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The best tidbits from ESPN’s The Sterling Affairs

(Donald Sterling, a rapidly decaying blob of hair dye, shown in 2014.)

Yesterday, ESPN released a five-part podcast that dove deep into Donald Sterling’s owning and selling of the Clippers, the latter of which happened in 2014 after his mistress leaked a racist recording of a phone conversation between the two to TMZ, where Sterling implored her not to take pictures with Magic Johnson at Clippers games.

The whole thing, reported and narrated by Ramona Shelburne, is interesting and binge-worthy and goes way beyond the 2014 incident, and we recommend spending a few hours listening to it.  

Here are a few interesting things we learned from the series: 

  • Before TMZ dropped its phone conversation, a Clippers staff member told Clippers coach Doc Rivers something bad was about to happen, but didn’t specify what the news about Sterling would be. Doc’s response: “Honestly, I thought it was a sex tape,” which is, from now on, the definition of the “lesser of two evils.” 

  • Sterling is basically the reason Jerry Buss was able to buy the Lakers in 1979. With a deadline looming, Buss needed extra cash, so he called up Sterling, who bought 11 buildings in LA from Buss, which gave him the capital to buy the Forum, the Lakers and the Kings for $67.5 million. 

  • After two years of seeing Buss reap the benefits of owning an NBA team, Sterling got jealous and bought the then-San Diego Clippers for $12.5 million. (In 2014, when he was forced to sell the team, Steve Ballmer bought it for $2 billion. Pretty good ROI.)

  • In his first season owning the team, Sterling cut costs wherever possible, and wondered aloud why he had to pay for the players’ socks, and why they couldn’t reuse tape. 

  • He openly encouraged his team to tank, which was probably the smartest thing he ever did or said as an owner. “I say this after a great deal of thought and study and investment -- we must end last to draw first to get a franchise maker.” He was fined $10,000 and San Diego finished 17-65. (They picked second and took Terry Cummings, who became an All-Star after being traded to Milwaukee two years into his career.

  • In 1982, Sterling tried to move the team to LA, to which the NBA strongly opposed, trying for the first time to make him sell his team. He backed down and “committed” to San Diego, though he successfully forced a move two years later. 

  • He changed his last name from Tokowitz to Sterling early in his law career to further himself from his Jewish ancestry. 

  • He grew up poor in Boyle Heights, LA, and went to a diverse high school. 

  • He was known for taking his friends into the Clippers’ locker room after games and ogling at the players’ muscles and strength, eliciting an obvious slave-owner vibe.

  • Former player Olden Polynice remembers Sterling calling him a “buck.” “[I was] like a black slave on a trading block. That fucked me up,” he said in the second episode. Blake Griffin compared the dynamic to feeling like a racehorse. 

  • By 1986, he owned a large chunk of real estate in Beverly Hills, and picked up a reputation for pricing out families who had lived in their apartment buildings for generations. In the second episode, Shelburne says Sterling is basically the reason for rent control in LA. 

  • He was sued for housing discrimination in 2003 against black and Latino people. 

  • He was sued in the 1990s by two Clippers employees for sexual harassment. He won one case and settled out of court in the other. 

  • In the ‘90s, he started dating a 27-year-old when he was 65, and called the sex they had “delicious,” among other terrifying things, during a later court session involving the woman. 

  • We had totally forgotten that Sterling actually tried to attend the Clippers’ Game 4 playoff game against the Warriors in 2014 days after his racist conversation was released. 

  • The Clippers ditched their warmups and wore generic red shirts as a statement against Sterling that game 4.

  • Before Game 5, Adam Silver banned Sterling from the NBA for life.

  • He also said, about Magic: “What has he done? Biiiiig Magic Johnson. What has he done? He’s got AIDS! What kind of guy goes to a city and has sex with every girl, then he catches AIDS.” Cooper was quick to remind him that Magic has HIV, not AIDS.

  • And finally, when the team went up for sale, both Oprah and Grant Hill put in bids, but Ballmer was the ultimate winner. Shelly Sterling, Donald’s wife, remembers the conversation like this: “He says ‘Well what have you been offered so far? I’ll give you 1.9.’ I said, ‘I really want 2.0.’ He said, “OK, it’s a deal. Write up the papers!’”

There’s a ton of stuff here, but there’s so much more in the five-part podcast. You can start listening here.


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