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Monday, April 28, 2014
How will Silver respond to Sterling?

By Marc Stein and Ramona Shelburne
ESPN.com

Eighty-five days.

That's the extent of the grace period before Adam Silver -- the NBA's rookie commissioner, who started Feb. 1 -- was plunged into his first crisis.

The scope and furor of the scandal brought on by the racist comments made allegedly by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling is such that Silver is already facing what's being described as a defining moment for both his own tenure and the league.

What happens next?

Once an investigation into the authenticity of the tapes implicating Sterling is completed, Silver says he'll use his "broad powers" to assess a "range of sanctions" against Sterling. After conversations with high-level league sources possessing knowledge of the issues Silver is considering, ESPN.com offers the following Q&A, examining where things stand as the Clippers return to Los Angeles for Tuesday's Game 5 of their first-round playoff series with the Golden State Warriors.

Q: What are Silver's specific and immediate options for sanctioning Sterling?

A: The NBA is not going to try to snatch Sterling's team away from him before Game 5. Not that quickly.

The league might never have the gumption to try that step, thanks to the various legal hurdles that stand in the way of the course that seething Clippers players and coaches are hoping for.

A lengthy suspension for Sterling is believed to be the ceiling on Silver's authority in the short term, and only when the NBA's official investigation is complete. That includes the complicated process of confirming that the male voice on the recordings obtained and distributed by TMZ is indeed Sterling's.

The NBA's bylaws are not made public, but sources with knowledge of the secret constitution say Silver does possess the equivalent of a "best interests of the game" clause he can invoke to suspend owners for detrimental conduct even though they theoretically employ him. Two NBA owners held in much higher regard than Sterling -- Minnesota's Glen Taylor (under-the-table contract with former No. 1 overall pick Joe Smith) and the Los Angeles Lakers' Jerry Buss (charged with driving under the influence) -- were suspended when David Stern was in charge.

Most insiders, as the weekend unfolded, thus expected Silver to pursue an indefinite suspension of Sterling from league activity that would also include a substantial fine of up to $1 million, with the corresponding hope that the pressure on and outrage toward Sterling that's piling up daily as a result of this scandal will ultimately convince him that selling the team is the only sensible recourse.

Of course, since there's no telling how long it might take the famously stubborn Sterling to reach that point, Silver has little alternative but to focus on the league's initial aim of removing the 80-year-old from the day-to-day operations of the Clippers. It's also believed any suspension would include Sterling's removal from the NBA's Board of Governors, ensuring that he has no say in league matters during such a ban.

Yet a suspension of any length is bound to be blasted as insufficient in numerous corners, given the widespread, rising anger at Sterling's alleged comments, with the Clippers' locker room serving as the epicenter of the fury.

Another primary goal, as conveyed Sunday by National Basketball Players Association adviser (and Sacramento mayor) Kevin Johnson at a halftime news conference in Oakland during Game 4, is taking the strongest possible action as quickly as possible in hopes of shifting the media's focus back toward the ongoing playoffs.

Q: Sterling has had ample time since the story first broke to come out and tell the world that it's not his voice on the tape. Isn't that all the confirmation the NBA needs?

A: No. Far from it.

Silver made it clear in his Saturday night remarks to the media in Memphis that Sterling, like anyone in the NBA family, must receive the full benefits of "due process" before Silver can issue any ruling.

Step 1 on that front, both in fairness to Sterling and to insulate the league against future lawsuits, is determining whether the tapes are authentic recordings of Sterling or if they were doctored in a way to change the context of the racist statements made. Step 2 would be to interview Sterling to ask him to explain himself.

It's believed that the NBA would also like to interview the woman heard in the recordings, identified as V. Stiviano. The woman's attorney, Mac Nehoray, did not directly respond to an inquiry from ESPN about whether his client was cooperating with the NBA.

But Nehoray said in a statement on Sunday that the audio tapes released Friday night by TMZ are "in fact legitimate" and come from a 15-minute segment of an approximately one-hour audio recording of Sterling and Stiviano. He asserts that Stiviano did not release the tape to any news media.

Nehoray also said Sunday that, because of the recent civil litigation brought by Sterling's wife, Rochelle Sterling, against his client, she would have no further comments on the matter. In addition to liability in the civil case, Stiviano also could be subject to legal action for recording Sterling without his knowledge, which is illegal in the state of California, although it is not yet known who made the recordings or how these unknowns will affect the NBA's investigation. (Some legal experts maintain that because of California law, basing any punishment on the recordings could prove problematic if Sterling retaliates with legal action.)

How the NBA goes about determining the authenticity of the tapes, as well as the context in which they were made, could likewise prove difficult without the cooperation of Stiviano, or an admission from Sterling, because the original recordings are in TMZ's hands. A statement from Clippers president Andy Roeser released Saturday implied that Sterling might have been set up to make such comments, or that the tapes might have been doctored. The statement did not directly dispute that it was Sterling's voice on the recordings, except to say that "what is reflected on that recording is not consistent with, nor does it reflect his views, beliefs or feelings."

Yet one league insider insisted to ESPN.com that Sterling is indeed "on his way out if the tape is legit," despite all of the tricky variables to consider.

"Maybe he will be managed out over time, but it could be abrupt," the source said. "The alleged statements are indefensible from the standpoint of the commissioner, players, owners and many fans. Sterling may seek to negotiate, but he has little or no leverage because he will become a pariah.

"Some people are arguing that his statements were private and that he was set up by his girlfriend. This may be true, but it misses the point that the NBA can't and won't associate with a known racist."

That would be the same NBA, of course, that has always championed its own diversity, and in February welcomed back Brooklyn's Jason Collins, the first active openly gay player in the history of North America's four major team sports.

Not up for argument is the fact the league office regards the investigation as absolutely key, because any punishment Silver delivers could later become an element of a legal or civil case involving the league. It could also wind up as part of the civil case alleging that Stiviano embezzled more than $1.8 million.

Q: If Sterling is suspended, who runs the Clippers?

A: The Clippers' plan in the event of Sterling's death, according to sources with knowledge of the situation, has been for Sterling's wife, Rochelle, to take over as majority owner.

Rochelle -- or Shelly, as she's more commonly known -- is a regular at Clippers games and well-known and liked among other owners. She even accompanied her husband to the April 17 Board of Governors meeting in New York, according to sources.

Donald Sterling's son-in-law, Eric Miller, meanwhile, has been working in the team's front offices for the past few years and, as ESPN.com reported early last season, is being groomed to be the franchise's day-to-day voice on ownership matters. An accountant by trade, Miller currently holds the title of Clippers director of basketball administration, and he works closely with team vice president of basketball operations Gary Sacks.

The problem with all of the above is that coach Doc Rivers and his players, sources close to the situation say, want and expect more drastic change than that. Such is the anger within the Clippers' locker room, according to sources, that the response to Sterling maintaining ownership for any length of time -- even from a distance -- is sure to be negative, to put it charitably.

Will players start asking out of the team? Would Rivers, who's finishing up his maiden season as the Clippers' coach and team president at an annual salary of $7 million, consent to come back next season under those conditions?

"Don't know yet," Rivers told reporters Sunday. "I'm just going to leave it at that."

Rochelle Sterling sat courtside at the Clippers-Warriors game Sunday in Oakland, Calif., and declined to be interviewed on camera. She told ESPN/ABC sideline reporter Lisa Salters that she does not believe in or condone the comments heard on the recordings, but it must be noted that Rochelle Sterling was also named in the housing discrimination lawsuit that Donald Sterling ultimately settled with the Department of Justice for nearly $3 million in 2009.

Q. Why do we keep hearing that the NBA can't force Sterling to sell the team like it did with Cleveland's Ted Stepien in the 1980s?

A: This is a different time. Franchise values have skyrocketed to levels they didn't dare dream of in Stepien's time.

And the Clippers, like it or not, are Sterling's private property, prompting numerous sources to say this week that mandating a sale would be virtually impossible.

Sterling's status as Clippers owner is similar to that of a franchisee in that he has the right to use NBA logos and be a part of the league. But it's considered highly unlikely Silver and his fellow owners would be willing to attempt to revoke his rights as a franchise owner because of the legal ramifications of such a bold decision.

There are other owners and league officials, sources stressed to ESPN.com throughout the weekend, who have wanted Sterling out of the league for years in the wake of all of the off-court allegations he's faced during the past decade. But Sterling's famously litigious history suggests that they could bank on a costly lawsuit in reply. One example: A theoretical antitrust suit from Sterling against the NBA could conceivably allege that he is being forced to sell the Clippers at less-than-market value, because prospective buyers know Sterling has no choice but to sell, with the commissioner and Sterling's ownership rivals trying to push him out.

The league insider who earlier asserted that Sterling will eventually be managed out of the NBA, Marge Schott-style, if the tapes are authenticated, said: "But there's less than 1 in a 100 million odds they attempt to make him sell."

Sources say that the only two known violations that would allow the NBA to force an owner to sell his team are gambling-related offenses or the sort of deep financial problems witnessed in New Orleans with George Shinn.

In Schott's case, she was repeatedly fined and suspended for making racist comments against both African-Americans and Jews. But she stepped down as majority owner of the Cincinnati Reds only when the Reds' limited owners were poised to vote her out.

Angelenos will recall former Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, who was effectively managed out of control of the team by Major League Baseball. MLB commissioner Bud Selig, however, would appear to have a much more favorable path than Silver has now.

McCourt consistently threatened baseball with legal action if it attempted to force him out, but he was ultimately forced to sell when he became insolvent and no longer had the means to operate the team. The NBA assumed operating control of the New Orleans Hornets under similar circumstances in December 2010, when Shinn could no longer meet payroll, but the Clippers are a booming franchise that would quite possibly command in excess of $1 billion on the open market if Sterling -- whose lifelong mantra is that he never sells anything -- put the team up for bidding.

McCourt ultimately argued that he would have been able to operate the Dodgers if MLB had not blocked a lucrative television-rights deal with Fox. The threat of legal action against MLB led to an unprecedented private sale of the team through the financial services firm Blackstone Advisory Partners in which McCourt -- not the league or McCourt's fellow owners -- had final approval over what turned out to be a record sale of $2.15 billion to a group led by Magic Johnson.

Yet the only apparent play available to the NBA would seem to be suspending Sterling and then trying to wear him down to the point he gives in and agrees to sell the Clippers for a massive windfall. Sterling purchased the franchise in 1981 for a reported $12.5 million, but this is a league in which the small-market Milwaukee Bucks, in desperate need of a new, modern arena, were just sold for $550 million.

Q: What do Sterling's fellow owners really think about this mess?

A: They're under fire, too. The league's owners are facing the same questions, along with the retired Stern, posed by Johnson on behalf of the union Sunday: Why wasn't Sterling punished for any of his previous transgressions?

Stern's well-chronicled and longstanding commitment to social justice makes it difficult to believe he didn't want to do more. The working assumption in league circles has been that Sterling repeatedly dodged serious discipline because sordid accusations, court wrangles with former coaches and employees over money, and other assorted out-of-court settlements don't equate to convictions, and because Sterling didn't otherwise overtly break any league rules.

But now Sterling's peers want action. A handful of them, in the wake of what suddenly ranks as Sterling's most public scandal, have already taken the unusual step of publicly expressing their dismay with the league's senior owner, from old-guard veterans such as San Antonio's Peter Holt and Miami's Micky Arison to relative newcomers such as Sacramento's Vivek Ranadive.

"If @TMZ recording is true," Ranadive tweeted Saturday night, "we must have zero tolerance. Fully support commish Silver @NBA."

Then Ranadive added Sunday: "I was shocked. Those are shameful, reprehensible words. And if they are authenticated then I believe we should have zero tolerance, and I have full faith that the commissioner will do the right thing."

Charlotte's Michael Jordan on Sunday issued the lengthiest statement from any rival owner to date, which caused quite a stir given his historical reluctance to speak out on such issues when he was winning six championships as the league's on-court king.

"I look at this from two different perspectives -- as a current owner and former player," Jordan wrote. "As an owner, I'm obviously disgusted that a fellow team owner could hold such sickening and offensive views. I'm confident that Adam Silver will make a full investigation and take appropriate action quickly. As a former player, I'm completely outraged. There is no room in the NBA -- or anywhere else -- for the kind of racism and hatred that Mr. Sterling allegedly expressed. I am appalled that this type of ignorance still exists within our country and at the highest levels of our sport. In a league where the majority of players are African-American, we cannot and must not tolerate discrimination at any level."

Behind the scenes, sources say, there is even louder dismay from Sterling's peers, especially from the new-school owners who are paying such increasingly high prices for franchises -- and are worrying how much damage this is doing to the league's brand.

The owners are also aware of how upset and indignant players throughout the league are. Any show of support for Sterling by an owner or the league, any shred of leniency, will be noticed by every player in the league, not just the fuming Clippers.

"I'm sure the NBA will come down hard on [Sterling]," one source close to the situation said. "It wouldn't surprise me if we never see him again [at an NBA game]."