By David Aldridge, TNT
VIDEO: The Inside the NBA members discuss the Donald Sterling matter
The most likely scenario for NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to discipline L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling is to use a provision of the NBA constitution that allows the Commissioner to suspend a team employee indefinitely and fine him up to $1 million. That appears, according to sources familiar with the NBA’s little-seen internal rules, to be the most the NBA can do to hit an owner for something said, as opposed to something done.
There are provisions for the NBA’s Board of Governors, with the votes of three-quarters of the league’s owners — 24 — to terminate the ownership of an individual and remove him as owner. But those provisions do not seem to apply here under even generous interpretation of the league’s rules.
Owners can be removed, under Section A 13 of the NBA’s Constitution, under the heading “Termination of Ownership or Membership.” An owner can be voted out, essentially, if he or she willfully violates the NBA’s Constitution or Bylaws; transfers ownership of his or her team without permission or approval; fails to pay his or her debts; is found to be attempting to fix games and/or has severe gambling debts, or disbands his or her team during the season.
Sterling is under investigation for allegedly making racially outrageous remarks to a woman purported to be his girlfriend. In one section of the tape, which was acquired by the website TMZ.com last Friday, the man on the tape believed to be Sterling tells the woman he doesn’t want her posting photos of her with Hall of Fame player Magic Johnson, and not to bring Johnson or other African-Americans to Clippers games.
The salient provision in the Constitution that Silver is likely to use is Section 35A (d): “Misconduct of Persons Other Than Players.” As player conduct and league penalties for conduct violations are all subject to collective bargaining negotiations, the behavior of all other team and league employees, including coaches and referees, is covered under 35A (d).
This is the key phrase: the Commissioner can fine anyone up to $1 million, and suspend — either for a definite or indefinite period — anyone who makes statements deemed to be “prejudicial or detrimental to the Association,” and/or detrimental to the best interests of basketball.
But it’s unlikely Silver could use a violation of 35A (d) to then remove Sterling through A13.
“None of these [provisions for removal] are at issue here,” said one source familiar with the league’s constitution.
An open-ended suspension could give the league time to line up potential buyers for the Clippers, while trying to convince Sterling that this is the time to sell the team. The league, under former commissioner David Stern, made it clear to the Sacramento Kings’ former owners, the Maloof family, that it would not allow them to sell the team last year to a Seattle group that planned to move the team there. The Maloofs ultimately sold the team to the NBA’s preferred group, led by software tycoon Vivek Ranadive.
Sterling bought the then San Diego Clippers in the early ‘80s from Irv Levin, who’d acquired them in the infamous “team swap” with John Y. Brown, who was the owner of the Buffalo Braves when he assumed control of the Celtics from Levin in exchange for Buffalo. Levin then moved the Braves to San Diego, where they were rechristened the Clippers; Sterling moved them to Los Angeles in 1984.
Sterling’s only true friend among his fellow owners was the late Lakers owner Jerry Buss, who’d encouraged him to buy the Clippers from Levin. Sterling rarely came to Board of Governors meetings, and owners don’t often fraternize with each other. Almost all of the owners who could be considered contemporaries of Sterling have sold their team or passed away.
“I doubt Sterling cares what we think,” one owner said Monday afternoon.