NEW YORK -- Adam Silver kicked Donald Sterling to the curb on Tuesday, sanitizing a sore that had been left unchecked for far too long, including by Silver back when he was deputy commissioner. But finally, Sterling, with his hateful, bigoted views, is getting the treatment he deserves. Banned for life, the commissioner told Sterling through a bank of cameras in a hotel ballroom, and Silver is going to do everything in his power to get the owners to force him to sell his team, too. "We stand together in condemning Mr. Sterling's views," Silver said. "They simply have no place in the NBA."
Yes, Sterling will be gone, and the NBA will gleefully take credit for it. Silver was a commanding presence at the podium, succinct but emphatic, leaving little room for doubt. Silver did not elaborate when it was not needed, did not open any back doors for Sterling to sneak back in. Just three months into the job, the new commissioner spoke with the confidence of a man who had been in power for three decades. He said he had the owners' full support in this decision and watched an hour later as nearly every team in the league flooded media members' inboxes with statements reinforcing it.
Make no mistake though: This was an action Silver had to take. Reversed t-shirts, the Clippers' quiet protest on Sunday, were about to become the least of the NBA's problems. Roger Mason Jr., the Vice President of the NBA Players Association, said that players were prepared to boycott all playoff games on Tuesday if the league didn't take this drastic step, and you would be hard-pressed to find too many people in Olympic Tower who didn't believe him. A mutiny was coming, and the NBA knew it.
"It could have been ugly," said an NBA official. "Adam absolutely did the right thing. But there was no way the players would have settled for anything less."
There is some hypocrisy there, of course. To suggest most players didn't know who Sterling was before this is laughable. The internet existed in 2006, when the Justice Department slapped Sterling with housing discrimination lawsuit which accused the real estate magnate of refusing to rent to black tenants in Los Angeles. It existed in 2009 when Sterling settled the suit for a record $2.725 million. It was there when Elgin Baylor, a respected former Clippers executive, one of the NBA's top-50 players, accused Sterling of a "pervasive and ongoing racist attitude" during contract negotiations with Danny Manning.
Sterling 101 doesn't require extensive research. Just a WiFi connection and a laptop.
Lending voice to thought is a game-changer, though, and to many players, hearing the venom spewed in Sterling's slow Southern California drawl on TMZ had to have been jarring. But Chris Paul and Blake Griffin can't say they were stunned by Sterling's viewpoints. Doc Rivers -- who played briefly for Sterling in the early 1990's before signing on to coach and run the basketball operations for the franchise last year -- can't either. This deplorable behavior was decades in the making. It was almost impossible for anyone to miss.
MCCANN: Sterling, NBA set for epic legal fight
It's on the NBA, on David Stern, on Silver and on the owners for allowing Sterling's boorish behavior to become a part of the landscape. Time after time on Tuesday Silver was asked about Sterling's history. When asked about the past, Silver said he couldn't speak to it. When asked about Elgin Baylor's lawsuit, he said it concerned him greatly but was quick to point out that Baylor lost the case. "When specific evidence was brought to the NBA," Silver said, "we acted."
Specific, which in Silver-speak means a court verdict. The NBA doesn't have subpoena power, though it couldn't be that hard to track down someone Sterling discriminated against. It can't force anyone to corroborate Baylor's accounts, though Sterling has mistreated so many that someone was bound to talk. For years, the NBA insulated itself from the despicable things Sterling was accused of. It listened as others accused Sterling of racism while waiting for a judge and jury to hand it a club to hit him with. It ignored the problem when it could have stepped up and met it. The league may have lost a fight to fine or suspend Sterling, but it would have won the respect of players and fans for going out on a limb and fighting it.
That's what Silver did on Tuesday, banishing Sterling when he knows what exactly what's coming next. Silver insisted that he had every authority to issue Sterling an unprecedented lifetime ban and his owners would be well within their rights to take the Clippers away from him. But Sterling is the litigious type. In 1984, Sterling moved the Clippers to Los Angeles without league approval. Stern slapped Sterling with a $25 million fine. Sterling responded by suing the league for $100 million. When the fine was reduced to $6 million, Sterling dropped the suit.
Sterling is a bully. He fights fired scouts, coaches and executives in the courtroom for pennies on the dollar. Why should anyone think he won't fight Silver and the NBA, too?
"This guy identifies himself as the owner of the Clippers," said one minority owner. "It's who he is. I absolutely expect him to push back."
Then there is this: There is a palpable fear amongst some owners about the precedent the league just set. Silver was crystal clear: Sterling was being booted for private comments made to his girlfriend, not for anything else. Though no one disputes that the league is a better place without Sterling, there are questions about how Silver justified forcing him out. "I think you've got to be very, very careful when you start making blanket statements about what people say and think, as opposed to what they do," Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told reporters on Sunday. "It's a very, very slippery slope."
The NBA will move quickly to strip the Clippers from Sterling, to hand the team off to someone else. There will be no shortage of suitors to buy the franchise, with Magic Johnson and Larry Ellison among the possible candidates to bid on a team whose value could soar over $1 billion. Rochelle Sterling, still inexplicably Sterling's wife, albeit estranged, could file for divorce and attempt to take over the team, but the NBA doesn't want the stink of anyone close to Sterling anywhere near it.
There is a long road ahead but for now, the league will bask in one of its finer moments. Crisis averted, respect restored and all across the country the applause is pouring in. Kevin Johnson called Silver "the players' commissioner." Steve Nash deemed it a "proud day." Magic lauded Silver for his great leadership while LeBron James thanked Silver for protecting them. The NBA allowed Sterling to linger too long, but better late than never. A fight with Sterling is coming, but today that fight seemed a long way off.