterling told Jim Gray that he did not intend to sell the Clippers. As the controversy surrounding the Clippers continued to swirl over the weeks that followed, Shelly Sterling made it clear that she intended to fight to maintain her 50 percent ownership stake in the team through the Sterling Family Trust. Last week, after Donald Sterling had made his first public comments on the matter in a bizarre and ridiculous interview on CNN, his attorney informed the NBA that he wouldn't be paying the $2.5 million fine and threatened to sue the league over its attempts to force him out.
Multiple legal experts claimed that the Sterlings were unlikely to prevail if this matter ever got to a courtroom, but considering the Sterlings' love of litigation, it seemed like that's where we were headed all the same. Evidently, that changed this week.
The Advisory/Finance Committee of the league's Board of Governors initiated a formal charge to terminate the Sterlings' ownership on Monday, asserting "that Mr. Sterling engaged in conduct that has damaged and continues to damage the NBA and its teams" and that his "actions and positions significantly undermine the NBA's efforts to promote diversity and inclusion; damage the NBA's relationship with its fans; harm NBA owners, players and Clippers team personnel; and impair the NBA's relationship with marketing and merchandising partners, as well as with government and community leaders." The filing of the charge set June 3 as the date for a vote among the NBA's owners on whether to dismiss Sterling, with Sterling having until May 27 to offer a formal response to the charges against him.
The termination charge also accuses the Sterlings and since-jettisoned Clippers president Andy Roeser of "destroying evidence relating to the recording, providing false and misleading information to [Chief NBA Investigator David] Anders in connection with the commissioner's investigation of the recording and issuing a false and misleading public statement on April 26 regarding the authenticity of the TMZ recording." It further claims that Sterling approached Stiviano and asked her to lie about the recordings, and that the Sterlings are not estranged, as has been suggested multiple times, but rather are "inextricably intertwined" when it comes to their dealings with the franchise.
The Los Angeles Times reported additional details about the NBA's case against Sterling on Friday, indicating that the Clippers were aware of the recordings a full two weeks before TMZ published them, and that Stiviano initially sent them in response to blowback she was receiving as part of Shelly Sterling's lawsuit against her:
In early April, though, [Donald Sterling and Stiviano's] relationship became strained. Sterling's wife, Shelly, had sued Stiviano in March, charging that the 31-year-old had extracted four luxury cars, $240,000 in cash and the $1.8-million house from her 80-year-old husband.
Shelly Sterling also put a lien on the house that her husband had given Stiviano. Six days later, on April 9, Stiviano got a text from a Clippers employee: Donald Sterling had ordered the tickets, parking pass and luxury suite access he had given her for that night's game to be sold.
Stiviano texted that it didn't matter — another regular had given her tickets. The employee texted back: "Mr. Sterling said to let me know if you need anything. We don't want to have any issues at the game."
Stiviano responded: "No tell Mr. Sterling that I don't need anything nor do I want anything…But thanks for asking. LET THE GAMES BEGAN. . . ."
Two minutes later, Stiviano sent the employee an audio file. In it, Sterling could be heard making disparaging remarks about Magic Johnson, blacks and other minorities, and how he didn't want Stiviano associating with them publicly.
The Times' story details how the NBA's charge lays out the actions the Sterlings and Roeser took to "make the problem go away," which included Roeser rebuffing a Clippers spokesman's suggestion that the team inform the NBA about the recording early in the process and Roeser instructing a team employee to delete the audio file and all other associated texts on the matter. The NBA investigation also claims that Sterling went to Stiviano on May 2 and told her to "falsely state to the NBA that the voice on the recording was not Mr. Sterling's," saying that he could make Shelly's lawsuit disappear if Stiviano would "pay the full value of the claim," with Sterling to reimburse her later "through back channels."
As the week unfolded and the details of the NBA's case continued to come out, "Sterling has rethought his position" on entrenching for a fight, preferring to allow Shelly — an alternate governor of the team under the league's constitution — to work on the sale, according to ESPN's Shelburne:
NBA rules, however, prevent him from transferring a controlling interest in the team to anyone. A new controlling owner would need to be approved by the board of governors, and Shelly Sterling would not be approved.
It is not known whether Shelly Sterling intends to sell the team in its entirety, but that is the only way the NBA would accept the terms of this agreement between Donald Sterling and his wife, sources said.
While Shelly Sterling's lawyers have made it clear to the league that she intends to maintain her 50 percent interest in the team, they have also stated both publicly and privately that she would like to resolve the situation amicably.
How much control Shelly Sterling would have, clearly, remains to be seen. One thing's for sure, though — if and when the Clippers do go on the block, there will be no shortage of bidders. As a result, the sale price is likely to be astronomical, with some estimates pegging the valuation as high as between $1 billion and $2 billion.
Given how Sterling's entire 30-year tenure as the Clippers' owner has unfolded, and the eons' worth of insanity that has come down the pike in the last month, you'll forgive me for being skeptical that this will all proceed smoothly and simply, and that the transition in ownership will be quick and painless. For now, though, Donald Sterling appears to have given up the ghost of fighting to hold onto his franchise; among all the unbelievable things about this sordid story, that, oddly, might be the most stunning.
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