You kept expecting one of Donald Sterling's handlers to walk on the set of the stomach-turning, head-scratching, jaw-dropping interview he was giving to Anderson Cooper, call a halt to everything and gently lead the 80-year-old Clippers owner away to some quiet place. That would have been the wise, not to mention humane, thing to do. Either that, or surely "Sterling" would eventually pull off his rubber mask, reveal himself to be Will Ferrell and scream, "Live from New York, it's Saturday night!"
But no, it was all real, and it went on seemingly forever on CNN, and it provided even more evidence that Sterling is not only a classless man but also a clueless one. Already banned for life from the NBA for the racist comments he made in a recorded conversation with a female friend, he accomplished nothing in the taped interview that aired Monday night other than to erase whatever last vestiges of sympathy anyone might have had for him. And the saddest thing is, he thought he was apologizing.
Sterling prattled on with a string of comments that were offensive, hypocritical, inaccurate, nonsensical or some combination thereof. He criticized Magic Johnson for promiscuity and for contracting HIV, as if Sterling, a married man who has bragged in graphic detail in depositions about his sexual conquests, is in any position to pass moral judgment on others. He called V. Stiviano, the woman who taped the original conversation with him, "a street person," and said "a hundred men could look at her and not even think she's pretty," as if her looks were in any way relevant to the situation. He told Cooper, "I think you have more of a plantation mentality than I do. I think you're more of a racist than I am," as if that statement made the slightest bit of sense in any imaginable way, which it does not.
He also attacked Johnson for not doing enough for the community in inner-city Los Angeles, which, in light of the millions that Magic has spent on business development and other ventures in the area, is a little like saying Bill Gates hasn't done enough for the computer industry. Those comments led into a rant from Sterling, who said, "Jews, when they get successful, will help their people. And some of other African-Americans -- maybe I'll get in trouble again -- they don't want to help anybody."
Some of his statements were just so bizarre that they could have made you wonder whether Sterling had lost contact with reality, if perhaps some evil strain of Alzheimer's had left only the part of his brain that processes vile thoughts functioning properly. He would no doubt love for the public to blame his ugly statements on dementia -- Shelly Sterling said she believes her husband has it -- but that would be letting him off the hook. Sterling was misinformed and misogynistic and mean-spirited, but he was lucid. He seemed to realize exactly what he was saying, but not how repulsed most of his audience would be by his words.
He doesn't get it, but the rest of us do. We clearly understand by now just how nauseating Sterling's world view is, which is why it wasn't just his words that made the CNN interview disturbing. Listening to Sterling has begun to take on a gawking-at-a-car-crash quality. He's like an old-fashioned doll -- pull his string and listen to whichever offensive comment is next up on the loop. There's not much point in gawking at the racist anymore, unless we're just looking for cheap entertainment, especially when the wheels that will remove him and his wife from the NBA seem to be turning smoothly. It was symbolic that on the same day Sterling's interview aired, Dick Parsons was introduced as the NBA-chosen interim CEO of the franchise. Commissioner Adam Silver has already temporarily taken operations away from the Sterlings without their consent. There's growing reason to believe that he will be able to do it permanently.
Silver clearly feels confident of that, so much so that he has taken the gloves off in dealing with Sterling. The CNN interview had just finished airing when he released a statement apologizing to Johnson for Sterling's personal attacks and reiterating the league's intention to terminate his ownership. Even the Sterling couple's combativeness seems unlikely to keep the league from excising them entirely. The NBA bylaws appear not only to give the other owners the power to take over the franchise and sell it even without the Sterlings' consent, but they also seem to prohibit Shelly Sterling from assuming ownership from her husband without the approval of the other owners, which the Sterlings have no chance of getting.
Maybe the only encouraging thing to come out of the CNN interview was that it appears Sterling is beginning to understand that there isn't much point to a long legal battle. "What, at the end of the road, do I benefit?" he said. "If [the other owners] fight with me and they spend millions and I spend millions, let's say I win or they win. I just don't know if that's important."
It was one of the rare moments when Sterling sounded reasonable, like he might be capable of doing the decent thing and walking away before the NBA has to throw him out the door. It would, after all, be the best thing for everyone, even Sterling. Then he could go off and be alone with his thoughts, which is where a man with his attitudes should be. All alone.