NBA investigating Clippers owner Donald Sterling for alleged racist comments

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Donald Sterling reportedly told his girlfriend V. Stiviano (right) not to bring African-Americans to Clippers games. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images Sport)

Donald Sterling

The NBA is investigating an audio recording in which Clippers owner Donald Sterling can allegedly be heard making a series of racist remarks to his girlfriend.

TMZ.com released a tape of a conversation in which Sterling can allegedly be heard scolding V. Stiviano, his girlfriend, for bringing African-Americans to Clippers games and for posting photos of herself and African-Americans to her Instagram account.

"We are in the process of conducting a full investigation into the audio recording obtained by TMZ," the NBA said in a prepared statement. "The remarks heard on the recording are disturbing and offensive, but at this time we have no further information."

TMZ posted excerpts of the audio conversation in which Sterling, who is married, is allegedly upset with Stiviano -- who identifies herself as "black and Mexican" -- for posting a photo with Hall of Famer Magic Johnson.

"It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?"

"You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want.  The little I ask you is not to promote it on that ... and not to bring them to my games."

Don't put him [Johnson] on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me.  And don't bring him to my games."

Johnson addressed those comments on Saturday.

"TMZ reported this morning that Clippers owner Donald Sterling doesn't want me or other African-Americans to come to Clippers games," Johnson wrote on Twitter. "[My wife] and I will never go to a Clippers game again as long as Donald Sterling is the owner. I feel sorry for my friends Coach Doc Rivers and Chris Paul that they have to work for a man that feels that way about African-Americans. ... Sterling's comments about African-Americans are a black eye for the NBA."

Sterling, 80, made his fortune in real estate development. CBSLA.com reports that Sterling's wife is engaged in a legal dispute with Stiviano, who met Sterling in 2010 and has received gifts from him during their relationship. In a statement released on Saturday, Clippers president Andy Roeser questioned the legitimacy of the audio tape and accused Stiviano of embezzling nearly $2 million from Sterling.

“We have heard the tape on TMZ. We do not know if it is legitimate or it has been altered," Roeser's statement read. "We do know that the woman on the tape — who we believe released it to TMZ — is the defendant in a lawsuit brought by the Sterling family alleging that she embezzled more than $1.8 million, who told Mr. Sterling that she would 'get even.'

"Mr. Sterling is emphatic that what is reflected on that recording is not consistent with, nor does it reflect his views, beliefs or feelings. It is the antithesis of who he is, what he believes and how he has lived his life. He feels terrible that such sentiments are being attributed to him and apologizes to anyone who might have been hurt by them. He is also upset and apologizes for sentiments attributed to him about Earvin Johnson. He has long considered Magic a friend and has only the utmost respect and admiration for him–both in terms of who he is and what he has achieved. We are investigating this matter.”

National Basketball Players Association president Chris Paul, who happens to play for the Clippers, issued a statement on Saturday.

"On behalf of the National Basketball Players Association, this is a very serious issue which we will address aggressively," Paul said. "We have asked [Sacramento] Mayor Kevin Johnson to expand his responsibilities with the NBPA, to determine our response and our next steps. As players, we owe it to our teams and our fans to keep our focus on our game, the playoffs, and a drive to the Finals.”

Kevin Johnson, a former NBA All-Star who was recently brought on as an adviser for the NBPA as the organization seeks a new executive director, denounced Sterling's statements.

"The reported comments made by Clippers owner Donald Sterling are reprehensible and unacceptable," Johnson said in a statement. "The National Basketball Players Association must and will play a very active role in determining how this issue is addressed. There needs to be an immediate investigation and if the reports are true, there needs to be strong and swift action taken."

The Los Angeles Daily News reported that the Clippers players held a team meeting to discuss the comments on Saturday.

Clippers coach Doc Rivers said Saturday that his team would play Game 4 of their first-round playoff series versus the Warriors on Sunday and that he isn't looking to clear the air with Sterling.

"A lot of guys voiced their opinions, none of them were happy about it," Rivers said, according to ESPNLA.com. "It has an impact and you move on. It upsets all of us. There’s not one guy that’s happy with this situation. ... We’re playing and we’re playing Golden State and Golden State is our enemy now. [Sterling and I] have not [talked] and we have not tried honestly. We don’t need a talk, alright. We don’t need that."

NBA commissioner Adam Silver is facing significant pressure to levy some sort of punishment, even if Sterling's alleged comments are so outrageous that they lack a direct modern precedent from the league's ownership ranks.

David Stern, Silver's predecessor, has fined multiple players for using inappropriate language in recent years.

Lakers star Kobe Bryant was fined $100,000 for using a gay slur during a 2011 game.

“Kobe Bryant’s comment during last night’s game was offensive and inexcusable," Stern said in a statement. "While I’m fully aware that basketball is an emotional game, such a distasteful term should never be tolerated. Accordingly, I have fined Kobe $100,000. Kobe and everyone associated with the NBA know that insensitive or derogatory comments are not acceptable and have no place in our game or society.”

Pacers center Roy Hibbert was fined $75,000 last year for using a homophobic slang term during a post-game press conference.

“While Roy has issued an apology, which is no doubt sincere, a fine is necessary to reinforce that such offensive comments will not be tolerated by the NBA,” Stern said.

Earlier this season, Clippers forward Matt Barnes was fined $25,000 for using "inappropriate" language on his Twitter account. In that message, Barnes used the N-word.

However, this is not an isolated incident for Sterling, who bought the Clippers in 1981. Over the years, Sterling has been involved in multiple lawsuits in which tenants of buildings that he owns have alleged discriminatory treatments.

An ESPN: The Magazine story in 2009 revealed disturbing comments from the lawsuits.

It was 2002, and Donald Sterling was talking to Sumner Davenport, one of his four top property supervisors, about a tenant at the Ardmore Apartments. Already the largest landowner in Beverly Hills, Sterling had recently acquired the Ardmore as part of his move to extend his real estate empire eastward toward Koreatown and downtown LA. As he did, Sterling "wanted tenants that fit his image," according to testimony Davenport gave in a discrimination lawsuit brought against Sterling in 2003 by 19 tenants and the nonprofit Housing Rights Center. (That case ended in a confidential settlement in 2005; attorneys for the Center declined to comment for this story. In a separate suit, also concluded in 2005, Davenport claimed Sterling sexually harassed her, and lost. She declined comment. The Magazine has obtained depositions in both cases.)

Cultivating his image, Davenport said, meant no blacks, no Mexican-Americans, no children (whom Sterling called "brats") and no government-housing-subsidy recipients as tenants. So according to the testimony of tenants, Sterling employees made life difficult for residents in some of his new buildings. They refused rent checks, then accused renters of nonpayment. They refused to do repairs for black tenants and harassed them with surprise inspections, threatening residents with eviction for alleged violations of building rules.

When Sterling first bought the Ardmore, he remarked on its odor to Davenport. "That's because of all the blacks in this building, they smell, they're not clean," he said, according to Davenport's testimony. "And it's because of all of the Mexicans that just sit around and smoke and drink all day." He added: "So we have to get them out of here."

Sterling's behavior with regard to the Clippers has also been the subject of multiple lawsuits: he was sued by former GM Elgin Baylor, who alleged age discrimination and harassment, and by former coach Mike Dunleavy, who sought unpaid wages after he was terminated.

The Clippers were one of the league's worst franchises for most of Sterling's tenure, although the recent additions of Paul and Blake Griffin have produced franchise-record win totals during the last two seasons. A 2000 Sports Illustrated profile by Franz Lidz noted some of Sterling's eccentricities and ran down his failures as an owner.

Sitting at the coach's desk was Sterling's close friend Patricia Simmons. The former model had been appointed assistant general manager, though the Clippers say she had no basketball duties.

Sterling's reign of error soon got costly. The league fined him $10,000 for publicly suggesting that the Clippers lose games to enhance their draft position. He did his part by refusing to add players when injuries reduced the roster to the league-minimum eight. The Clippers came close to forfeiting a game after forward Michael Brooks had oral surgery. Brooks had to suit up, and he actually played, though his jaw was as swollen as Sterling's ego.

No draft choice could right the Clippers, and in 1984 Sterling moved them to L.A. But he failed to seek the NBA's approval for the relocation, and the league fined him $25 million. Sterling sued the league for $100 million and withdrew the suit when the league agreed to reduce his fine to $6 million.

...

Sterling's formula, according to one critic, is to inspire fans' dreams without ever fulfilling them. "At some level Sterling must be content being the losingest NBA owner ever," says David Falk, agent for Clippers power forward Maurice Taylor. "All the criticism he has gotten hasn't changed the way he runs the team one degree."

Reports of inappropriate behavior by Sterling towards his players have also come to light. For example, Baylor alleged in his lawsuit that Sterling would visit the locker room while players were showering, according to ESPN.com.

Players Sam Cassell, Elton Brand and Corey Maggette complained to me that Donald Sterling would bring women into the locker room after games, while the players were showering, and make comments such as, 'Look at those beautiful black bodies.' I brought this to Sterling’s attention, but he continued to bring women into the locker room."

Yahoo Sports reported in 2011 that Sterling heckled Baron Davis during games, calling him "out of shape," and went into a locker room "tirade" against Al Thornton, calling him "selfish."

"That's the way it is," Davis wrote on Twitter on Saturday. "He is honest about what he believes in. Been going on for a long time. Hats off [to] the team [for playing] above it all."

Former Clippers player Shaun Livingston also addressed Sterling's comments this weekend.

"It’s very unfortunate, but I think it kind of tells the same story as what’s been told if you pull up the record," Livingston said, according to Newsday. "I’ll definitely kind of pay attention to what happens because it’s going to put Adam Silver in kind of a tough spot."

Stephen Jackson, who played nine games for the Clippers this season, added his two cents.

"I'm glad the Clippers cut me," he wrote on Instagram. "That's why they don't want players like me in the game. Watch how they try to sweep this under the rug. I would not play another game [if] I was on that team. Not right, world. Not at all."

Meanwhile, Clippers center DeAndre Jordan posted an all-black, caption-less photo to Instagram on Saturday, an apparent silent protest against Sterling.

Two of Sterling's fellow NBA owners addressed his comments on Saturday.

Spurs chairman Peter Holt said Sterling's statements "sound bad and it isn't like this is the first go-around for him," according to the San Antonio Express-News.

The Miami Herald reported that Heat owner Micky Arison called Sterling's comments "offensive, appalling and very sad."

Silver, in his first year as commissioner, now faces a serious and complicated question: Is levying a fine to a billionaire sufficient punishment for such behavior, and what punishments are available as alternatives?

TNT commentator Charles Barkley pointed to Sterling's track record and called for Silver to suspend and fine Sterling on Saturday.

"This is the first test of Adam Silver. He's got to suspend [Sterling] right now," Barkley said. "You can't have this guy making statements like that. [Silver] has to suspend him and fine him immediately. He has to be suspended. ... When you're in a position of power, and you can take jobs and economic opportunities from people, that's what crosses the line. We can't have an NBA owner discriminating against a league -- we're a black league."

Barkley's fellow panelists agreed.

"I think the league should take a very long, hard look at whether this guy should continue being an owner or not," Shaquille O'Neal said.

Ernie Johnson added: "If it's true, and it's him [on the audio], there's no place in the league for Donald Sterling in my mind."

That sentiment was reiterated by Heat forward LeBron James, the back-to-back reigning MVP.

"There is no room for Donald Sterling in our league," James said, according to the Sun-Sentinel. "[Silver] must do something fast before this gets out of hand.”

Bryant also took a public stand against Sterling.

"I couldn't play for him," he wrote on Twitter.

The New York Times reports that Silver will address the media on Saturday night prior to a game between the Grizzlies and Thunder in Memphis.