The sad last chapter of Sterling's life
How Donald Sterling is clinging to his former life from an uncomfortable distance
A version of this story appears in the July 7, 2014 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
The life Donald Sterling once led is just 300 yards up the road from his home, across Sunset Boulevard. He could walk to the Beverly Hills Hotel from his Greek Revival mansion on the corner. But Sterling doesn't walk much these days. He dons slippers with socks because his feet are wracked with gout.
In better days, the disgraced Los Angeles Clippers owner was a regular at the iconic hotel where Elizabeth Taylor honeymooned for six of her eight weddings. On weekends, he'd hold court at the same poolside cabanas where Raquel Welch was discovered. The Polo Lounge was a favorite spot for courting free agents or meetings with his front-office staff. Donald liked to order for everyone at the table, then eat off their plates.
Over the years, he has thrown hundreds of parties in the hotel's swanky ballrooms. He paid for beautiful girls to serve food and start conversations. He employed photographers -- some who actually took pictures, some who were paid to play paparazzi to give the scene a more frenzied feel.
In 2012, he hired Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin impersonators for a party to celebrate the Clippers' playoff berth. The Marilyn impersonator tried and failed to coax Blake Griffin and Chris Paul up on stage with her before seductively serenading then-coach Vinny Del Negro while everyone in the room watched. "It was awkward, to put it nicely," Griffin says. "Vinny ended up biting the bullet for us there."
Later, Sterling brought Paul up on stage with him. He asked for a round of applause for the point guard who had elevated the franchise to a new level, then joked, "Why is this guy married? Look at all the beautiful women in L.A." Paul's wife was in the audience. He smiled uncomfortably and said, "Because I love my wife."
Griffin had heard stories of Donald's eccentricities before he was drafted by the Clippers in 2009. The allegations of racism and sexism were well-known. The way he'd stiff coaches he fired and sue anyone who didn't like it. "That's just how he was, so nothing really surprised me," Griffin says. "It could be a little weird here or there. But all that has no effect on what I do on the court, so I just got over it."
There was no getting over -- or coming back from -- the scandal that enveloped Sterling this spring. Just days after TMZ aired a recording of Sterling making racist remarks to his former mistress, V. Stiviano, NBA commissioner Adam Silver banned him for life. It was a break that would alter the NBA and the Clippers forever, but it would not be a clean one. Eighty-year-old Sterling was never going to go quietly. The franchise would have to depose its tyrant first.
STERLING BANNED FOR LIFE
NBA commissioner Adam Silver banned Clippers owner Donald Sterling from the league for life in the wake of Sterling's racist comments. Full coverage »
In the wake of Silver's verdict, Sterling was lost. One minute he'd lash out, the next he was inconsolable and confused. "When this thing first happened, he was kind of like in a trance," says his lawyer, Max Blecher. "It was like a state of shock. His whole system was disoriented."
Sterling had been living across the street from the Beverly Hills Hotel since the end of 2012. His wife of six decades, Shelly Sterling, had kicked him out of the Malibu beach house they shared after he started arguing loudly with a mistress over the phone as the family was sitting down for Christmas dinner. The divide between them grew larger when their son Scott died of a drug overdose a week later and Donald didn't come by the house for nearly 24 hours to console her. "He doesn't handle death very well," a family friend says.
Other than a few paid staff walking the halls and an old friend named Lawrence who often stays as a houseguest, Sterling was alone in that Beverly Hills mansion on April 29 when longtime Clippers president Andy Roeser called to tell him Silver had banned him from the NBA. His family was broken, his health was failing. Doctors had been treating him for prostate cancer the past few years.
Sitting courtside, throwing lavish team parties, calling the shots -- everything that made him somebody in this town was in peril. "There's a lot of people that have as much money as he does," one longtime Clippers staffer says. "If he didn't own an NBA team, he'd just be another rich guy in L.A."
Shelly Sterling watched her husband's May 12 interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper from a suite at the New York City Ritz-Carlton overlooking Central Park. She had taped an interview of her own with Barbara Walters the day before, then stayed in the city with her lawyer, Pierce O'Donnell, to discuss her options with the NBA. Until that meeting on May 13, she had been something of a side note in this story -- the NBA informing her lawyers of what it was doing as a courtesy. The league was confident its bylaws gave it the power to terminate Sterling's ownership and sell the franchise. After that meeting, however, NBA officials began to wonder whether Shelly could play a key role in selling the team. It wouldn't be easy. Donald didn't like to sell anything. Ever. "I don't even think he sells his used cars," says Steve Soboroff, a longtime Clippers season-ticket holder and L.A. financier involved in the development of Staples Center.
Shelly had spoken to her husband a few times since the TMZ incident. She even went to dinner with him a few days after the tapes were released, at Roeser's urging, in a last-ditch attempt to persuade Sterling to issue a public apology before Silver's ruling. Although their relationship had greatly deteriorated, Shelly could be civil. Donald was still the man she had married and shared a life with. She had hired divorce attorneys several times, exasperated with his infidelities. But because their business interests were so intertwined, she was advised to just live separate lives.
In the past few years, Shelly and family friends had come to suspect Donald was slipping mentally. He would have bouts of incoherence and forgetfulness. Shelly, on camera, told Walters she suspected he had the onset of dementia. Walters, in private, told her she had noticed similar symptoms when she'd spoken to Sterling a few days before.
When Shelly saw Donald's meandering interview with Cooper on CNN, in which he went from apologizing for his comments to insulting Magic Johnson and the black community, she returned to L.A. and suggested to him that he get checked out. He agreed, and on May 16 his friend Lawrence drove him to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he had CT and PET scans. Three days later, he was examined by a neurologist, Dr. Meril Sue Platzer, who put him through a standard mental status exam. She asked him to spell the word "world" backward. He could not. According to probate documents filed by Shelly, Sterling was also "unaware of the season and initially had difficulty drawing a clock," Platzer wrote in her report concluding that he had Alzheimer's.
Sterling got a second opinion from UCLA professor Dr. James Spar on May 22. The exam was conducted at the Sterlings' Beverly Hills home on the same day Shelly, Donald and their longtime personal attorney, Douglas Walton, decided they would sell the Clippers if they could get $2 billion for the team. Walton sent a letter to the NBA informing it of the arrangement between the Sterlings.
Spar confirmed Platzer's diagnosis after Sterling had difficulty performing several tests to measure his cognition, admitted he had trouble recalling words, names and streets, and said that "sometimes I get confused when I get off the elevator." Shelly sat with Donald as the doctor told him he indeed showed signs of Alzheimer's and had probably had it for at least three years. Donald seemed to listen but only nodded and said, "Oh, OK. I'm hungry. Can we go get something to eat?"
At the time, it was purely informational. Now that he'd been diagnosed, doctors could start treating it. But Sterling had a change of heart about the sale a few days later, declaring in statements released by his lawyer that he was being unfairly shoved out over an argument he'd had with a former mistress who might have been baiting him. He instructed Blecher -- the antitrust lawyer he had used back in the 1980s when he'd fought the NBA after moving the Clippers from San Diego to Los Angeles without approval -- to challenge the NBA's charges against him and, in Blecher's words, "draw your sword and slay the bastards."
The NBA pressed forward with its plans to hold a hearing on June 3, at which it planned to terminate both Sterlings' ownership interests. With the Alzheimer's diagnosis, Shelly's attorneys knew they had a trump card. If Donald were determined to be mentally incompetent, she could become the sole trustee of the Sterling Family Trust, which controlled the Clippers.
It might have been an option of last resort, but it wasn't just about Donald anymore. Their granddaughter was getting called names at school. Reporters were hounding family members, who were hurriedly changing cellphone numbers, trying to stay ahead of the pack. Eric Miller, Donald and Shelly's son-in-law who was being groomed to take over the Clippers one day, was so ashamed he barely came into the office.
Shelly pushed to sell the team to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer for $2 billion and indemnified the NBA against any future lawsuits from her husband. Donald could keep fighting, but the only one left to fight was Shelly. Even if he won his lawsuit seeking $1 billion in damages from the NBA, the indemnity meant either the Sterling Family Trust or Shelly herself would pay it. He was, in essence, suing himself.
Shelly signed the purchase agreement to sell the team to Ballmer late on the night of May 29 at her attorney's office. She rode down the elevator with him and got an exuberant bear hug from the big man whose rousing speeches and sweat-soaked shirts at corporate gatherings are the stuff of YouTube legend.
When they reached the ground floor, he called her "partner" and told her he'd take good care of the team. She could sit courtside at Staples and call herself the "Clippers' No. 1 fan." If they ever won an NBA title, she'd get three championship rings. And to make some good come from all this ugliness, they discussed plans for the franchise to start and fund a foundation to help underprivileged children and abused women in Los Angeles.
The NBA called off the hearing to terminate Sterling and began readying to stage a Finals rematch between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs.
Sterling's racist comments struck a deep chord with players around the NBA, and it echoed beyond the repugnance of his worldview. Still stung by the tremendous financial losses they suffered at the hands of league owners during the 2011 NBA lockout -- a lockout many see as a direct response to Miami's "Big Three" orchestrating moves independent of ownership authority -- players are acutely aware of negotiating their rights to self-determination and of having a say and a stake in future development of the league and its assets.
When Sterling told Stiviano that he supports his players and gives them "food, and clothes, and cars, and houses," and asked her, "Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game?" it cut straight to the heart of these issues. This was about more than racist language. It was about power. To Sterling, the players were kids he could parade onstage at a party at the Beverly Hills Hotel. And that is, of course, not how they see themselves. They are the talent. The product. The image. The stars. And not just for what they do on the basketball court. They are businessmen. They build their own brands. They market and sell themselves directly to sponsors. They communicate directly with fans.
"Players are far more in tune with owning themselves," Kobe Bryant said. "When [Sterling] said that, it cut deep into the spirit of progression for us. Sterling's point of view was horrible not only for the human race but also for the small world that touches so many globally through this game we call basketball. He stunted equality and black-eyed every owner of every business where the majority of his employees are minorities. He hurt our trust in owners as a whole."
[Sterling] stunted equality and black-eyed every owner of every business where the majority of his employees are minorities. He hurt our trust in owners as a whole." -- Kobe Bryant
On April 26, in the wake of the Sterling tapes going public, LeBron James told reporters gathered in Charlotte that, "there is no room for Donald Sterling in our league" and called on commissioner Silver to "make a stand." Two days later, he called Chris Paul, "just to let him know I was there if he needed me." This was his game. CP3 was his guy.
"I didn't really care if any other players spoke out," James said. "I was doing it because I felt like I needed to speak out. I'm still learning. I'm going to give back when I can. There's a group that's going to come behind me. There's a group that's going to come behind those guys. This beautiful game has to continue to flow the right way, and, where I can make an impact, I'm going to continue to do it."
Once James spoke, others did. Whether through social media or in front of cameras and microphones, NBA players came together in pushing for Sterling's ouster.
"Nothing has really happened like that," Heat teammate Chris Bosh said. "It hits home. And we felt a need to exercise our right to speak up about things, set the tone for other teams and show the young fellas out there, 'No, this isn't OK and we're going to say something about it.' Getting the word out.
"I think a part of it is technology -- social media -- and getting the word out. The Arab Spring kind of kicked all that off on a worldwide basis. After that, it's been like that all over."
Kevin Durant remembers once meeting Sterling at Nobu, an upscale sushi restaurant in Malibu. "He was as nice as can be," Durant said, shaking his head at the memory.
"He was out with his wife and kids."
At first, he struggled to reconcile news of the racist rant with the man he had met, but the more he thought about it, the angrier he grew. "I couldn't believe it happened," Durant said. "In this day and age, our country has moved so far from that, you know?"
For Durant, it was a moment to consider his own voice. Durant says he wasn't asked about the incident by Oklahoma City-area media in the days after Sterling's comments had gone viral. And in the aftermath of a damning "Mr. Unreliable" headline in the hometown paper after a painful playoff loss, his media sessions were particularly closely monitored and limited by Thunder PR staff. Durant is just 25 years old. On his way up, aspiring to the throne 29-year-old James and 35-year-old Bryant have each attained several times. "There's so many powerful figures out there," he said. "It's taken me a while to realize, not, like, the power that I have, but the platform."
He felt not only the platform but the need for solidarity. "We'll come together, as a league, as brothers," he said. And on May 6, feeling some new inkling of what he might be capable of, Durant delivered a powerful and personal acceptance speech upon winning the league MVP trophy. "The response I've gotten the last few days has been like overwhelming," he said. "I never even thought that could happen."
In the days after he first heard the Sterling tapes, Silver had spoken directly to Clippers coach Doc Rivers, James and Paul, among others, soliciting opinions on how -- not whether -- the league should move to exile Sterling. Once the Clippers' sponsors began running for the hills, the NBA had all the cause it needed to justify moving to terminate his ownership. Sterling hadn't just become morally intolerable, he'd become bad for business.
The modern NBA superstar has his salary capped at a figure well below what he is actually worth to his franchise. That's what the owners won in the lockout. The compromise they offered -- not explicitly but with a wink and a nod -- was that the money superstars were unable to realize in salary could be made up in endorsements later. In fact, the league encouraged and helped to facilitate those deals. Paul has become a popular pitchman for State Farm. James recently launched a personalized app through Samsung. Griffin has made a small fortune endorsing Kia Motors. All three companies also had sponsorship deals with the NBA.
Silver was earning high marks from NBA players for the decisive act of banning Sterling for life. Restoring the trust of players and fans (after the 2011 NBA lockout) had been a stated central tenet of his plans when he took over as commissioner on Feb. 1. Now, with the Sterling debacle, the NBA released a steady stream of announcements and updates, responding publicly to each move Sterling and his lawyers made. Transparency was more than a strategy. It was, for Silver, a new standard operating procedure.
There had been little support for the franchise's rank and file in the aftermath of the scandal, however. Clippers HR director Raymond Ortegaso called Rivers and the league office to tell them many Clippers employees were in tears. They had been listening to irate callers yelling about how offended they'd been by Sterling's comments. Some were season-ticket holders. Some were fans. All were looking to vent.
On Saturday, May 3, deputy NBA commissioner Mark Tatum flew to L.A. and met with a group of about 70 Clippers employees. He brought corporate grief counselors; he opened the floor for questions. Roeser, a Sterling man, was placed on an indefinite leave of absence some 72 hours later. Over the next 10 days, Tatum would fly between New York and L.A. three times to deliver updates in person. If people were going to stay together, they had to be kept together.
Clippers players and coaches, meanwhile, had asked Rivers to speak for them throughout the Sterling episode. He was their human shield. "It was his voice, but it was the accumulation of all of our thoughts," says Rivers' longtime assistant Kevin Eastman. "You can't all of a sudden put your chest out there and say I'm going to lead this charge. The best leaders, they're just leaders." There was talk at the time that Rivers should receive a share in the team's next ownership structure.
But leading came at a price. Eastman noticed the strain in his body language. Rivers prides himself on reading the movements of his players. If he sees they are tired at a practice, he sends them home. If he sees they are tight, he'll force them out of it. Now he was the one flagging. But he didn't have time to be tired. "I feel like I'm going to gain 40 pounds," Rivers said later. He cut out nonessential phone calls, leaning only on his mother, his brother and his mentor, Wayne Embry. "There's no playbook here."
When the Clippers were eliminated by Oklahoma City in the second round of the playoffs, their emotions burst through. "The locker room was not very good after the game, in a very sad way," Rivers said at the time. They had ended their season short of where they'd hoped to finish. Still, in the chaos Rivers saw opportunity -- and the initial stirrings of a comeback. "A lot of stuff went wrong for us, and we just kept going. Early in the year, I heard 'Clipper Basketball,' I was like, 'What the hell is that?!' [Now] we're trying to figure out what that is."
It was understood from the beginning that a buyer for the Clippers needed to be liquid enough to write one big check. With a net worth of over $20 billion, Ballmer fit the bill. The former tech titan was used to making huge moves on startups in a short period of time. Because of the exploding values of television and digital rights fees, the NBA finds itself at the beginning of a new bubble. Nobody quite knows what's beyond the horizon, but it feels massive. All the bidders could sense the untapped value. Ballmer seized on it. He met Shelly Sterling on a Sunday and had bought the team by Thursday.
Sterling always moved at a different pace. He spent his weekends sunning himself in the cabanas at the Beverly Hills Hotel or his beach house, reading the print edition of the Los Angeles Times. There weren't many ways to reach him, even if the business were urgent. An executive tells stories from over the years about walking the strand of beach in front of Sterling's Malibu place, waiting until he came outside on the deck in the afternoon. If you were lucky, he came out wearing clothes. "Donald is an anachronism," one longtime Clippers staffer says. "He was kind of a victim of his own insulation."
When the tidal wave came after the TMZ story, he never saw it coming.
Men like Sterling and former Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss, who both made their fortunes buying up property around Los Angeles when it was cheap, were owners in an era that is coming to a close. They bought sports franchises to entertain themselves. They held court at games. As self-made men, they answered to no one. For many years, there were no corporate boards to censure them or to disapprove of their eccentricities.
Buss, whom Sterling had always seen as a rival until Buss' death last year, spent lavishly, won 10 NBA titles in his 34 years as owner of the Lakers and became one of the most popular owners of all time.
Sterling, meanwhile, pinched pennies, made the playoffs just seven times and became one of the most reviled owners in sports. Buss glittered, Sterling never did.
For three decades, Sterling's teams had been generally awful and easily ignored. He took the quiet as acceptance of his boorish behavior, and he took the profits as validation of his approach. "People say, 'How come you guys didn't do anything about him before?'" one longtime NBA owner says. "Honestly, he was kind of like the class clown. Nobody took him seriously." But now -- finally -- the league was taking Sterling seriously. There would be no bend on its lifetime ban, no path for him to save face or come back. Sterling was cornered. But getting him to accept that was not going to be easy.
The NBA had tried to get rid of Sterling in 1982 when he tried to move the team from San Diego to L.A. without securing league approval. There were also unpaid hotel bills, late payments to players and vendors, and a public admission that the Clippers needed to finish last to draft Virginia's Ralph Sampson at No. 1. A committee of six owners voted to terminate his ownership. A full hearing and a vote from the league's advisory and finance committee was needed to complete the process.
But the vote never happened. Sterling said he was sorry, stalled for a while by saying he would look to sell the team, then did as then-deputy commissioner David Stern suggested and hired well-respected executive Alan Rothenberg to straighten things out.
"It was an earlier time," said Rothenberg, who went on to become president of U.S. Soccer and was instrumental in the U.S. hosting of the 1994 World Cup. "It was not the fantastically successful league it is now. There were a lot of people who were scrambling then."
Emboldened by his friend Al Davis' victory in an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL that allowed him to leave Oakland for Los Angeles without league approval, Sterling moved the Clippers in 1984. This time, he hired Blecher -- yes, the same Blecher -- and sued the NBA for $100 million for objecting to the move.
It was a mess. The league had neither the stomach nor the means to fight an antitrust case it might well lose. If Sterling won, the entire league might collapse. After a few years in court, the NBA and Sterling settled. There was no getting rid of him. But at least the NBA rarely had to see him.
Many people tell you the same detail about meeting Sterling: He likes to grab the crook of your elbow when he's making a point. He does not let go easily. It's more creepy than endearing. One noted NBA agent recalls Sterling grabbing one of his biceps, saying, "You're so strong." A longtime owner says Sterling once came up to him during a cocktail party at an NBA Board of Governors meeting and stuck his hand inside his shirt to feel his chest muscle. "It's the only time in my life I said to anyone, 'Take your hands off me or I'll punch you in the face,'" the owner says. Sterling backed away. He did not apologize.
He did what he thought he could get away with. In a late, strange public relations grab on June 1, Sterling went to a black church in downtown L.A. with a pack of attractive young women. The congregants prayed for him. The pastor called out to him from the pulpit. News cameras trailed him. Afterward, Sterling took the women out for dinner in Santa Monica. He had the lobster.
Two days later, he told a local NBC reporter, "Everything is just the way it should be, really. It may have worked out differently, but it's good. It's all good." Blecher sent an email saying Sterling would agree to the Ballmer sale and withdraw his suit against the NBA.
And then he didn't.
He never signed the settlement papers. He simply changed his course. He told his lawyers to fight for his claim to ownership and start digging up dirt on the NBA and his fellow owners.
There would be no financial payoff to his lawsuit. Even if he won, Shelly would pay. The league would simply resume termination proceedings if the sale to Ballmer were to fall through. It wasn't clear what his end game was.
The NBA played on. The Spurs won the title in five games over the Heat. Silver handed the championship trophy to Spurs owner Peter Holt on Sunday. The next day, the Clippers announced Rivers as their new president.
Outside Sterling's circle, it made no sense. Those closest to the man say he just can't give up the fight. "If the league had reached out to him and said, 'Let's work something out...,' I think it's possible he would have changed his mind," Blecher says. "But they didn't ... so he wanted to fight for his dignity."
The life Donald Sterling once led is just 300 yards up the road from his home, across Sunset Boulevard. Like hell if they think they can keep him from making his way back there.