In the eerie silence of the empty foyer of Sterling Plaza, you
can almost hear the grunts of the Hollywood tycoons who made and
broke stars as casually as they lit and crushed out their
cigars. MGM cofounder Louis B. Mayer built this Art Deco
landmark in Beverly Hills 70 years ago, when the silents were
turning to talkies.
The seven-story edifice, which boasts bronze-plated elevators,
marble-lined corridors and formal parlors, could have been
created by the set designer of Top Hat.
For more than a decade, the most opulent office space in 90210
has remained virtually unoccupied. The building's sole tenant is
its landlord, Donald Sterling, whose billion-dollar real estate
empire occupies the sixth and seventh floors. "Some people think
I'm eccentric for keeping Sterling Plaza to myself," Sterling
says. "I like riding up and down the elevators alone. It's a
luxury I've earned."
With its sleek, gold-trimmed exterior and mostly vacant
interior, Sterling Plaza neatly parallels another of Sterling's
trophy properties: the Los Angeles Clippers. During his 18 years
as owner--the first three in San Diego and the last 15 in
glimmering L.A.--the franchise has been little more than a punch
line for Sunset Strip comics. Under Sterling the Paper Clips
have had exactly one winning season and have lost more than
twice as many games as they have won. In the 1997-98 and '98-99
seasons the perennial cellar dwellers won a combined 26 games,
and this season, despite a snazzy new arena (the Staples Center)
and a snazzy new rookie (forward Lamar Odom), they haven't done
much better (14-62 at week's end). So hapless is Sterling's team
that after it beat the Toronto Raptors in an October exhibition
game, Raptors forward Antonio Davis called a team meeting. "When
you lose to the Clippers," he explained later, "it's time to
stand up and say something."
April 16, 2000
Sterling, a spectacularly successful real estate baron who owns
the Malibu Yacht Club, the Beverly Comstock Hotel and nearly
half the apartments in Beverly Hills, speaks plaintively of his
spectacularly unsuccessful team. "How do I handle losing year
after year?" he says. "How do I cope with the ridicule? Let me
ask you something: How would you cope with the ridicule?"
Sterling has a way of lobbing people's questions back at them.
He seems to do it not so much because he wants to elude hard
questions but because he wants to know other people's answers.
"How do I cope?" he repeats. "It's very hard. I've suffered. Oh,
how I've suffered. Do you know what it is to truly suffer?"
"Yes, I suppose I do," says the 63-year-old Sterling. "The pain,
the torment, the absolute torture! How do the owners of the
Chicago Cubs get through it? How does anyone get through a
difficult experience? I'll tell you how. You just keep going,
keep fighting, keep living. Life goes on, and you hope it will
It's fitting that Sterling set up shop in the House That Mayer
Built. He seems benign and avuncular, but he has the furtive,
feral charm of an old-time movie mogul. "I try to be warm and
ingratiating with people and make them feel important," he says.
"I never met anyone I didn't like. I'm very open, very honest,
Of course, the moguls of yesteryear were neither open nor
caring. They were difficult, and Sterling has a similar
reputation. Few Sterling hirelings utter a word--much less a
discouraging one--about their boss. Chris Ford, who coached the
Clippers from 1998 until he was fired in February, declines to
comment on Sterling. Jim Todd, the man who replaced Ford, says
only, "Elgin [Baylor] and Mr. Sterling have always been very
supportive of me." Baylor, the Clippers' general manager, who
has known Sterling for 15 years, limits his remarks to a terse,
"He's always treated me great." Even Bill Walton, the team's
outspoken TV color man, is mute on the subject of Sterling.
About the only Sterling employee willing to go public is Lynn
Lewis. "As an employer, he's tremendously loyal, magnanimous and
compassionate," says Lewis, a Sterling assistant since 1994.
"He's always ready to talk to you, to hear you out, to stand
behind you. He treats everyone like family." Lewis ought to
know. She is Sterling's kid sister.
For all his loyalty and magnanimity, Sterling is as eccentric as
the next multimillionaire. (When Sterling moved the Clippers to
L.A. in 1984, Alan Rothenberg, then the team president, said
about his boss, "You're going to call him the Howard Hughes of
the NBA.") In the living room of his Greco-American-South
mansion in Beverly Hills, Sterling once conducted a
get-acquainted meeting with a top draft pick and his agent Bob
Guccione-style, wearing nothing but a bathrobe open to his
navel. While entertaining friends at restaurants, he sometimes
suggests entrees for others to order but doesn't get anything
for himself. "The idea," says Michael Selsman, his former
publicist, "is to make his guests share with him."
When it comes to pinching pennies, Sterling is an embarrassment
of riches. Old NBA hands still talk about how he reportedly
tried to cut costs during his first season by asking coach Paul
Silas if the players really needed a trainer and if Silas would
mind taping them before games. Sterling is also said to have
proposed to trim the team budget for his second season by
slashing training-camp expenses from more than $50,000 to about
$100, scouting from more than $20,000 to about $1,000,
advertising from more than $200,000 to less than $9,000 and
medical expenses from about $10,000 to $100. (Sterling says he
doesn't remember this, but Clippers executive vice president
Andy Roeser, who wasn't around at the time, says, "None of these
cuts were ever proposed.") Sterling saved money last season by
not hiring a new coach until the six-month lockout was over.
"Let's put it this way," says Ray Melchiorre, the team trainer
from '96 to '99. "Going without a coach didn't make the Clippers
Sterling played his quintessential cheap trick in San Diego in
1981, just after he bought the team. As a goodwill gesture, he
invited prominent lawyers and real estate agents to have lunch,
meet the players and enter a foul-shooting contest: Win and take
home a $1,000 prize. Among the attendees was lawyer Michael
Spilger, captain of San Diego State's 1969-70 basketball team.
Spilger made nine of 10, only to be told the offer had been
rescinded. The new prize was five days and four nights in Puerto
Rico. "There was one catch," says Spilger. "The deal didn't
include airfare, transportation or food. I'd have to pay my own
way." So Spilger told Sterling he'd take the $1,000. He
remembers Sterling countering, "How about double or nothing?"
"No thanks, I'll take the $1,000."
Next, according to Spilger, Sterling asked if he'd settle for
two season tickets, and Spilger said, "I already have some." So
Sterling promised him that the team's promotions department
would work things out. Two weeks later, Spilger got a letter
congratulating him for winning the top prize: Three days and two
nights in Las Vegas. Unpaid but unbowed, Spilger sued the
Clippers for fraud. At the home opener in '82, a team official
tracked him down and offered a compromise: a $1,000 donation to
his favorite charity. "I'll see you in court," said Spilger. Two
days later--and more than a year after he sank his free
throws--he got his money.
The Clippers' rebuilding program is in its third decade. They
are lottery regulars, and Sterling has held at least two lottery
parties at his Beverly Hills estate. The galas were the
highlight of the Clippers' season. Sterling has often prepped
for his parties by placing newspaper ads for "hostesses"
interested in meeting "celebrities and sports stars."
Prospective hostesses have been interviewed in the owner's
office suite. One former Clippers coach recalls dropping in on
Sterling during a cattle call. "The whole floor reeked of
perfume," he says. "There were about 50 women all dolled up and
waiting outside Donald's office, and another 50 waiting outside
the building. The chosen few got to dress scantily, mingle with
C-list actors and serve wine in plastic cups."
Sterling has been the one constant through the years, so it's
easy to blame the team's failure on him. "The truth is," says
Carl Scheer, the team's general manager from 1984 to '86, "there
have been a lot of bad decisions by people who've worked for
him, including me."
Those decisions have ranged from bad draft picks to bad trades
to bad contract negotiations that radiated bad vibes. "Being a
Clipper can be real tough," says retired point guard Pooh
Richardson, who toughed it out with the Clippers from 1994 to
'99. "It's almost a given that you won't win and that the team
won't hold on to its best players." Indeed, not one of
Sterling's nine lottery picks before 1998 re-signed with the
team. Typically, the Clippers draft a promising player, nurture
him and then watch him bail as soon as he's a free agent,
spreading their lottery legacy throughout the league.
"To have a decent team you need to keep a core of players
together and let them grow," says Los Angeles Lakers guard Ron
Harper, a survivor of five Clippers campaigns. "Sterling doesn't
do that. He's not a builder, he's a meddler."
Actually, Sterling doesn't so much meddle as delay. He hedges.
He vacillates. He agonizes. "Most NBA owners are distant and
aloof and give only the pretense of being in control," says
player agent Arn Tellem, general counsel of the Clippers from
1983 to '89. "Donald is so angst-ridden and vulnerable, you just
want to hug him. He's constantly seeking the advice of others."
He hardly ever follows it, however. He tends to throw everything
into committee, where there's rarely a consensus. "Front-office
meetings are like the Israeli Knesset," Tellem reports. "There
are usually more opinions than people in the room."
To Scheer, "the most frustrating part of being G.M. was the lost
opportunities. Sterling didn't trust his own basketball judgment
and wasn't prepared to accept mine. I'd call him about a trade I
wanted to pursue, and he'd say, 'Let me get back to you.' He'd
never get back to me. So nothing would happen."
In the NBA success on the court demands a readiness to pounce
and a willingness to spend. The Clippers payroll--$26.3
million--is the third-lowest in the league and roughly half that
of the Lakers. "If you've got a bad team, you'd better have a
low payroll, so you'll be able to sign free agents under the cap
and get better," says Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf.
"Donald is in a great position if he spends wisely."
So far Sterling has shown no interest in spending, period. "Cash
is the root of all evil, and Sterling likes to hold on to his,"
says Harper. "He won't hand it out to a player unless he thinks
the player has earned it. Well, that's not how things work in
today's NBA. Like it or not, an owner has to overcompensate his
Harper was the Clippers' second-highest scorer during the
semiglory years of 1990-91 and '92-93, the only seasons besides
1996-97 that the team has made the playoffs. Even if all the
star power the Clippers could muster at courtside was Billy
Crystal, they seemed to be turning a corner. Then the other
starters and coach Larry Brown left. "Suddenly it was just me,"
Harper says. "I was the last man standing on a ship that was
Harper signed for one year at $4 million in '93, becoming one of
the few big-ticket free agents in Clippers history to re-up. In
a league rife with eight-figure salaries, $4 million--a sum that
some teams dole out to a backup center--remains the most
Sterling has paid a player. The Clippers tried to re-re-up
Harper in '94 by offering him a five-year deal for $16 million.
The Bulls offered him five years at $20 million. "Sterling's
people tried to convince me their offer was better," Harper
says. "I told them, 'It sounds $4 million worse.' Finally they
told me, 'O.K., go ahead, have fun.' And I told them, 'I will.'"
Harper laughs raucously and says, "I got three championship
rings in Chicago, so I can't be mad."
Many people believe that Sterling is playing a different game
from the rest of the NBA owners. "I don't know how important
winning is to Donald," says Scheer. "He seems more concerned
that his books are balanced, that he runs one of the few NBA
franchises with no debt, that he can bring his friends to
games." Those friends--a mix of Friars Clubbers and Merv Era
celebs--show up en masse at Sterling's Malibu White Party, the
extravagant tented barbecue-and-bubbly beach bash he often
throws at his second home, a neo-Tudor oceanfront bungalow. The
party is so named because guests are encouraged to dress all in
white, as in The Great Gatsby. "Sterling's agenda is as much
social as professional," says Los Angeles Times sportswriter
Mark Heisler. "He loves the status that owning even a bad team
He also enjoys the publicity he's received as a philanthropist.
Southern California charities routinely fete Sterling as their
Humanitarian of the Year. Since 1997, the title has been
accorded him by the Vista Del Mar Orphanage, the Special
Olympics, the Los Angeles Yeshiva, the Asthma and Allergy
Foundation and the L.A. Police Historical Society. Not that
every charity has found it easy to separate Sterling from his
swag. Linda McCoy-Murray recognized that last summer when she
phoned him to help sponsor a golf tournament in honor of her
late husband, venerated L.A. Times sports columnist Jim Murray.
Every pro franchise in California, according to McCoy-Murray,
had forked over at least $5,000 to her foundation, which
provides journalism scholarships. Every pro franchise, that is,
except the Clippers, which had memorialized Murray on the final
page of last season's media guide. Sterling offered McCoy-Murray
two season passes. "You know, that's wonderful," she remembers
telling him, "but we're trying to endow a college scholarship
fund. We could really use cash."
Sterling, she says, replied, "Those two tickets have a face
value of $4,000!"
"Fine," she said. "We can use the tickets for our silent
auction. But would you also consider donating $5,000?"
Sterling said he would mull it over and call her the following
week. He never did. Nor did he send over the season passes. "I
decided against calling Donald back," says McCoy-Murray. "I
wasn't going to go chasing after the almighty dollar. I feel bad
for the [Clippers] organization. I think everybody in L.A. does."
Selsman thinks that Sterling's retentive streak is rooted in the
poverty of his youth. "As a kid, Donald never had enough of
anything," says Selsman. "With him, acquiring great wealth is a
crusade. He's psychologically predisposed to hoarding."
Born Donald Tokowitz, Sterling is the only son of an immigrant
produce peddler. When Donald was two, he and his parents, Mickey
and Susan, left Chicago for Boyle Heights, then a poor Jewish
enclave in East L.A. Every day at 2 a.m., Mickey would go to a
farmer's market to buy vegetables wholesale and truck them to
restaurants. Young Donald worked as a grocery-store box boy,
investing his meager wages in toy soldiers and comic books. His
mother wasn't impressed. Unlike property, she reasoned,
education can never be taken away. "You will go to college!" she
would tell her boy, pounding her fist on the dinner table. "You
will be a professional. You will be a lawyer."
The ever-dutiful Donald obeyed Mom's will. In his senior year at
Roosevelt High he was elected class president and went to the
city finals as a gymnast. "My brother was very popular," says
Lynn Lewis. "He could win you over any way he wanted." He went
to the people's colleges--Cal State L.A. and Southwestern
University School of Law, graduating from the latter cum laude
in 1961, at age 23. To help pay his way through, he moonlighted
as a salesman at a furniture store. It was then that he changed
his name to Sterling. "I asked him why," a fellow salesman told
Los Angeles magazine in 1999. "He said, 'You have to name
yourself after something that's really good, that people have
confidence in. People want to know that you're the best.'"
Sterling made Tokowitz his middle name and Shelly, the boss's
daughter, his wife. The couple, who are still married, would
raise three children.
Sterling did not ascend unfettered in the legal profession. Back
then big L.A. law firms rarely hired Jews, especially penniless
ones with degrees from Southwestern. So Sterling hung out a
shingle in Boyle Heights and became a tireless advocate for his
old neighbors, handling everything from divorces to personal
injury cases. Ten thousand cases by his count. He was so
successful that within a couple of years he shifted his shingle
to Beverly Hills.
At the precocious age of 27, Sterling represented Selsman in a
headline-grabbing divorce from actress Carol Lynley. "Donald
took on the top legal talent at the Music Corporation of
America," says Selsman, "and wouldn't back down." (Selsman and
Lynley wound up splitting their assets equally.) Bigger clients
and bigger judgments followed, and soon Sterling had parlayed
his fees into a handsome real estate portfolio. He made his
bundle in two ways: gradually and then suddenly. Eschewing
brokers, he stuck to a few affluent areas, invested when the
market was soft, refinanced as the properties appreciated, and
reinvested. He got tax breaks for reinvesting and reduced his
capital gains taxes and transaction fees by never selling. His
simple credo: Buy it, improve it, keep it forever.
Improving it--at least cosmetically--allowed Sterling to jack up
the lease. In 1986 he hiked rents on his Beverly Hills
properties so dramatically that outraged tenants marched on City
Hall. "These days Sterling keeps up his buildings, but it's
almost impossible to get a security deposit back," says
tenant-rights activist Herm Shultz. "He was a very cunning and
ruthless businessperson, and he hasn't changed his stripes any.
We're talking about the Humanitarian of the Year."
As a tenant, Sterling is just as cunning. He doesn't own the
land on which Sterling Plaza stands; rather, he has a 99-year
lease with the Mayer estate that requires him to pay a
relatively small annual fee and 15% of any rental income. But he
won't rent to anyone. With no other tenant, the Mayer estate
faces another 75 years with virtually no income from its
Sterling Plaza property. By sitting and waiting, Sterling may
force a fire sale.
Twenty years ago Sterling bought 11 Santa Monica apartment
complexes from real estate magnate Jerry Buss, who used the
money to buy the Lakers. Buss pitched pro basketball as the
great investment of the '80s and encouraged Sterling to go after
the Clippers, a full-court mess entropying in San Diego. The
asking price was $13.5 million, but Sterling got the team on a
layaway plan by assuming nearly $10 million in debts and
deferred compensation. Sterling tried to remake the Clippers in
his own image, plastering pictures of himself on billboards all
over town. "It's the start of a new era!" he promised in an open
letter to fans. "I'm in San Diego to stay and committed to
making the city proud of the Clippers. I'll build the Clippers
through the draft, free agency, trades, spending whatever it
takes to make a winner."
Fans started wondering about Sterling's new era at his first
home opener, in 1981. The Clippers won the game, but Sterling
outperformed his players. He cheered wildly from his courtside
seat, his shirt unbuttoned to the waist. As the game ended, he
sprinted across the floor with his wine glass in hand and jumped
into the arms of coach Silas. Then he high-fived his players,
telling each, "I love you." During that '81-82 season, as the
Clippers went 17-65, Sterling's antics were more entertaining
than those of his woebegone team. Silas returned from a goodwill
trip to China in the summer of '82 to find his files stacked up
in the hallway outside his office. 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
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.
During their first season in L.A. the Clippers won only one more
game than they had in their last season in San Diego, but they
averaged almost 4,000 more fans at the Sports Arena, where the
Lakers had played before moving to the Forum. That still put
them near the bottom of the league in home attendance. Things
haven't improved; the Clippers have had the league's lowest
attendance each of the last six seasons and rank 28th out of 29
teams this season. "The one thing you have to admire about
Donald is that he's loyal to Los Angeles," says Tellem. "He's
passed up many opportunities to sell the team or move elsewhere
for a lot more money." In the mid-'90s Sterling turned down a
$95 million offer to move 35 miles southeast to Anaheim, partly
because he hates traffic. Not long after that an ownership group
in Nashville reportedly made an overture worth almost $200
million, which Sterling also rebuffed. "I never sell anything,"
he says. "I'd prefer to stay in L.A. and lose money than move
and make a fortune."
Ticket prices seem to confirm this. An end zone loge seat at the
Staples Center for a Clippers game goes for $40; the same seat
at a Lakers game fetches $60. Sitting courtside with Crystal
will cost you $350; the identical seat in Jack Nicholson's row
will set you back $1,150. "The Clippers are the people's team,"
says Steve Soboroff, who as senior adviser to Mayor Richard J.
Riordan played a role in bringing them to the new arena.
"Sterling has given fans who can't afford Lakers tickets a
chance to see NBA basketball at a reasonable price."
Other observers aren't so charitable. 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."
Whether because of Baylor's poor judgment or Sterling's
meddling, or both, the team's draft choices have been
disastrous. In 1987 the Clippers selected Reggie Williams with
the fourth pick. Think they'd have been better off if they'd
chosen Scottie Pippen or Reggie Miller instead? Or how about
1989, when the Clippers had the second draw and chose Danny
Ferry, passing on Glen Rice? Ferry bailed immediately for Italy,
and Rice became an All-Star Game MVP. One more: In 1990 the
Clippers looked past Jayson Williams, Dee Brown, Tyrone Hill and
Toni Kukoc and got Bo Kimble out of nearby Loyola Marymount.
Last year, when the draft didn't have enough marquee players to
excite Sterling into ignorant interference, Baylor snagged the
19-year-old Odom with the fourth selection. It was the kind of
thought-out risk that makes teams winners. "Donald Sterling had
absolutely nothing to do with getting Odom," Baylor says
testily. "That pick was mine and mine alone."
Baylor has reason to be testy. Sterling has a history of
Clipping his wings, most famously in 1993 when Baylor tried to
make a trade with Miami. Danny Manning, then the Clippers' star
forward, had a year left on his contract and was angling to get
out. Baylor made a deal with the Heat: Manning for Rice and
Willie Burton. Sterling, certain he could sway Manning to stay,
showed up at training camp and pleaded with him. Manning
listened politely. "He's softening!" Sterling told team
officials and called off the trade. Four months later, with
Manning no softer, Sterling relented. The 27-year-old was
swapped to Atlanta for free-agent-to-be Dominique Wilkins, who
was 34. Wilkins carried the Clippers over the last half of
another dismal season, then rejected Sterling's new contract
offer, which was half of what Dominique had demanded. Wilkins
left, and the team was left with nothing.
From a penthouse window in Sterling Plaza, the five-time
Humanitarian of the Year gazes out at Los Angeles with mournful,
drooping eyes that seem to have witnessed all human sadness.
"Basketball is the only aspect of my life in which I haven't
been a winner," he says. "I want to win badly, I really do. It
hasn't happened yet, but it will. Don't you think it will?" You
tell him you have no idea. "Yes, well, I think it will," he
says. "It must. It simply must."
He settles into a chair behind a cluttered Louis XIV desk on
which a bronze placard sits: may we always laugh, dance and sing
our way through life. He meets your stare, his eyes less
menacing than searching, and tells you he'd rather discuss the
bright Clippers future than the blighted Clippers past. You
mention Taylor--whose contract Sterling has refused to extend
for six years at $71 million, the maximum allowable--and ask if
Sterling thinks the player will follow through on a recent
promise to bolt. "Taylor will only bolt if we want him to bolt,"
Sterling says without much conviction. "No player ever left the
Clippers that we didn't want to." Still, you say, the Clippers
again stand to get nothing for something. "I only pay superstar
prices for superstar players," Sterling says, wincing at this
unhappy thought. "You don't think Taylor is a superstar, do you?
He's not a superstar."
What about Odom?
"He's going to be a superstar," Sterling says, "and when he
becomes one, I won't let him get away."
What if you realize too late that he has become one?
Sterling's shoulders shift. An awkward silence follows. You
bring up Buss, who has won five NBA titles by paying superstar
prices for everyday players. Sterling says he admires Buss but
doesn't measure his team against the Lakers. "Let's say you take
your child to see Shirley Temple onstage," he says. "And let's
say you tell yourself, Wouldn't it be nice if that was my child
up there? And you think, My child will never be Shirley Temple,
but I love her all the same. So you send her for dancing and
singing lessons and hope that one day she'll have all the
qualities you admire in Shirley Temple. But she'll never be
Shirley Temple." He leans back in his chair trying to relax,
looking slightly pained. "I'm only as good as my advisers," he
So why not hire new ones? "Part of the reason is loyalty to my
G.M.," he says. "I like Elgin, I respect him and trust him. I
want to give him a chance. I want to see him succeed. Some
people think the solution to everything is change. I like
continuity." He gives a dry smile. "Have we made the right
decisions in drafting? Presumably not. Have we made a lot of
mistakes? Yes, we've made a lot. Have we learned from our
mistakes? I hope so. At times, I feel as if I were a scientist
making progress toward the cure of a disease, yet the lab mice
keep dying of cancer."
Earlier that day, in the lobby of a Beverly Hills hotel, Barry
Dean, an old friend of Sterling's, had tried to solve the riddle
of the NBA's greatest tale of futility. "After all these years
as an owner, Donald still doesn't know how to run a team," Dean
said. "His problem is he doesn't know that he doesn't know, and
won't hire someone who does know. You know when the Clippers
will be successful? When Donald finds out what he doesn't know."
Under Sterling the team has been little more than a punch line
for Sunset Strip comics.
"I want to win badly," says Sterling. "It hasn't happened yet,
but it will. Don't you think?"
Sterling doesn't so much meddle as delay. He hedges. He
vacillates. He agonizes.