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- American basketball coach and former player
We all dropped the ball on former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. All of us.
If we’re going to corner anyone for blame, sure – go ahead and blame David Stern and those directly under him for tolerating Sterling for so long. To a lesser extent, blame the other 29 NBA owners for allowing him, repeatedly, to work amongst their ranks. Go ahead and blame the players for taking his money. Blame the coaches and general managers that signed up to work for him. Blame the fans for showing up, even.
Certainly blame us sportswriters (Bill Simmons never batted an eye about buying Clipper season tickets because of Sterling’s off-court work, only lamenting the team’s poor record) for not spending more time trying to make more people aware of how insidious and destructive his brand of racism – filtered through his discriminatory real estate practices – was. We should have done more. Even those that did sit down to write about how routinely awful Sterling was did not write about him consistently enough. I am squarely in that realm, to my embarrassment.
No, it took what was clearly a fame-hungry girlfriend of Sterling’s, after heaven knows how long of knowingly helping Sterling cheat on the wife he is still with, to illegally record Sterling saying terrible things that were 1/1,000,000th-less destructive than his real estate work. It took that and TMZ’s bugle for the NBA (and us, in haughty tow) to take action. Yeah, he’s gone; but it should have happened far earlier than 2014, and that is on us.
To that point, singling out Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who took over as the team’s coach and de facto general manager during Sterling’s last season, seems a bit unfair. When Rivers cops to at the time acting more worried about Sterling’s history of denying coaches and employees their guaranteed pay, rather than being hesitant about his past outside of basketball, it tends to enervate a bit.
“I heard even more things when I came here,” Rivers says. “I knew, but I didn’t know. What I knew going in was that it was an organization that had been poorly run, and it had all kinds of issues. That was the hesitation. The competitive side of me kept saying to take this gamble, but the other part of me was worried.
“That’s where I would say on my end I probably didn’t do the research that I should have done. I had kind of heard about it, but not really. I honestly did not know in the way I should have known. When this broke and all the other stuff came out and I started reading it, the first thing I said is, ‘I should have known this. It was already public knowledge.’ It did teach me that. Wherever you go, you’ve got to know everything if you can. And I could have, and I didn’t.”
But, having seen the way Sterling had fired coaches and then had to be sued to pay the remainder of their guaranteed contracts, Rivers knew enough to get a strong pre-nup. His deal actually called for any contractual discrepancies to be arbitrated by the NBA commissioner, thus avoiding a lengthy and costly court proceeding.
“That was the delay, the contract,” says Rivers. “People don’t realize it, but the deal could have been done three weeks before it happened. ... It’s the longest written contract in coaching history. Five different lawyers had to look at it. Even my lawyer sent it to another lawyer. That tells you the hesitation in who I was going to be working for.”
That’s understandable on Rivers’ end, but it doesn’t make things any less depressing.
Dating back decades, and as recently as 2011, Sterling has withheld guaranteed money promised under legal contract to all manner of deposed head coaches, and Clipper personnel. Those ex-coaches usually have the means to bring suit against Sterling when he withholds the checks they’re owed following the dissolution of partnership; but scads of scouts and unheralded Clipper workers don’t usually have the same sort of savings bundle in place to take on a man worth billions over thousands.
For Rivers (who also played on Sterling’s Clippers in 1991-92) to leave Boston in an attempt to put the Clippers over the top, as he did in the summer of 2013, he needed assurances that were Sterling to fire him, he would have the paperwork in place to ensure that Sterling followed through on his end of the deal they made together.
That Rivers didn’t put as much time into “the research that I should have done,” that’s frustrating. Sad, in retrospect.
In retrospect, though – we all didn’t do the research. We all should have known, to paraphrase Rivers, and we all should have done better. In the thousands of words I wrote on the rumored, confirmed, and eventually rightfully complained about (again, by Simmons; a Boston fan that wrote checks to Sterling for years), at no point did I write anything coming close to insinuating that Rivers should not work for Sterling because he is a hateful man whose racism drove discriminatory real estate practices that he didn’t even bother to defend in court.
Nor did anyone else, from all that I read. And I read way too much about this league.
We didn’t read about it, because none of us (again, even those that did bash Sterling around from time to time) wrote about it consistently. None of us made it a cause. Neither did the NBA, to David Stern’s great shame, the owners, the players, or any other potential Clipper employee.
Like Doc Rivers, we all should have known. Sterling’s time in the NBA should not have lasted for as long as it did.
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