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The NBA believes it has the legal grounds to oust both Shelly Sterling and her husband as owners, despite the fact that commissioner Adam Silver's punishments were specifically leveled only against Donald, according to sources with knowledge of the league's legal strategy.
Shelly Sterling, the estranged wife of exiled Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, has made it clear to the NBA that she intends to retain her 50 percent ownership interest in the team.
She has publicly and privately cooperated with the league in its actions to ban her husband for life and move to oust him from ownership. However, the league's contention will be that Shelly Sterling -- while entitled to a 50 percent interest in the franchise -- has never been approved by the board of governors as the controlling owner. She and team president Andy Roeser, who went on an indefinite leave of absence this week, were only alternate governors.
In order to become the team's new controlling owner, Shelly Sterling would have to be approved by the board of governors, which is unlikely given her association with her husband of 58 years.
Former Lakers great Magic Johnson said Friday that none of the current Clippers players would play for Shelly Sterling if she retains her ownership.
"Those guys are not going to play for anybody (named) Sterling," Johnson told USA TODAY Sports and two other reporters at the Omni Dallas Hotel. "It's just how it is. It's hard to separate the two. ... It's going to be hard for them to sell that to the fans and definitely to the players."
Miami Heat guard James Jones, the current secretary-treasurer of the players association, said Saturday that Shelly Sterling would not be a reasonable replacement for her husband.
"No, that's not something that's acceptable to us," Jones said, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "That's our stance, and it hasn't changed, and it won't."
Shelly Sterling's lawyer, Pierce O'Donnell, told ESPN on Friday that his client was "trying to resolve this" amicably with the NBA, but if that wasn't possible, "We're going to be in the courts."
Her position, at this time, O'Donnell said, was to maintain her 50 percent interest in the team for the rest of her life. However, she does not want to be the team's controlling owner and would welcome "a new, dynamic management team and investors to come in."
That leaves open the door for a compromise that could avoid a protracted legal battle, sources said.
"Court cases can be protracted. We saw what [Frank and Jamie] McCourt did with the Dodgers. We don't want to reprise the McCourt spectacle," O'Donnell said. "This is a great franchise. Shelly's been a co-owner in the darkest days. And now, 'Go Clippers!' maybe we can bring an NBA championship to this city this year. But if she has to fight, she'll fight. We respect property rights in America. We have due process. And she will fight to retain her interests."
ESPN.com's Darren Rovell reported last week that the NBA believes it has a case to remove Donald Sterling because he has signed several contracts over the years that state an owner will not take any position or action that will materially and adversely affect a team or the league. Owners also sign morals clauses, which state they will be upheld to the highest standard of ethical and moral behavior.
The NBA believes that Sterling's racist statements in a private conversation with his assistant V. Stiviano, which were later published by TMZ, constitute a violation of those contracts.
When morals clauses are enacted and result in termination of agreements, including endorsement deals, the courts often are charged with interpreting who was right, but sources with knowledge of the NBA's legal strategy believe that they have enough to force Sterling to sell.
Shelly Sterling has publicly distanced herself from her estranged husband -whom she's been separated from for the last few years -- since the scandal broke two weeks ago. "Donald's on his own," O'Donnell said. "She's distanced herself from him, she's repudiated his racist statements. He has nothing to do with the team anymore, he can't go to the games. What happens to Donald, happens to Donald. She wants to retain her interests.
"Shelly was found by commissioner Silver to be blameless. This is about Donald. Push Donald out, but don't throw his innocent wife over the cliff."
O'Donnell noted that the process of selling the team -- which some have valued at $1 billion -- is further complicated by tax liabilities that could total $400 million.
Dick Parsons, who was appointed by the NBA as the interim CEO of the Clippers on Friday, told ESPN that he hadn't yet reached out to Shelly Sterling but intended to do so in the near future.
"Obviously she's a big fan of the team, she has an ownership interest, she has not been banned from anything," Parsons told ESPN. "So our style is to try and work cooperatively, collaboratively and collegially with all the stakeholders. All the stakeholders who haven't been banned."
Information from ESPNLosAngeles.com's Arash Markazi and ESPN.com's Darren Rovell was used in this report.