Shortly after the Clippers made Danny Manning the top pick of the 1988 NBA draft, team owner Donald Sterling invited the player and his agent, Ron Grinker, to talk contract in Beverly Hills. It was recounted to me how Sterling lounged around his mansion in a bathrobe open to his navel, wearing nothing underneath.
At one point Sterling's preteen son wandered in and was chastised for skipping Hebrew school. The owner commanded the boy, "Go to your room and get undressed." The child slouched upstairs. Sterling followed. The next thing Manning heard was a belt thrashing and the boy wailing, as Grinker bounded up the stairs yelling, "Stop! Stop! We'll sign."
I heard this in the course of reporting a profile of Sterling (owner of THE WORST FRANCHISE IN SPORTS HISTORY per the cover) that I wrote 14 years ago for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (April 17, 2000). Except that much of the anecdote didn't appear in the magazine. The profile did include Sterling's hiring a former model to be an assistant GM. And his placing newspaper ads for "hostesses" interested in meeting "celebrities and sports stars." The women were interviewed in Sterling's suite. But so much of his behavior—extreme parsimony, discriminatory practices, wild sexual escapades—was deemed too weird, too cruel, too contemptible. An editor told me, "You've demonized him."
Really? I said. I thought I'd bent over backward to be fair.
"Even if Sterling were the source of this stuff, no one would believe it."
Today? Nothing edited out of my profile seems remotely out of character. Who wouldn't believe it?
This is a guy who in 2003, at 69, stated in a deposition that he regularly paid a woman for sex. ("All over my building, in my bathroom, upstairs, in the corner, in the elevator.... It was purely sex for money, money for sex, sex for money, money for sex.... I probably didn't tell my wife.") Sterling conceded that he had asked the woman in '01 whether to hire Alvin Gentry as coach and which players deserved contract extensions.
This is a guy who in 2009 paid $2.73 million to settle federal allegations that he systematically discriminated against Latinos, African-Americans and families with children at scores of apartment buildings he owned.
This is a guy who, also in 2009, was sued by Elgin Baylor, his general manager of 22 years, for age discrimination, harassment and wrongful termination. (Baylor lost.) In 2010, Sterling fired Baylor's successor, Mike Dunleavy, who went to arbitration and recovered $13 million he was owed.
The image-conscious NBA, so strict with players' dress codes and inappropriate language, has long given Sterling a free pass. His prime enabler was former commissioner David Stern, who surely knew the potential for disaster. As one erstwhile Clippers executive put it to me this week, "I'm not surprised by Donald's crash landing; I'm surprised he didn't crash sooner."
How did Sterling stay in the game? One factor: He found that he could generate his own good publicity. In the profile, I wrote that for all his ruthlessness and narcissism, Sterling was routinely feted by groups as their Humanitarian of the Year. "Donald doesn't write checks unless he gets something in return," says his former press agent, Michael Selsman. "These aid organizations give him a chance to demonstrate to a skeptical community that he's a worthy man."
The L.A. chapter of the NAACP bestowed a "lifetime achievement award" on Sterling in 2009. (The branch president publicly defended the choice.) Perhaps coincidently the office has lately received numerous grants from Sterling's foundation. He was due to receive a second award this year before the organization scrapped the idea.
Until recently, the only way the Clips made news was by entertaining offers for their inevitable lottery picks. Sterling bought the franchise 33 years ago for less than $13 million, and during the first 31 years of his fiercely frugal tenure the team had two winning seasons. But Sterling was always a time bomb, and even when the franchise stopped taking a licking, he kept on ticking. Now, with the Clippers finally relevant, he exploded.
I ended that SI piece by quoting one of Sterling's friends, Barry Dean. "You know when the Clippers will be successful?" Dean asked me. "When Donald finds out what he doesn't know."
It doesn't appear that Sterling ever got around to learning much. But now, to catastrophic effect, the ignorance has been exposed.
As I found out 14 years ago, Donald Sterling's offensive behavior was no secret. So how did he become the NBA's longest-tenured owner?
What would be a just penalty for Sterling?
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