First chaos, then clarity
Five days inside the Clippers organization during the Donald Sterling scandal
C.J. Paul has seen a lot through the years. As manager for his brother Chris' basketball and business interests, he was there when the Hornets relocated to Oklahoma City for the two years after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. He was there when the NBA took control of the team a few years later, after owner George Shinn could no longer afford it. And he was there when former commissioner David Stern vetoed his brother's trade to the Lakers and "a week later you're going to the Clippers," he remembers with a smile and a shake of his head.
But nothing could have prepared him for what happened last weekend in San Francisco. Like many people close to the Clippers, Paul had heard on Thursday that TMZ was about to run a story that would be very damaging for team owner Donald Sterling. Nobody quite knew what was in the story, or just how bad it would be, but it was dropping soon, playoffs be damned. Had Sterling said something embarrassing or racially insulting again? Was it an affair or some kind of sex scandal? Was it another case of his not paying one of the coaches or general managers he'd fired in the past? Perhaps a hidden debt had surfaced -- one staffer tells a story of the time the Clippers' old practice facility at L.A. Southwest College had been locked up because Sterling hadn't paid rent in so long.
When you play for the Clippers, you learn to live with Sterling and his history. You tell yourself you play for the city of Los Angeles, your teammates and the fans. He's the guy who signs the checks, and hopefully stays out of the way. It doesn't always sit well. Your stomach's never really settled. But over time the queasiness either goes away or you shove it down deep and resolve to deal with it later.
C.J. Paul was in his room at the Four Seasons in San Francisco on April 25 when the Sterling story broke around 10 p.m. Chris Paul was across the hall, in his room, getting ready for bed. The Clippers had an early practice scheduled in the morning. But this couldn't wait. C.J. called his brother and told him he needed to read the story immediately. There, for the world to see and hear, were transcriptions and audio recordings of Sterling articulating an archaic, racist worldview to a woman named V. Stiviano. (She'd once introduced herself to C.J. as Sterling's assistant.)
"It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you're associating with black people. Do you have to?" Sterling asks the woman. "You can sleep with them. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not promote it ... and don't bring them to my games."
"When we first came here, we'd heard stories," C.J. Paul said. "But it's one thing to hear stories, and it's another thing to hear them.
"This is by far the worst, of everything that's happened to us in the last nine years. Katrina, living in Oklahoma City for two years, then the team gets taken over by the NBA, then you think we're going to the Lakers and a week later we're going to the Clippers.
"But this... You just never think you have to put up with something like that... For that to happen is just... That is personal."
'Unless you're in it, you don't know'
Chris and C.J. didn't sleep much. By Saturday morning, Chris was on the phone with NBA commissioner Adam Silver and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, the acting director of the NBA Players Association. His teammates were furious - angry at Sterling for what he'd said and also for the way the news was disrupting their season at its most important moment.
Paul is a natural leader. Student body president in high school, captain of every team he ever played on, organizer of his 10-year high school reunion. If there's a void, he steps into it. But this was too big a rip in the fabric of the NBA for one man to sew up. And he had a playoff game in 24 hours. He leaned on Johnson and on his brother for help. They called an early Saturday morning players meeting at the Clippers' team hotel. Most of them had barely slept. Players from around the league were texting them at all hours, telling them what they would do. That the Clippers should boycott, sit out, protest, anything to express the collective outrage they were all feeling.
"I think every player probably got at least one text or one call that said, 'You guys shouldn't play.' I got texts saying they shouldn't play," C.J. Paul said. "But my thing is, 'Unless you're in it, you don't know.'
You don't know, because you haven't been in the fight with the Clippers all season. Their championship dreams are their own. The peace they'd all made with playing for and taking a check from Sterling was their own, too. "They didn't want to not play," one Clippers staffer said. "They worked their ass off to get there." This was Sterling's mess, not theirs. Why should they have to throw away their season?
Still, they couldn't carry on as if nothing had happened. This couldn't be tolerated. A message had to be sent. For them, for their fellow players around the league, for anyone, they thought, who has ever felt the unmistakable blow of racist language. All day Saturday, they held meetings, some formal, some informal. They texted and called each other. In between, they held a brief practice at a gym on the University of San Francisco campus, mostly just to break a sweat and get some shots up. The one thing they all agreed on was that Clippers coach Doc Rivers should be their voice.
"They're young men," Rivers said. "It shouldn't be African-American men. We have two white guys. It's about being human. No one was happy about it. J.J. Redick was just as pissed as Chris Paul, and that's the way it should be.
"Having said that, our goal is to win the NBA title and we're not going to let anything stand in the way of that. That's adversity that we didn't want but we have it and we have to deal with it and we'll deal with it internally but we're not going to share it with anybody else."
A commissioner's defining moment
There was no time to prepare for facing the Golden State Warriors in Game 4 on Sunday afternoon. One player estimated the team spent less than half an hour discussing the adjustments the players needed to make from Game 3. Another team insider said it was probably even less than that.
TMZ cameramen and reporters had swarmed the lobby, having booked several rooms at the Four Seasons so they could legally be inside the private property. Outside was even more chaotic. The whole world wanted a reaction. Clippers team security advised players and staffers to stay inside their hotel rooms as much as possible. They were on lockdown.
Across the country, Silver was facing his first real crisis since taking over as commissioner on Feb. 1. A lawyer by trade, his first inclination was to get all the facts. He was in discovery mode: set your emotions aside, clear your head, then assess. His mentor and predecessor, David Stern, was famously hot-tempered and quick to speak. Silver is different. "Adam's never going to yell," one associate said. "If his voice raises, it's only for emphasis. Not to yell."
But make no mistake, Sterling's comments had Silver angry. He might not have Stern's hair trigger, but they share a strong sense of morality and social justice. This went against all of Silver's principles. As he would put it later, "I think my response was as a human being, and I used the word distraught." Within hours, he had tasked investigator David Anders from the law firm Wachtell Lipton with authenticating the tapes and gathering information about how they were made and disseminated. If it was Sterling on those tapes, if they hadn't been doctored or altered, Silver knew he wanted to punish him severely.
Silver had already planned to travel to Memphis and to speak to the media there before the Grizzlies' playoff game against the Thunder. He then planned to attend the Clippers' game in Oakland on Sunday afternoon and the Rockets' game in Portland on Sunday night, before traveling back to New York on Monday. You make the rounds when you're the new guy. Let everyone see you and say what they need to say to you. The schedule ended up being fortuitous. He could speak to players, owners and team officials along the way, communicate that this wasn't going to be brushed aside as other Sterling offenses might have been, tell them he was taking it seriously and something would be done.
He encountered widespread, long-simmering frustration. For years, many in the league had felt there was nothing that could be done about Sterling. He owned the team and the contracts. He had money, lawyers, and a staggeringly self-delusional lack of shame and restraint. But you simply shouldn't be allowed to say things like he said when you own a team in a league that's mostly African-American. No, it was bigger than that. You shouldn't be able to talk about other human beings like that at all. By the time he had confirmation that the voice on the tape was indeed Sterling's, Silver knew Sterling had to go. He also knew he wasn't going to go easily.
Silver's first remarks Saturday were those of a lawyer. He was cautious with his words, saying only as much as he knew to be true at the time. Had this news conference not been scheduled long in advance, Silver likely would have waited until he'd had a chance to gather more facts. But canceling wasn't an option. The world needed to hear him.
Although he expressed outrage at Sterling's remarks, Silver also reminded people that even the disgraced deserve due process. Not everyone was impressed. Some said he came off as timid, or bookish. It folded into the narrative of a longtime apprentice, not quite ready to stand on his own yet. But those who knew him best were unfazed. Silver had earned the respect of the owners during the 2011 NBA lockout. In fact, many of them had wanted him to succeed Stern much sooner. Over the next 24 hours, half a dozen owners issued statements condemning the purported remarks of Sterling, and expressing their faith in Silver to act on it. "We trust Adam," one owner said in the hours leading up to his announcement of Sterling's ban.
The statement he would issue Tuesday had to be delivered, not read. It was a moment for an orator, not a lawyer. The nation was listening. Silver began slowly, reading the remarks he had prepared line by line. Then he looked up and delivered the line: "Effective immediately, I am banning Mr. Sterling for life." A seasoned actor could not have performed it better. It was forceful. It was healing. It was his moment.
"You gotta give Adam a lot of credit," one Clippers staffer said. "I didn't know if he had it in him."
A tone-deaf response
It's funny what ends up getting you in the end. Al Capone went down for tax evasion. Richard Nixon fell because his paranoia drove him to record everything. The tapes of Donald Sterling became public because he and his wife sue to get what they want, knowing most people don't have the means to fight back.
The woman in the tapes, V. Stiviano, worked as his assistant for four years. They'd met at the Super Bowl one year, hit it off and grew closer. She traveled with him, went to meetings with him and was paid a salary. Although she denies that they had a romantic relationship, Sterling is described in court papers by her attorney as "a highly public figure who is well known to be 'keeping women' other than his wife and who has done so for very many years with a big toothy grin brandishing his sexual prowess in the faces of the Paparazzi and caring less of what anyone thought, the least of which, his own wife."
Sterling lavished gifts on Stiviano over their four-year relationship, including a 2013 Range Rover, a 2012 Ferrari and two Bentleys. He paid her rent. He bought her jewelry. And, on March 7 of this year, Sterling's wife, Shelly Sterling, sued her to get it all back.
Stiviano lawyered up. Her attorneys filed a response to the civil suit, asking that the case be dismissed on April 21. Instead, Shelly Sterling's attorneys requested that Stiviano turn over all tapes and recordings made of herself and Sterling. The law compelled her to do so.
Four days later, the tapes surfaced publicly on TMZ.
On Monday of this week, Stiviano met with NBA investigator Anders and verified that she and Sterling were indeed the ones on the tape, which was recorded in September. She told them that Sterling knew he was being recorded and that they often taped conversations because Sterling, who sources say has been battling cancer in recent years, forgets things, and explained that part of her job was to help coach him on his image. On one of the tapes, a third person is heard in the background. The NBA also interviewed that third person before Silver made his ruling Tuesday, a fact that could be important later if the legality of the tapes is questioned.
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 »
Sterling also spoke to Anders by phone and confirmed that it was his voice on the tapes. Clippers team president Andy Roeser met with Anders, as well. Silver kept in constant contact with Anders throughout his investigation. He also consulted with several owners as he deliberated. Time was of the essence. The scandal was dwarfing everything, including an exciting, hard-fought first round of the playoffs as well as announcements of the league's postseason awards (which were postponed this week). The greatest part of the NBA season was being sullied.
Sterling never seemed to fully understand that the walls were caving in on him. Saturday was his 80th birthday. He and his wife stayed in San Francisco the entire weekend. He was planning to go to the game on Sunday until Silver called on Saturday and asked him not to. Shelly sat courtside and later flew home on the team plane. Sterling and Roeser, who has worked for him for over 30 years -- first at his real estate corporation, then with the Clippers, watched the game together in San Francisco.
Roeser was in an impossible position. On the one hand, his job was to serve and counsel his boss. On the other, he knew what his boss had done and said was deplorable. Roeser hired an outside consultant to help craft a statement to respond to the tapes on Saturday. They discussed and weighed three different messages. The first was to cop to everything. Say that Sterling was sick, that he needed help, that he apologized and felt terrible for offending anyone. The second was to dispute the veracity of the tapes, question the motives of the woman on the tapes and why they were released, and argue that what's said on them misrepresents Sterling's true feelings. The third was to say very little except that the team would cooperate with the NBA investigation. Roeser felt the third message was the best option. Sterling did not. They went with defiance, and they stuck Roeser's name on it.
"We have heard the tape on TMZ. We do not know if it is legitimate or it has been altered," the statement read. "We do know that the woman on the tape -- who we believe released it to TMZ -- is the defendant in a lawsuit brought by the Sterling family alleging that she embezzled more than $1.8 million, who told Mr. Sterling that she would 'get even.' Mr. Sterling is emphatic that what is reflected on that recording is not consistent with, nor does it reflect his views, beliefs or feelings. It is the antithesis of who he is, what he believes and how he has lived his life. He feels terrible that such sentiments are being attributed to him and apologizes to anyone who might have been hurt by them. He is also upset and apologizes for sentiments attributed to him about Earvin Johnson. He has long considered Magic a friend and has only the utmost respect and admiration for him -- both in terms of who he is and what he has achieved. We are investigating this matter."
It was profoundly tone-deaf and widely decried. Rivers was furious that the statement had been attributed to and released by a representative of the organization for which he served as senior vice president of basketball operations. It expressed a position neither he nor any of the people he knew who worked for the Clippers -- including, of course, the players -- held.
It served as a breaking point for all of them. Over the next 24 hours, all the people who worked for the Clippers began to distance themselves from Sterling. The team's public relations staffers did whatever they could to protect the players. Extra security was called in as tensions outside the hotel and the arena escalated. They were hearing very little from the league at this point. "We were kinda operating as a rogue franchise," one team official said.
Roeser was always going to be the last one off the boat. After watching the game with Sterling on Sunday afternoon, he flew home with him to Los Angeles on a commercial flight.
Jimmy Goldstein, the famously ostentatious NBA fan seen sitting courtside in leather pants and wild jackets at games all over the country, was on the same flight from Oakland after the game.
"Donald was on the phone when I got on," Goldstein said. "So I didn't have to talk to him."
Too much, too soon
The Clippers never had much of a chance in Game 4. They basically just showed up to play.
Before the game, Matt Barnes had come up with the idea of turning their warm-up jerseys inside out as a statement against Sterling. Jamal Crawford came up with the idea of wearing black socks and armbands. Other teams followed suit that night to show their support. Kevin Johnson and the players' union prepared to take concerted action if Silver did not act quickly and decisively to punish Sterling. Team and league sponsors began running for the hills. Boycotts were discussed for Tuesday night's playoff games if Sterling were still in power by then.
The pregame gesture was both inspiring and overwhelming, but within minutes, it was clear the moment was too much for the Clippers to carry alone. The Warriors thumped them 118-97.
Afterward, former Clippers guard Baron Davis visited the team's locker room. He had gone to the game to cheer on the Warriors, the team with which he'd had his best years as a pro. But he wanted to check in on his former teammates in L.A., Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, too.
Davis' time with the Clippers was a nightmare. Sterling heckled him from the sideline, mocking him, cursing at him, embarrassing and belittling him. Davis was the most expensive star player Sterling had signed at the time, and, when he didn't perform the way Sterling had hoped, the owner wanted to get rid of him. Throughout Davis' time with the Clippers there were whispers that Sterling was looking for ways to invalidate Davis' contract. No one would confirm the rumors at the time, and eventually the Clippers just traded Davis to Cleveland, giving up an unprotected first-round pick -- which turned into Kyrie Irving -- in the deal. Sterling wanted him gone, so it was done.
Davis declined to comment for this story. He had done a podcast for Grantland five days before the TMZ report which was played in the immediate aftermath of the scandal as reaction. But that was the least of it. Sterling broke Davis -- his spirit, his love for the game -- for a time. He was never the same player after his time in L.A. It's still hard to talk about it.
One day he'll speak his truth. Tell people how deep this issue really is. Explain that it can't be fixed in three days, no matter how decisive the commissioner's decision. Everyone grabbing a microphone right now is outraged by what they heard on a tape. Davis lived it.
'We Are One'
Rivers gave the Clippers the day off on Monday, although most players came in for treatment or a workout anyway. The team's media relations staff canceled all player availability. You're not supposed to do that in the playoffs, but at that point all that mattered was protecting the players. Go ahead, fine them.
On Tuesday, the team gathered for its customary gameday shootaround at 10 a.m. PT. Silver's ruling and news conference was set for 11 a.m.
The Clippers did not watch.
After 72 hours of chaos, Rivers brought the focus back to basketball. This was their team now, not Sterling's. This was their playoff series, their Game 5, their championship dream.
A league representative called Roeser a few minutes before 11 to inform him that Sterling would be banned for life from the NBA and fined the maximum $2.5 million and that Silver would be urging the league's board of governors to move quickly to strip him of his ownership and force a sale. Roeser quickly wrote up a note and had it delivered to Rivers down on the practice court. Rivers opened it, read it and put it in his pocket. The Clippers continued with their practice.
The Warriors were the enemy again. Basketball was what mattered.
Outside, cars honked their horns as they drove by the Clippers' facility. It felt like one of those days the whole city was watching and waiting on the same thing together. Like when the verdict in a huge celebrity trial is read or election results are announced. People in Los Angeles are used to being disappointed on days like this. The cops who beat up Rodney King were acquitted, and the city rioted. But on this day, Silver gave the people what they wanted.
"Adam did react swiftly, and it was a great day for everyone," Paul said. "We're happy about moving forward. ... It seemed like a burden was lifted off of everybody and we could get back to playing basketball."
The Clippers won going away 113-103.
Near the end of the game, Rivers walked along the Clippers' bench, giving each one of his players a high-five. At the end of a very long week, he allowed himself a moment to enjoy it. His focus had been entirely on his players -- on protecting them, supporting them, fighting for them. Now, he allowed himself a little fist pump. Like Tiger Woods sinking a long putt. This felt good.
It had been a bizarre night. Protests had been planned, then canceled after Silver brought down the hammer. Sponsors had canceled or suspended their associations with the team, so the entire arena had been tarped in Clipper blue. Instead of advertisements, one message remained on the scoreboards throughout the game.
"We Are One."
Every Clippers staffer, from general manager Gary Sacks to the team's PR staff, had dressed in black to show unity. Fans wearing T-shirts with a line through Sterling's face were shown on the video board.
"We might just keep it that way," one Clippers official said. "I thought it was an incredible in-game atmosphere."
C.J. Paul lingered awhile after the game, chatting with friends. He was drained. They all were.
After 45 minutes, arena personnel started taking down the Clippers banners, revealing the old ads underneath. The moment was passing. But the world had changed.
"I'm going to be real: We've been here for, what, three years? I haven't talked to Donald Sterling once. Not one time," C.J. Paul said. "When Chris got traded here, we didn't come here for Donald Sterling. We came to win a championship for Los Angeles."
Roeser called Sterling to tell him Silver was banning him from the NBA for life. It was a short call.
Roeser and Shelly Sterling are the two alternate governors for the Clippers, and for the time being Roeser will run the day-to-day operations of the team. But the NBA will act swiftly, likely appointing a trustee to oversee the team and moving to force a sale quickly. Those who know Sterling expect him to fight in court.
"Knowing him, I would think the first thing is, 'How do I fight it? What is the legal strategy here?'" said Steve Soboroff, a civic leader, a longtime Clippers season-ticket holder and the driving force behind the building of Staples Center in Los Angeles.
"Sterling has never sold anything. I don't even think he sells his used cars. So this is against his nature. But I believe the way they set it up, so strongly, that he can't even make decisions having to do with money, having to do with the team, that he cannot continue to own it and eventually he'll see that.
"When he sees that, that he is banned, he'll realize the sooner he gets rid of it, the better it will be for him. And that's what he's always concerned about."
Sterling was at his home in Beverly Hills when Roeser called Tuesday morning. He owns two mansions in Los Angeles. The other is in Malibu, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Sterling's parties are legendary in Los Angeles. Every September he throws a "White Party" at the house in Malibu. Guests are told to wear white -- a fashion faux pas after Labor Day. Sterling is the only one in black. He hires gorgeous hostesses to entertain and serve at these parties. He tells his players to attend, as well, so his guests can meet them and take pictures. As always, they are part of the entertainment provided by the gracious host. He liked to be called Mr. Sterling. Loved to be the center of attention.
But when the end came for Donald Sterling, he was alone. There was no party. There were no guests. There was only a phone call and the guy he had paid for 30 years to serve him saying he'd been kicked out of the league.
"It's hard to have a moral compass as an owner," said a longtime Clippers employee. "There's no one there to check you except the other owners."
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