By David Aldridge, TNT
Adam Silver was already a long, lanky fellow before Tuesday afternoon. He stood even taller a few minutes after 2 p.m. Eastern.
Speaking powerfully, with clear anger breaking through, Silver both protected the league he has been charged to lead, and stood tall on his own, shaping his own destiny separate that of his historic predecessor, David Stern. Silver’s decision to ban L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling from the league for life sent as strong as message as the NBA could send for its longest-tenured owner—running a franchise is a privilege, not a right.
But Silver and the NBA’s attorneys will be attempting to thread a very small needle in trying to compel Sterling to sell.
There is no doubt that Silver already knew he has the 3/4ths majority vote needed to try and force Sterling to sell the team in his back pocket before he took the stage in New York. There’s “no way,” a senior team executive said Tuesday, that an owner would side with Sterling, knowing the vote would surely be made public within minutes of it being taken.
One owner said Tuesday afternoon he hopes the vote will be taken “hopefully before [the] July scheduled meeting” of the Board of Governors, but if not, it will definitely be addressed at that July meeting.
But the NBA will still, apparently, be looking to remove Sterling under Article 13 of its constitution, which only covers actions such as willfully violating the league’s constitution or bylaws, failure to pay dues, being found guilty of attempting to fix games, amassing huge gambling debts, or disbanding the team during a season.
Did Sterling “willfully violate the constitution or bylaws” by what he said?
And Sterling will surely not go gently into that good night.
He has spent much of his tenure as Clippers owner in court against former employees, from Bill Fitch to Mike Dunleavy to Elgin Baylor, as well as defending himself against lawsuits from aggrieved women and tenants at his housing projects. Rarely has he been outright defeated, often settling with parties with the condition there be no finding of guilt assigned to him.
It is certainly possible, many league observers believe, that Donald Sterling could cede operational control of the team to his estranged wife, Shelly, who has been as avid a fan of the team as he has. However, the status of their relationship is, at best, in question, given the fact that the recording that brought Sterling down was between him and his girlfriend. The Sterlings are not divorced.
There was, to be sure, more than a dollop of damage control in Silver’s words. The NBA was facing a mutiny of players, both among the Clippers and around the league, during its playoffs if Sterling wasn’t punished as severely as he was. Fifteen advertisers and corporate sponsors had already pulled out from or suspended their business arrangements with the team, and the prospect of long and drawn out protests, not only outside Staples Center but at other venues, was likely.
Players around the league were waiting to see what Silver would do, and how he would do it.
“Sterling’s remarks were appalling and odious,” said Arn Tellem, whose firm is the top player agency. “They brought the game into disrepute. He debased the game and African Americans … the most important thing is the punishment meted out by Adam Silver is the decisive declaration of racial justice that the country deserves to hear.”
And Silver, as his opening remarks made clear, had to make his decision in the midst of the historical record the NBA had with regard to not only minority players, but minority coaches, executives — and, now, owners.
The National Basketball Players Association, according to at least one source Tuesday, was attempting to get all players to commit to boycotting Tuesday’s playoff games in Chicago, with the Bulls and Wizards, and in Oklahoma City, with the Thunder and Grizzlies, as well as in Los Angeles. Whether it would have succeeded remains up in the air, but it’s a moot point now.
The Clippers’ players were, as you could understand, relieved — though one Tuesday afternoon still wondered and worried how long Sterling would remain owner.
It will not be an easy process.
Removal of an owner under the NBA’s constitution and bylaws falls under Section 14, “Procedure For Termination.” The procedure begins with a charge filed against the owner, in this case, Sterling, by another owner or by Silver. The league must present Sterling with the charges within three days of filing them against him. He then has up to five days to respond after receiving the charge. A special meeting of the Board of Governors would then be called not more than 10 days after Sterling officially answered the charges.
If Sterling ignored the charges or otherwise didn’t answer them, or if he failed to attend the special meeting, he would be viewed as admitting the charges were true, according to the language in Section 14.
Assuming Sterling attended the special meeting, he would have the right to be represented by counsel. According to the language in Section 14, “strict rules of evidence would not apply”; whether that would allow the league to use the contents of the tape as evidence is unclear.
A vote of 3/4ths of the owners, or 23 of 30, would be considered a yes vote for terminating Sterling’s ownership of the Clippers.
If that happened, a simple majority of owners would then be needed to transfer ownership of the team from Sterling to the NBA, which would then be allowed — at least, according to Section 14 — to liquidate whatever assets were necessary to pay off any existing debts. (As the Clippers are believed to be a relatively healthy team financially, this shouldn’t be a major issue.)
The team would then likely be sold through the league and an investment bank, similar to the way the NBA bought and then sold the then-New Orleans Hornets. The league bought the team from then-owner George Shinn for $300 million, and sold it less than a year later to New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson for $339 million.
Once the team’s debts were paid and the team was sold, all remaining money from the sale would go to Sterling. The league would be motivated to sell the team under these conditions for the highest possible price, lest it leave itself open to a charge by Sterling that he was forced to sell the team under duress, and for less than market value.
There would be any number of suitors to buy the team if Sterling indeed put the team up for sale. The price would be “a billion at least,” according to an industry source.
Two sources confirmed a Yahoo! Sports report that Magic Johnson and Guggenheim Partners, who helped broker the deal to buy the Dodgers for $2.1 billion in 2012, have at least an interest in the Clippers. However, one of those sources said the interest was extremely preliminary and that the group had not in any way begun seriously putting a bid together for the team.