Shelly Sterling (L) and Pierce O'Donnell attend an NBA playoff game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center on May 15, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Noel Vasquez/GC Images)Shelly Sterling
While a functional resolution once seemed possible, it now looks nearly certain that the complicated saga of Donald Sterling and the Los Angeles Clippers will only be ended in court. On Monday, Sterling and his lawyers announced that he would sue the NBA and fight his estranged wife Shelly Sterling's attempted sale of the franchise to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, later declaring himself a protector of American values. The consistently litigious Sterling will use every legal tool at his disposal to hold on to his team, or at least try to get the legal system to agree that he is technically correct, if not morally so.
Not surprisingly, Shelly Sterling and the NBA are set to fight fire with fire. On Tuesday, reports surfaced that Mrs. Sterling will take her husband to California probate court to assert her control over the Sterling Family Trust. From Tami Abdollah for the Associated Press:
Shelly Sterling's attorney will be in probate court on Wednesday to seek an emergency order for a hearing so a judge can confirm her authority to sell the Los Angeles Clippers, according to an individual familiar with the matter. The individual was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. [...]
Shelly Sterling contends she is the sole trustee of The Sterling Family Trust, which owns the team. Donald Sterling was stripped as co-trustee after two neurologists last month determined he was suffering from dementia and "mentally incapacitated" under the trust's conditions, according to a person who is familiar with the trust and the medical evaluations but could not speak publicly.
The aim of Sterling's court bid is to have a judge confirm provisions of the family trust to ensure the Ballmer sale moves forward without a hitch. Donald Sterling has the right to present his side at any hearing and appeal any decision.
His attorney Maxwell Blecher said a representative for Donald Sterling will be at the hearing, and that the main issue to be decided is whether Donald Sterling is mentally competent.
"There isn't the slightest evidence he's incapable of managing his affairs," Blecher said. He said the next step is to have other doctors evaluate Sterling.
Blecher goes on to explain that the Sterlings remain "chummy," despite their estrangement, and harbor little hostility towards each other. These statements appear to be the best evidence yet that this family considers the courtroom to be a second home.
Yet this Sterling-on-Sterling hearing looks like just the first step in this portion of the process. According to David Aldridge of NBA.com, the league is set to carry on with their once-cancelled plans to oust Sterling as Clippers owner via a meeting of the Board of Governors:
The NBA will reinstate the owner termination hearing against Donald Sterling if Sterling is successful in convincing a probate court that he is mentally fit to remain owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, according to sources. [...]
The league originally initiated termination protocol against Sterling last month, saying that Sterling's audio tape in which he made disparaging remarks to his then-girlfriend against African Americans, including Hall of Famer Magic Johnson, and said he didn't want her to bring blacks to games, had damaged the league, including its owners, and caused harm. A three-quarters vote of the 29 other owners would be required to "sustain" the charge and remove Sterling as Clippers owner.
That termination process was an essential part of the NBA's efforts until Shelly Sterling reached her agreement with Ballmer. It was deemed to be unnecessary once there appeared to be no barriers to that sale. Now that Donald Sterling has decided he's a victim of the NBA, reportedly because they won't rescind his $2.5-million fine and lifetime ban, the removal process is a legitimate option again.
Even if a judge agrees that Shelly Sterling controls the family trust, it's safe to assume that her husband would appeal the ruling and continue to sue the NBA for financial damages. On the other hand, that scenario would take a lengthy period of time to resolve itself and presumably allow the league to declare the case a secondary story rather than a central dilemma of its operations. At this point in proceedings, it appears as if the NBA simply wants this story to slow down, particularly as the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs face off in a competitive and entertaining NBA Finals. In an interview with ESPN's Sage Steele at halftime of Tuesday night's Game 3, commissioner Adam Silver implored fans to focus on the court instead.
Unfortunately for Silver and the rest of his organization, Sterling's continued dominance of the headlines is largely a product of their own long-term refusal to deal with his stature within the league. It's a shame that Sterling continues to divert attention away from the players, but he was never going to leave the sport with any sort of class. In many ways, it's fitting that we're all forced to focus on the best and worst of the NBA all at once.
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