How Donald Sterling’s Exit Changed the NBA Forever

los angeles clippers owner donald sterling, 2006 nba western conference semifinals
How Donald Sterling’s Exit Changed the NBA ForeverJohn W. McDonough - Getty Images

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Athletes wield more power and influence over their careers than ever before. In the modern NBA, basketball players are empowered to fight for fair contracts and encouraged to support social movements that fight racism and discrimination; they also play alongside fellow athletes they admire. But that wasn’t always the case. Just a decade ago, a scandal rocked the entire league—and changed everything.

It all started in 2014, when TMZ Sports obtained a leaked audio recording between Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling and his mistress, V. Stiviano. Over the nearly ten-minute tape, Sterling rants and berates Stiviano for taking a photo with Magic Johnson and posting it on Instagram. “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with Black people,” he says.

Sterling’s comments shocked the sports world, and protests erupted across the NBA soon after. In a now-famous quote, LeBron James declared, “There’s no place for Donald Sterling in our league.” Though the NBA star wasn’t usually one to get political, his statement—among others from Shaquille O’Neal, Stephen A. Smith, DeAndre Jordan, Magic Johnson, and more—ushered in a new era for the sport. Then NBA commissioner Adam Silver used his power to ban Sterling from the league for life.

The scandal is now the focus of a dramatized miniseries on Hulu titled Clipped, starring Ed O’Neill as Donald Sterling and Laurence Fishburne as then–Clippers head coach Doc Rivers. It’s based on the ESPN 30 for 30 podcast series The Sterling Affairs, hosted by NBA insider Ramona Shelburne. Back in 2019, Shelburne told Esquire that she “didn’t even know that was possible” to ban an owner. “Today, we see a lot of player protests,” she continued. “The players in the NBA threatened to boycott, and—I think Adam [Silver] would have done what he did regardless—but it put so much pressure on him to do that. It actually had that desired result, and it kind of changed the league forever.”

Two weeks after the audio from Sterling’s conversation went public, the former Clippers owner stated in an exclusive interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper that he was “baited” into making his remarks. Still, he doubled down on his comments regarding Magic Johnson’s character and mocked his longtime battle with HIV. On NBA Countdown, Johnson responded, “...He should stand up and say ‘I don’t want to own a team anymore,’ especially when you have African-Americans renting his apartments, coming to his games, playing for him and coaching for him. This is bad for everybody. This is bad for America.” Silver later apologized to Johnson on behalf of the league for having his name dragged through Sterling’s controversy.

When the TMZ audio leaked, the Clippers were also gearing up for a playoff series against the Golden State Warriors. The L.A. team, which included Chris Paul, JJ Redick, and Blake Griffin, considered boycotting the entire series. Instead, they covered up their Clippers logo and decided to play on. Coach Rivers also told the media that he would not return the following year if Sterling was still with the Clippers. After Sterling departed, Rivers was promoted to the team’s president of basketball operations.

celebrity sightings at los angeles clippers game march 2, 2005
For Donald Sterling, the 2014 audio leaks were not his first run-in with claims of racial discrimination.Kirby Lee - Getty Images

It’s important to remember that the TMZ leak wasn’t the first incident in which Sterling was accused of problematic remarks. In 1996, a consultant for the Clippers sued him for sexual harassment, claiming that he repeatedly offered to pay her for sex. Another suit in 200—from his rental properties at the Housing Rights Center of Los Angeles—claimed that Sterling stated his Black tenants “smell and attract vermin.”

Then, in 2009, former Clippers executive and NBA player Elgin Baylor sued Sterling for wrongful termination and discrimination on the basis of race and age. According to Baylor, Sterling told him that he wanted to build his team with “poor Black boys from the South and a white head coach.” At the trial in 2011, the jury ruled in Sterling’s favor. “It was just time to make a change in that position,” jury foreman John Casani told the Los Angeles Times. “That team hadn’t been performing, and we felt had they been succeeding like the Boston Celtics, he’d still be on the job." It wasn’t until the 2014 TMZ report that Sterling’s disturbing remarks finally caught up with him.

Laurence Fishburne plays Clippers head coach Doc Rivers in Clipped. Kelsey McNeal

Eventually, Sterling’s wife, Shelly, orchestrated the sale of the Los Angeles Clippers to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer for $2 billion. Today, the 90-year-old former owner retains his real estate business and owns the Beverly Hills Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. Doc Rivers is now head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks, and the Los Angeles Clippers organization boasts a collection of NBA greats such as Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden.

Still, Sterling’s story continues to haunt the league. Though players have more control over their destinies than ever before, empowerment came at the expense of faith in their organizations to treat them well. As the late Kobe Bryant told ESPN at the time, “[Sterling] stunted equality and black-eyed every owner of every business where the majority of his employees are minorities. He hurt our trust in owners as a whole.”

Clipped will reignite the scandal when it debuts on Hulu June 4. Though Sterling’s shockingly racist rants will be at the center of the series, issues of power and ownership in the league may force audiences to change the way they think about the business of basketball today.

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