By Scott Malone and Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The NBA banned Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling from professional basketball for life on Tuesday and fined him $2.5 million in an unprecedented rebuke for racist comments that drew outrage from players, fans, commercial sponsors and even President Barack Obama.
Sterling, 80, the longest-tenured owner of any of the 30 National Basketball Association teams, will be barred from any role in the operations of his franchise or from serving as one of the league's governors, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told a news conference in New York.
Silver also urged the other owners to vote to force Sterling to sell the Clippers, a first-time use of such a sanction that would require approval of three-quarters of the current owners.
Asked whether Sterling could end up as essentially an absentee owner if the league fails to force a sale of the team, Silver replied, "I fully expect to get the support I need from the other NBA owners to remove him."
The controversy, which quickly grew into a national discussion of race relations transcending basketball, began over the weekend when the celebrity website TMZ.com released an audio recording with a voice said to be Sterling's, criticizing a woman friend for associating with "black people."
In it, he asks her not to invite former Los Angeles Lakers star Earvin "Magic" Johnson to Clippers games.
"The views expressed by Mr. Sterling are deeply offensive and harmful," Silver said as he confronted his first major crisis since he was named commissioner in February.
An investigation concluded the male voice on the recording, and on a second recording said to be from the same conversation and made public on Sunday, was Sterling's, Silver told reporters. He said Sterling confirmed it was his voice but did not apologize.
Silver said he felt "personally distraught that the views expressed by Mr. Sterling came from within" a league at the forefront of racial integration in American sports and where most of the players are black. Obama, the first black U.S. president, called Sterling's comments "incredibly offensive racist statements."
Sterling could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.
It was not immediately clear whether Sterling would seek to challenge the ban in court. But lawyers with expertise in sports law gave him little chance of successfully suing the NBA, citing league governance rules that all owners must accept.
"Having agreed to the NBA constitution and bylaws, I think courts will generally make him adhere to the agreement that he freely entered into," said Jeffrey Kessler, a lawyer who serves as outside council to the NBA Players Association.
Nathaniel Grow, a University of Georgia professor of sports law, agreed, saying the NBA commissioner is "almost like a judge and executioner, and whatever he says goes."
The prospect of forcing Sterling to sell off the team he has owned for 33 years set off speculation about potential buyers.
Billionaire media executive David Geffen is interested in acquiring the Clippers, a person who had been informed of his thinking told Reuters after Tuesday's announcement, though a previous expression of interest never produced an offer.
"Magic" Johnson, a part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team who once had a stake in the Lakers and has built a media empire catering to African-American consumers, has been mentioned as a possible suitor for the Clippers.
But as of Monday, a day before the NBA announcement, Johnson was tweeting to fans: "I want to put a stop to a rumor. I am not trying to buy the Clippers, they already have an owner."
Asked whether any of Sterling's relatives, including his wife, Rochelle, might exercise an ownership or managerial stake in the team even if Sterling himself were removed, Silver seemed to leave the question open.
"There have been no decisions about other members of the Sterling family," he said. "This ruling applies specifically to Donald Sterling and Donald Sterling's conduct only."
Meanwhile, the decision to ban Sterling drew praise from around the league. The Clippers said in a statement that the team "wholeheartedly" supports the NBA's move, and members of the cross-town rival Los Angeles Lakers joined Mayor Eric Garcetti at a news conference in a show of support for Silver.
"I want to personally thank Commissioner Silver for bringing down the hammer, for being as strong as he could be," Garcetti said. "You might be able to buy a team, but you don't own this city. This is our town."
Clippers head coach Doc Rivers expressed relief at the outcome during a press conference before Tuesday night's latest playoff game against the Golden State Warriers in Los Angeles, saying, "It's not over, but it's the start of a healing process that we need."
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former NBA player now serving as a special adviser to the NBA Players Association, also hailed the move. "Adam Silver is not only the owners' commissioner, he is also the players' commissioner, and we're proud to call him our commissioner," Johnson said.
Civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson praised Silver for having "handled this matter emphatically and decisively." He said the banning of Sterling "lays the groundwork for defining a threshold for racist conduct."
WILL HE SELL?
The ban may not be enough for some critics who called on Sterling to immediately give up ownership of the Clippers, though observers said the other 29 owners of NBA franchises would be hesitant to back any move that could set a precedent that would undermine their property rights.
"Every owner would be worried that it would create a situation where people later came after them," said Robert Boland, chairman of the sports management department at New York University.
The recording on TMZ.com included part of an argument between Sterling and a model who uses the name V. Stiviano about photographs posted to Instagram. "People call you and tell you that I have black people on my Instagram. And it bothers you," the voice said to be Stiviano's says.
"Yeah, it bothers me a lot that you want to promo ... broadcast that you're associating with black people. Do you have to?" the voice said to be Sterling's says.
A lawyer for Stiviano declined to comment on the decision.
Stiviano was named last month as a defendant in a lawsuit brought by Sterling's wife, Rochelle, seeking to recoup spousal community assets she claimed her husband gave to Stiviano without his spouse's consent, including the $240,000 in living expenses, $1.8 million to buy her an upscale duplex and several luxury cars.
A series of Los Angeles Clippers' commercial sponsors moved to distance themselves from the team. Auto dealer CarMax Inc, Virgin America airlines said after Tuesday's announcement they were ending their sponsorship, and State Farm said it was "continuing the pause" in its sponsorship. Sprint said it had "suspended all marketing activities with the Clippers for the immediate future," despite the NBA ban.
Samsung said it was reinstating its advertising of the Clippers' Tuesday night game.
Sterling bought the Clippers, then based in San Diego, in 1981 for $13 million at a time when basketball was far less commercially successful. The franchise could now be worth as much as $800 million, Boland estimated. The team, long a perennial underdog, moved to Los Angeles in 1984.
Sterling was sued as a property owner in 2003 for discrimination in housing by the U.S. government. The lawsuit in federal court in Los Angeles accused him of telling his staff to rent to Asian tenants but not black or Hispanic people.
Silver said the decision to ban Sterling from the game had not taken his past history into account. He said, however, that when the owners vote on whether to force him to sell, "they will take into account a lifetime of behavior."
(Additional reporting by Julien Linden, Curtis Skinner and Chris Francescani in New York; David Ingram in Washington; and Dana Feldman, Lisa Richwine, Alex Dobuzinskis, Ron Grover and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Steve Gorman, Grant McCool and Ken Wills)