LAS VEGAS – It’s possible Donald Sterling still will own the Los Angeles Clippers next month. It’s even possible, NBA commissioner Adam Silver acknowledged after the league’s Board of Governors meeting here Tuesday, that the publicly disgraced Sterling and his estranged wife Shelly still might own the team when the league opens training camps in October for the 2014-15 season.
As troubling as that might be in terms of public perception, given Sterling’s racially bigoted comments back in April, and as incendiary as that could become as an issue with the NBA’s players, Silver said the methodical pace of the probate trial in Los Angeles between the Sterlings could further delay the Clippers sale to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.
“No, I cannot say it with certainty, and I cannot say it with certainty because it’s in the hands of the probate court,” Silver said.
“I can say with certainty, we are doing everything in our power to move Donald out as an owner in the NBA. If the probate ruling doesn’t go in our favor, we’ll recommence our procedures under termination.”
It was Shelly Sterling’s swift sale of the franchise for $2 billion to Ballmer, to which Donald allegedly acquiesced, that prompted the NBA to cancel its termination hearing among the other owners. Only later did Sterling balk at the arrangement and file lawsuits against his wife and the league.
The termination mechanism in the NBA’s constitution and by-laws still is available to Silver and the owners. But the probate trial in L.A. – with Donald challenging Shelly’s right to remove him as a co-trustee of the family trust and to sell the team, based on two doctors’ findings that the 81-year-old billionaire was mentally incapacitated – is grinding slowly.
And based on Sterling’s broken relationship with the league and his plan to sue the NBA for $1 billion, another courtroom decision could thwart or delay any forced transfer beyond the tentative Sept. 15 deadline.
“It’s possible that some court would step in and stop us,” Silver said during the news conference. “I think it’s highly, highly unlikely because we are absolutely acting within our rights. And I think what’s transpired in probate court so far has made it even clearer that we’re acting not only within our rights but doing what is right and appropriate in this situation.”
The NBA has monitored the probate trial, to the point of having a lawyer in the courtroom reporting back regularly to the league. Silver said his sense was that, once the judge hears all testimony, a ruling could follow quickly. But no end date currently is known.
Three days after Sterling’s ugly comments about blacks were made public, Silver imposed a lifetime ban on the man who has owned the Clippers since 1981. He fined Sterling $2.5 million and said that, with his “offensive and hurtful views,” Sterling had violated league rules and damaged the NBA as a business enterprise. The Board of Governors supported Silver’s recommendation that Sterling be forced to sell.
Silver said he has talked both with Kevin Johnson, the Sacramento mayor and former all-NBA point guard who is representing the players in this process, and with some players directly to let them know the timeline of Sterling’s ouster might be delayed. In the days after Sterling’s comments, a number of players reacted angrily. The Clippers staged a symbolic on-court protest and there was at least talk of boycotting a playoff game.
Silver said, however, that those with whom he has spoken have been patient. “They understand it’s very difficult to say anything with certainty in a situation like this,” the commissioner said.
Asked if the NBA considered lessening Sterling’s lifetime ban – which blocks him from even attending games as a spectator – to expedite the Clippers sale, Silver said the league had been open to that early in the process. But there was no follow-through. “I never received any proposals,” Silver said.
Silver touched on a variety of topics that flowed from Tuesday’s four-hour meetings and other league sessions going on in Las Vegas this week:
- The competition committee met for 10 hours Sunday and Monday, discussing the draft lottery, the playoff system, conference and division structure and details of the centralized replay system to be used starting in 2014-15. Silver said a trial run would start in September using WNBA games. Replays will be cued up at the league’s division in Secaucus, N.J., but game officials in each arena still will make the determinations.
- The popularity of the summer league in Las Vegas – with attendance up 25 percent, Silver said – has the league open to ideas for a greater role in the nation’s gambling capital. One possibility, mentioned without details as a brainstorm from the competition committee: A midseason tournament of some sort.
- Negotiations of the NBA’s national TV contracts continue, with Silver expessing confidence that relationships with the current partners would be maintained, perhaps with some additions. He understood the desire by players and their agents to make decisions on contract length this offseason according to an anticipated bump in TV revenues and, thus, a boost in the salary cap. Several, including LeBron James, have signed two-year deals.
- Silver sees the league’s collective bargaining agreement, which was hammered out only after a rancorous lockout in 2011, working fine in 2014 free agency. “I think for the league, all the speculation, all of the chatter around Carmelo [Anthony] and what other players would do, Pau Gasol, [has been] very exciting,” he said. “You want to strike the right balance. I think a certain amount of free-agent movement is positive. It creates a sense of renewal for a lot of markets.”
- The board approved a slate of minority owners for the Milwaukee Bucks to join majority owners Wes Edens and Marc Lasry, who purchased that team in April for $550 million. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, rumored to be interested in a piece of the franchise, was not mentioned at the meeting, Silver said.
- As for James’ decision to go back to Cleveland, Silver said he was “moved” by the first-person essay on SI.com in which the four-time MVP shared his love for home and northeast Ohio. But Silver added: “What I heard from a lot of owners in the league was, ‘I wish my city was his hometown.’ “