NEW YORK – Near the beginning of the NBA lockout three years ago, there was an idea within the Players Association to create bubblegum trading cards of the most unseemly owners and distribute them to the media. The cards would list all the transgressions and misdeeds on the backs of the pictures. Naturally, Donald T. Sterling had been scripted as the campaign's cornerstone.
Despite a small core pushing to make Sterling the face of the flawed billionaire boys club, the NBPA elders never implemented the idea.
As it turns out, Sterling found a way to do it himself. He's re-established himself as the star of these NBA playoffs, galvanizing the NBPA's resolve and humiliating a league office and ownership community that long legitimized this creep's terror reign in the sport.
Sterling doesn't know the difference between Anderson Cooper and Anderson Hunt, but he kept talking on Monday night and ultimately did the unthinkable: In the CNN news cycle, Donald Sterling has replaced the missing plane.
As Adam Silver sat courtside at the Barclays Center, watching LeBron James drop 49 points on the Brooklyn Nets, the contents of Sterling's bat-bleep crazy rants on Magic Johnson and an assortment of his greatest hits found their way into the NBA commissioner's Twitter feed and text messages.
Silver had to huddle with his PR staff and spit out another apology: "… And while Magic Johnson doesn't need me to, I feel compelled on behalf of the NBA family to apologize to him that he continues to be dragged into this situation and be degraded by such a malicious and personal attack. The NBA Board of Governors is continuing with its process to remove Mr. Sterling as expeditiously as possible."
They keep using that word – expeditiously – but there will be nothing swift about the ultimate removal of Sterling and his wacky wife Shelly. She's on deck with the "Today Show" on Tuesday morning. These two aren't going away without a fight, without tens of millions in billable hours and round upon round of interviews centered on Donald Sterling's vision of race and America, Magic Johnson and the untrustworthiness of Sterling's dingbat girlfriends.
"What kind of a guy has sex with every girl, then he catches HIV? Is that someone we want to respect and tell our kids about?" Sterling said on CNN. "I think he should be ashamed of himself. I think he should go into the background. What does he do for the black people?
"… Has he done everything he can do to help minorities? I don't think so. But I'll say it, he's great. But I just don't think he's a good example for the children of Los Angeles. That he would go and do what he did, and then get AIDS."
Sterling could go on and on, and he will again. For all the apologies the NBA wants to give Magic Johnson, many within the league believe they know how Silver and the owners will ultimately make this right: awarding Magic and his ownership group's bid the franchise.
The league can transform a pariah brand name into a magnificent monolith. Magic's partners with the Los Angeles Dodgers are motivated to meet the billion-dollar-plus asking price, and perhaps go even higher.
Beyond Sterling's general ignorance and insanity, Johnson's desire to purchase the Clippers is partly Sterling's motivation to keep assailing him. Privately, he believes the endgame for the NBA will be to make him sell to Magic, that the fix is in.
If Sterling's mayhem is pounding Magic Johnson and Doc Rivers hardest in the short-term, make no mistake: They could be the biggest beneficiaries in the long run. Rivers made a terrific decision to sign only a three-year deal to coach and run the Clippers' basketball operations, because whoever buys the franchise will desperately want to sign him to a long-term extension – which could be sweetened with a Pat Riley-esque ownership stake.
Eventually, the NBA will get out from under the Sterling mess, but the process promises to be painful – and after all those years of inaction on Sterling, the NBA deserves it. He's determined to inflict the most humiliation possible on his way out, and this had never been truer than on Monday night.
Here was LeBron chasing 50 in New York, chatting it up with Jay Z and Beyonce courtside, and old man Sterling still made himself the biggest show in the sport. Adam Silver left his seat, digested the CNN transcript and had no choice but to upstage LeBron with a statement on Sterling.
This was the bubblegum card trade the commissioner never wanted to make, but the time has come for the league to pay for its past sins and own the truth it's always known. Donald Sterling is determined to be the face of the NBA until the league pries the Los Angeles Clippers out of his cold, dead hands. Until then, there's no stopping him.