By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
MEMPHIS – Calling racist remarks allegedly made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling “truly offensive and disturbing,” new NBA commissioner Adam Silver Saturday pledged an “extraordinarily” swift yet thorough investigation that could be completed by Tuesday.
Meeting with reporters before Game 4 of the Grizzlies-Thunder series at FedEx Forum, with the news conference carried live on NBA TV, Silver said Sterling had agreed not to attend his team’s playoff game Sunday as the league conducts its investigation. The commissioner indicated that the process – focused on a covert audio recording obtained by TMZ of a conversation between Sterling and a woman identified as his girlfriend – could be wrapped up by the time the Clippers and Warriors meet again for Game 5 at Staples Center in L.A.
Acknowledging the anger and disgust that swept through the NBA and the sports world Saturday, Silver spoke of broad powers in place under the NBA’s constitution and by-laws that include a range of sanctions. “All those will be considered depending on the findings of our investigation,” Silver said.
An NBA spokesperson would not comment on specifics of the sanctions. Possible penalties presumably include fines and suspensions, but the NBA’s constitution and its bylaws are not public documents, and it is unknown whether the commissioner or the other owners are empowered, for instance, to force Sterling to sell his franchise.
Sterling, a real estate mogul who has owned the Clippers since 1981 and is the league’s longest-tenured owner, was identified as the man on the audio recording telling his girlfriend not to bring black people to games. The woman on the tape, according to TMZ, was identified as V. Stiviano, who allegedly posted a picture of herself with Lakers Hall of Famer Magic Johnson on Instagram – a photo that has since been removed.
“It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people,” the man on the recording says, according to a Los Angeles Times story. He adds later: “I’m just saying, in your … Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with, walking with black people. Don’t put him on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me. And don’t bring him to my games.”
While the tape itself might have been illegally procured and the NBA wants to heed due process, Silver said that Sterling’s cooperation in not attending Sunday’s game at Oracle Arena in Oakland and the urgency driving the investigation made it unnecessary to suspend the Clippers owner in the meantime (assuming Silver or the other owners have that power).
The limited number of moving parts in the investigation is what might allow for a quick resolution. Said Silver: “The core of the investigation is understanding whether the tape is authentic, interviewing Mr. Sterling, potentially interviewing the woman as well, and understanding the context in which hit was recorded.”
Clippers president Andy Roeser issued a statement about the recording.
“We have heard the tape on TMZ. We do not know if it is legitimate or it has been altered,” Roeser said. “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.”
The statement said the Clippers are investigating the matter too, and apologized on Sterling’s behalf specifically to Johnson, who reacted angrily to the recording in a series of posts on Twitter. Johnson said he and wife Cookie would no longer attend Clippers games and called Sterling “a black eye” for the NBA.
Rochelle Sterling, the owner’s wife, filed a lawsuit last month against Stiviano, CBS reported. It alleged that she had an affair with her husband and sought money and possessions apparently given to Stiviano that by California law would be the Sterlings’ community property.
Sterling, 80, has a history of controversial behavior and incidents related to race. In 2003, he was sued for discrimination by tenants of his rental properties and by the nonprofit Housing Rights Center. Three years later, the real estate mogul was sued in U.S. District Court for refusing to rent based on rent and national origin in the Koreatown section of Los Angeles. He agreed in 2009 to pay $2.73 million to settle that lawsuit.
Ironically, that same year, Sterling was presented with a lifetime achievement award from the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP.
In November 2010, Elgin Baylor, another former Lakers legend and Hall of Famer who served as the Clippers’ general manager from 1986 to 2008, named Sterling in an age and racial discrimination suit. Baylor’s claims – including allegations that the owner would bring guests into the locker room and make inappropriate comments about the players’ bodies – eventually were rejected by a jury.
Sterling was not sanctioned by the NBA for those past transgressions, and Silver said they are not part of this investigation.
The recent comments attributed to Sterling, combined with his reputation, sparked a rapid and in many cases harsh reaction among some of the league’s players and coaches, though few had actually heard the comments.
LeBron James called the comments on the tape “appalling” and “there’s no room for Donald Sterling in the NBA.” The Miami Heat superstar added that he wasn’t sure he would participate for the remainder of the playoffs if he played for the Clippers.
“Obviously, if the reports are true it’s unacceptable in our league,” James told reporters before his team’s game in Charlotte. “It doesn’t matter, white, black or Hispanic – all across the races it’s unacceptable. [The commissioner has] to be very aggressive with it. I don’t know what it will be, but we can’t have that in our league.”
Doc Rivers, the Clippers coach, was angry about having this controversy erupt in the midst of the playoffs, while point guard Chris Paul has concerns both individually and as the president of the NBA Players Association.
Silver spoke to Rivers and Paul Saturday, and said at the news confernce: “I personally think the situation is most unfair to the Clippers’ players and coaches, who have to deal with this distraction in the middle of their own highly competitive playoff series.”
Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson, a former all-NBA player who has been assisting the players union in its search for a new executive direction, just got busier. He has been asked by Paul and the union to represent their interests in this matter as well.
“He expressed the players’ grave concerns over this matter,” Silver said, “and we have agreed to remain in close contact.”
Indiana Pacers forward David West, whose team played in Atlanta in the afternoon, issued a series of Tweets in a back-and-forth with followers on the social media site. A pair of West’s Tweets read:
All this sterling outrage speaks to how naive and gullible folks have become about race
— David West (@D_West30) April 26, 2014
Folks buying into this post-racial society mythology
— David West (@D_West30) April 26, 2014
San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich‘s reaction was as terse as a third-quarter sideline interview. “Obviously, those comments were disgusting,” Popovich said before the Spurs-Mavericks game in Dallas.
Mavs owner Mark Cuban, who has paid millions in fines for criticism of referees and other league policies, largely stayed out of this fray. “There’s no reason to restate or rehash the obvious. Some things are better where the comments just stand on their own and people come to their own conclusions on that.”
Silver, wrapping up his third month since taking over Feb. 1 for David Stern (who spent three decades in the position), was making his first visit to Memphis as commissioner. He had planned to talk about the excitement and competitiveness of the postseason so far, along with a different sort of bad news – he learned Saturday that former Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley passed away after a long illness.
A week ago, Silver presided over an upbeat Board of Governors meeting in which a new lucrative floor for the league’s franchise values was established – the small-market Milwaukee Bucks are being purchased for a reported $550 million – and much of the attention focused on tweaks to the game and continued revenue growth. With an enhanced revenue-sharing plan in place and a collective bargaining agreement with the players union in place at least until July 2017, times have been good.
This represents his first real crisis of his administration. How he and the NBA handle it could set a tone for player and public relations for his tenure.
As for race relations generally within the NBA, Silver said he remains proud of the league and its many constituents.
“I’m extraordinarily proud of the relations we have in this league with each other, among various ethnic groups, various nationalities,” the commissioner said. “We have an extraordinary number of international players who play in this league, and I think our track record is stellar.
“While I understand anger that would be naturally expressed over hearing a tape like this, I also believe that ultimately the players and the rest of the NBA family has confidence that we’ll deal with it appropriately.”