April 27, 2014

Sterling was never taken seriously until the NBA put the Clips in the limelight with the Chris Paul trade.
Danny Moloshok/AP

The uproar among the Lakers and their fans over the vetoed Chris Paul trade of Dec. 2011 was inspired mainly by self-interest. The Lakers wanted Paul to assume the franchise mantle from Kobe Bryant. They planned to eventually partner him with Dwight Howard. And they were understandably enraged when then-Commissioner David Stern scuttled their super team. But after Stern reversed course and sent Paul across town instead, their anger was intensified by moral outrage. The Lakers were incredulous that Stern, acting as temporary steward of the New Orleans Pelicans, would capsize the NBA's flagship franchise so he could throw a lifeboat to the bigot, the cheapskate, the miscreant who owned the Clippers. Stern was punishing the club that brought his league nothing but plaudits and riches while rewarding the one that brought nothing but embarrassment and shame. It was like handing a Ferrari to a juvenile delinquent and expecting his behavior to improve.

Stern claimed he was working in the best interest of the Pelicans, as if Al-Farouq Aminu was a more appealing prospect than Goran Dragic, but the only person he helped was Sterling. Stern had spent years hearing Sterling's racist commentary, often through court documents, and declined to discipline him. Ignoring Sterling was reprehensible, but no one in the NBA took the old fool seriously. All he did, besides spew venom, was bungle draft picks and free-agent signings. He wasn't a threat to anybody but himself and his woebegone organization. And that's how he would have continued for perpetuity, seen only on Lottery Night, had Stern not intervened and made him more dangerous.

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Superstars are all that really matter in the NBA. Get one and you can land another. Get two and a third will join. Championship parades ensue. Sterling didn't acquire Paul through any kind of deal-making savvy. Paul was a gift from Stern, a lifetime underachievement award and a pawn who allowed the outgoing commissioner to prove a point. Stern wants to believe any team can compete in the modern NBA, even one as dramatically mismanaged as the Clippers, and he stacked the deck in their favor. Without Stern's philanthropic act, Paul is a Laker, Doc Rivers is a Celtic, and Blake Griffin is either already gone or on his way out. And Sterling hasn't hijacked arguably the best first round in the history of the playoffs with a screenplay that sounds like it was written by Paula Deen. Sterling took the Ferrari, all right, and crashed it right into the NBA offices.

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Sterling was a racist before the Paul trade, and he'd have remained one regardless, but the NBA validated him. They emboldened him. They transported him, in one motion, from the margin of the league to the forefront of it. They provided him a bigger voice, knowing full well the ugliness that could emanate. Under Paul's leadership -- not Sterling's -- the Clippers predictably became a top-three team in the Western Conference, re-signing Griffin, luring Rivers, and attracting a bevy of the usual ring chasers. From his courtside seat, Sterling savored the wins, the sellout crowds and the playoff appearances. He looked like a maitre d' whose restaurant sat empty for three decades and suddenly had a line snaking around the block.

Given the Lakers' plunge into irrelevance, the Clippers threatened to capture a generation of L.A. basketball fans, seduced by Paul-to-Griffin half-court alley-oops. They envisioned a 10-year-run, cutting into the Laker monopoly, turning L.A. into a Clipper town. That fantasy, while enticing, is over. Hollywood tolerates eccentrics, not bigots. Just check the IMDB database for Mel Gibson. Staples Center will still be packed for Game 5 with Clipper diehards, but swing voters won't support a Sterling enterprise, and neither will one very significant potential free agent. If LeBron James opts out of his contract in Miami after this season, there aren't many teams he'd consider, but the Clippers were one. He admires Rivers. He loves Paul. L.A. offers a massive market with boundless sunshine. But given how strongly James condemned Sterling on Saturday, he seemed to be crossing the Clippers off the list.

Of course, few players share James' social conscience, and most will still line up to catch passes from Paul, throw lobs to Griffin, and take money from Sterling. As long as Sterling owns the Clippers, and as long as Paul plays for them, there's really no adequate punishment. New commissioner Adam Silver could suspend Sterling for the next 500 games, but that's just another reward. Considering Sterling's basketball acumen and public persona, the Clippers benefit most from his absence. The fairest solution, while admittedly farfetched, is to take back what was given. Void the contract Paul signed last summer. Make him a free agent again. Let him schedule a meeting with Sterling on July 1, look the man in the eye, and decide if he wants to keep carrying dead weight. The NBA has lost all credibility on this case.

Let the player be the judge.

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