Served Up on a Silver Platter

The Clippers have been sold in theory. Will Donald Sterling have the last laugh or simply disappear?
Now that the Clippers have been sold, will Donald Sterling have the last laugh or simply disappear?

By Keysha Hogan

On the way to the moral high ground there often can be a nasty battle of capture the flag. Every single involved party will challenge each other, just for the chance to take a swing at the king of the mountain.

In February, when Adam Silver became the fifth National Basketball Association commissioner, little did he know he’d be embroiled in a scandal where he could easily play the hero and lay the foundation for a legacy of swift justice in his first 100 days in office.

Unfortunately for Silver, when the battle centers on issues that test everyone’s convictions, sometimes the punished push back and refuse to be sentenced. Silver levied a $2.5 million fine and a lifetime ban against Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling who responded by sending a letter to the league basically saying, “Uhh…no.”

Sterling and his legal team contend that he was not in violation of any article of the NBA constitution. The league will claim that Sterling actually did violate Article 13(d) by saying that he “engaged in unethical conduct or took positions adverse to the NBA.”

Proving this will be tough since the racist comments were captured in a secret recording. In the letter, Sterling’s lawyer also thinks his client was denied due process, since the investigation and ruling came without any formal proceedings. But the NBA is a private association, where Sterling’s membership already has obligated him to going along with league rulings, with or without due process. The letter ends with Team Sterling categorically rejecting the ban, refusing to pay a dime and threatening a battle-royale lawsuit.

For Silver to reign with authority, those in the league must comply with his actions. But, in this case not many are going along with him. Now that the spectacle is calming down, the press conference that seemingly sealed Sterling’s fate may have endeared Silver to the public, but his actions may have had no teeth.

The future of Sterling and the Clippers is far more dependent upon many long conversations that will be held in NBA boardrooms and courtrooms than it is upon Silver’s actions. News outlets have reported that the team is held in a family trust, with Sterling and his wife Shelly having equal ownership. So, did Silver know this little fun fact? Did he think that Shelly would comply with the ruling and have no desire to take over a team worth nearly $1 billion?

Silver made it clear that the sanctions only apply to Donald Sterling, so how can they force Shelly to sell if she isn’t the one being reprimanded? Shelly attended the playoff games despite a lot of hand wringing from the NBA, and she’ll likely go to the mattresses to keep the Clippers in the family.

And let’s just say Shelly pulls an upset and takes over the franchise. Would the other 29 owners forgive her involvement with those old (and just as racist) housing lawsuits, and hand over the team to an ex-owner’s estranged wife? According to Silver, “The NBA Board of Governors is continuing with its process to remove Mr. Sterling as expeditiously as possible.” But it’s certain that some of those owners are quietly revisiting the skeletons in their own closets and wondering if one day they’ll be in the spotlight for bad behavior and have their teams taken away.

Now that the playoffs are over for the Clippers the clock is ticking away. Members of the league and players’ union have worked together to come up with plan that doesn’t include a boycott, and every day that goes by without a resolution just puts them closer to the start of next season.

Meanwhile, just 350 miles north of the Sterling fiasco another storm is brewing for Silver. Just a few weeks ago the Golden State Warriors announced their plans to move from Oakland to San Francisco in 2018. Growing a franchise is usually good news, but back in 1996 Oakland issued $140 million in bonds to improve the home court. Once the team moves, the City of Oakland and the County of Alameda will be on the hook for roughly $60 million in debt. That much money could put a lot of officers on the streets and teachers in the classrooms, but now the already struggling area will have to plead mercy to Silver and he’s likely to respond with a shrug.

Commissioner Silver became “The People’s Commish” in a way that predecessor David Stern never could. His face already is appearing on t-shirts and he received praise for dealing with the national outrage in a very public way. He offered players and fans a sense of justice when this all could have been handled behind closed doors. After serving up the fate of Sterling and the Clippers to the deciding parties, all that awaits Silver now is a final judgment on how this league will bend to his will.