Season Five: The Sterling Affairs Episode 2

Throughout the 80s and 90s, the Clippers were horrible and Donald Sterling was known as the worst owner in sports. But Donald Sterling wasn’t the joke we all thought he was.

49 mins




DONALD STERLING: There was only one franchise I would have ever contemplated buying, the San Diego Clippers. I’m looking at it like I look at other investments, as something over the long-term will be enormously valuable. And I mean this sincerely if somebody offered me thirty million dollars for the San Diego franchise I wouldn’t sell it because I think ultimately one day it will be worth that.]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: That’s Donald Sterling in 1981. Right after he bought his basketball team, the San Diego Clippers. The sale that started this whole thing in motion. But Donald Sterling’s purchase of the Clippers would never have happened were it not for a different NBA sale, two years earlier…


[NBC News

TOM BROKAW: Jerry Buss paid $68 million for The Forum and look what comes with it. The Pro Basketball Lakers and Professional Hockey’s Kings.]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Because what many people don’t know is that before giving Los Angeles its worst basketball team, Donald Sterling helped give it its best. 


This is episode 2: the opposite of Showtime


In June of 1979, a man named Jerry Buss stood on the brink of making one of his wildest dreams come true. Buss was a self-made guy — a kid from rural Wyoming with a PhD in chemistry who ended up making his money in LA real estate. But what Jerry Buss really loved was sports… and he’d had his heart set on the Los Angeles Lakers for years. The owner of the team, Jack Kent Cooke, was going through a messy, expensive divorce, that was forcing him to sell the team. Buss and a group of investors made an offer. And Cooke accepted. But at the very last minute, Buss ran into trouble.


ALAN ROTHENBERG: sure enough just a few days before the scheduled closing Buss calls Cooke and asks him for an extension and Cooke tells him to pound sand.



RAMONA SHELBURNE: Alan Rothenberg was Jack Kent Cooke’s lawyer. The clock was ticking… and Buss was running out of options. One of his investors had backed out. And he needed cash.

ALAN ROTHENBERG: To the extent that Jerry had the wealth, it was all tied up in his complex real estate limited partnerships, but they didn’t have cash.


RAMONA SHELBURNE: And that’s when Jerry Buss, the man who would eventually change the face of the NBA, sports, and Los Angeles, made a desperate phone call.


Just hours before the closing deadline, the phone rang at Donald Sterling’s Beverly Hills mansion. It was one o’clock in the morning. On the other end of the phone was Jerry Buss. The two men weren’t necessarily close, but the circle of rich real estate guys in LA in the late 70s was only so big. 


Like Buss, Donald Sterling was a self-made man from humble beginnings — Donald was a kid from Boyle Heights, one of East LA’s poorest neighborhoods. Sterling had used the money he’d made as a personal injury lawyer to get into real estate.


But unlike Buss, who bought and sold, bought and sold, tying his money up in loans and mortgages…


ALAN ROTHENBERG: Donald had never sold anything, he just kept collecting his rents. The cash was rolling in.


RAMONA SHELBURNE: This is what it came down to — the highly leveraged deal guy calling the cash rich landlord to bail him out.


Only, true to form, Donald didn’t want to be a part of the deal, he wanted to make a deal. He wanted to buy some of Jerry’s real estate holdings.


Shelly Sterling remembers Jerry Buss came over to their house — just hours after that middle of the night phone call — and the two men went to the bank. 

SHELLY STERLING: 8:00 in the morning he comes to the door and I don’t even think the bank was open then.

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Well those are certainly not Donald Sterling hours.
SHELLY STERLING No. Or my hours.


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Then they went to Santa Monica so Donald could pick out 11 of Jerry’s buildings to buy. 


SHELLY STERLING: We bought a lot of the buildings from Jerry in exchange for the money that Don had lent them.


ALAN ROTHENBERG: basically Donald was Jerry’s banker. 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: This moment is not one that most Angelinos would expect. 

ALAN ROTHENBERG:  the public impression of Jerry was he was a high liver. They thought he was rich as could be. And the way Donald operated, they figured this guy couldn’t rub two nickels together. 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: This difference between the two — hold on to every cent vs spend every cent — would shape basketball in Los Angeles for decades.



ROB FUKUZAKI: In 1979 after owning a pro tennis team, Buss purchased the Lakers, the L.A. Kings, The Forum, and a large ranch from Jack Kent Cooke for sixty-seven and a half million dollars. And why did he make the investment? It’s as simple as the song that is played after every Laker home victory.

JERRY BUSS: I loved L.A. I mean, the city and myself were soulmates.]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: And suddenly, thanks to Donald Sterling, all eyes in Los Angeles were on Jerry Buss. 



VO: Sports Look, the show that goes beyond the scores and headlines of the sports world…]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Roy Firestone was THE sports interviewer of the day.


[VO: The host of Sports Look, Roy Firestone, award winning journalist]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Roy was there the day Jerry Buss became the new owner of the Los Angeles Lakers.


ROY FIRESTONE: I Interviewed Buss that first day. He looked at me and he said I can’t believe what a fan I am of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and I’m going to be the owner. The first thing I’m going to want to get is Kareem’s autograph. I still vividly remember he had the open wing shirt with the jewels. And he wore blue jeans.


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Blue jeans and cowboy boots and a Brioni sports coat — that cost thousands of dollars. The perfect embodiment of Wyoming cowboy and LA hustle.

[NBC News
JERRY BUSS: Well, I grew up in a town of 2,000 people, so, since The Forum seats 17,500, I was very excited.  Everybody left The Forum to go home that night. I lighted a cigarette in the middle of the basketball court and I thought wow, I’ve really arrived.]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Jerry Buss loved the Lakers. He loved the NBA. But it wasn’t the league it is now in those days. 


ROY FIRESTONE: This was a league that was in peril. The ratings were in the toilet. To give you an idea how lower case the NBA was; ’79, I remember vividly the NBA Finals on tape delay. Tape delay, in Los Angeles they played it at 11 o’clock this is the NBA Finals. Now you think the billion dollar packages they have with ESPN and ABC. Well, it was a different world 40 years ago. The NBA was such a lowercase league.


RAMONA SHELBURNE: That was all about to change.



LARRY O’BRIEN: The Los Angeles Lakers select Earvin Magic Johnson, Michigan State, six eight – 200 pounds]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: The Lakers had just taken a flashy point guard named Magic Johnson with the No. 1 pick in the 1979 draft.


And that first year, Jerry, Magic, and the Lakers won a championship. 


[BRENT MUSBURGER: there it is! It’s over and the most valuable player is Magic Johnson, 42 points, 15 rebounds and 7 assists….]



MAGIC JOHNSON: The number one owner and the number one team.]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Jerry Buss and Magic Johnson formed an instant and lasting bond. The kind of player-owner bond rarely seen in sports. Magic once told me he’d get up on Saturday mornings and go over to Jerry’s house. And then they’d drive together to USC football games, so Jerry could watch his alma mater. It was more than a friendship, they became family. They genuinely loved each other, but Jerry also seemed to understand that investing in that relationship, and all relationships, would pay off.


Jerry Buss looked at his city and his team and saw something nobody else saw: he saw a show.


ROY FIRESTONE: Fast paced, dazzling magic show.


[ANNOUNCER: Ohh!! Highlight film! At the buzzer!]


ROY FIRESTONE: Showtime! ….that became the expression.


RAMONA SHELBURNE: At the Forum, Buss created the ultimate experience: he hired a live band, set the lighting to the perfect shade of gold, and introduced the “Laker Girls” 

[ARCHIVAL –  Laker Girls]

(ANNOUNCER) Ladies and gentlemen here they are for your halftime entertainment. The Laker Girls.]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Their sizzling dance routines became as much a part of the show as Magic Johnson’s no-look passes or Chick Hearn’s famous calls on the radio. 


CHICK HEARN: 93 to 70…This games in the Admiral refrigerator the door is closed the lights out, butter is getting hard the eggs are cooling and the jello is jiggling.]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Jerome Stanley and Claire Rothman both worked for the Lakers in the early days.


JEROME STANLEY: He invented something called the Senate Seats, like, “Let’s charge more for these seats, but let’s give them more.” 


CLAIRE ROTHMAN: we made them unique because you had waitress service, and you could have libation, and you could have food…


JEROME STANLEY: in sports today, that just sounds like a milk-and-cookies idea. But Jerry created that idea. 


RAMONA SHELBURNE: It must have been quite a thing for Donald Sterling to watch the guy he bailed out become an overnight success…and the coolest guy in town.


JEROME STANLEY: You know one of the biggest status symbol you could have was a gold satin Laker jacket. And you’d snap, snap, snap, snap and you wanted that gold jacket. You had that gold jacket on, it was like he must be friends of Dr. Buss. 


RAMONA SHELBURNE: The Lakers were so cool they even had one of the hottest clubs in LA inside their arena. 

CLAIRE ROTHMAN: It was so exciting to be there


RAMONA SHELBURNE: The Forum Club was THE place to be seen — think of it like the West Coast version of Studio 54.


ROY FIRESTONE: Rock stars, rappers, music legends.


JEROME STANLEY:  If it wasn’t Reggie Jackson, it was Michael Jackson.

ROY FIRESTONE: I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody who cared less about sports than Michael Jackson. And there’s Jerry Buss with his arm around MJ.


RAMONA SHELBURNE: At the Forum Club, there was plenty of alcohol, plenty of enjoying oneself… plenty of things you didn’t go home and tell your wife about. 

JEROME STANLEY: You’d find people that had offices in the Forum that would still be making use of offices during Laker games…People used the copiers for a lot of things in those days. 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Hahaha Such as? 

JEROME STANLEY: You know it was a very high-flying time. We had a lot of fun.

ROY FIRESTONE: And I’m sure there was a lot of stuff running around up people’s noses in that club too. I can’t prove it but let’s just say the magic juice was everywhere.


RAMONA SHELBURNE: One of the guys who made regular appearances at the Forum, trying to get as close to Showtime as he could, was Donald Sterling

JEROME STANLEY: It wasn’t like, “Here comes Donald Sterling.” He was just a guy named Donald Sterling.


ROY FIRESTONE: I remember he used to have that open ended jacket with the with the jewelry. It was really something out of Studio 54.

RAMONA SHELBURNE:  This was LA in the 1980s. It was every bit as decadent as Wall Street, without the stuffy suits and ties. The only accessory that really mattered for these guys was the woman on your arm. The younger and hotter she was, the better. And guys like Jerry Buss and Donald Sterling loved the validation that came from the company of young women. It didn’t matter to Donald that he was married.

In fact, Jerry Buss’ longtime friend and PR guy Bob Steiner told me about Donald using his own wife as a decoy.

BOB STEINER: My wife and I were invited to this party. It was a restaurant on Melrose and we went in, and Shelly came up to my wife and said to her, “Somebody I want you to meet,” and walked her off. And Don said, “I had her do that so you can meet the girls at the bar.” 


RAMONA SHELBURNE: This was a world shaped by men’s fantasies. And that’s what attracted Donald Sterling. 

CLAIRE ROTHMAN: I think that Don looked at Jerry and thought, well, maybe if I follow that roadmap, the same things will happen to me.


RAMONA SHELBURNE: It’s not hard to understand why Donald would have looked in a mirror and wondered why he shouldn’t have what Buss had — Buss wasn’t Hollywood leading man handsome either. They were both middle-aged men, the kind whose boyish handsomeness fades quickly with adulthood. Who grasp at comb overs and hair pieces and dye jobs that don’t convince anyone. 


He was just as rich — no, wait, he was richer, he was better at the real estate game…and so Donald tried to follow Jerry’s lead. 

BOB STEINER: One time, he did ask me to get him a publicity man who could do for him what I did for Jerry Buss. And I said, “Well, Donald, buy the Lakers, and you can get that kind of publicity.” 


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Of course, Donald couldn’t buy the Lakers. So, in 1981, he did the next best thing. 

SHELLY STERLING: We were very good friends with Jerry Buss. We used to go to the Laker games all the time. Jerry was always talking, “You should buy a team. You should get a team.”

SHELLY STERLING: And um… I guess we were nuts. I don’t know why. It was just something I guess every man would love to do.




GREG GUMBEL: A change in ownership in the NBA this past week. Irv Levin sold the San Diego Clippers to Los Angeles attorney Donald Sterling for 13 and a half million dollars…]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: When Donald Sterling bought the Clippers in 1981, the team was struggling. The Clippers had recently rebranded from the Buffalo Braves and moved to San Diego… but things weren’t going well. They were a last place team looking for a savior.


And everyone was hoping that Donald Sterling could do for the Clippers what Jerry Buss had done for the Lakers.

STERLING: I’m really prepared to do whatever is necessary to bring the San Diego a contender, a respectable team.]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: On opening night of the 1981 season, everyone in San Diego finally got a good look at their new owner in action. 

PETE BABCOCK:  I was on a bench with Coach Silas and Bill Westfall and our team. We were not favored to win the game. 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Pete Babcock was an assistant coach for the San Diego Clippers at the time. He’d go on to become the general manager. He remembers Donald Sterling during that first game.

PETE BABCOCK: And he was sitting court-side across from us at mid-court. You know, he was excited about the game and he was into it. And as the game progresses his suit jacket comes off and then pretty soon his tie’s loosened, and he’s excited and he’s drinking wine and having a great time, and enjoying the game.

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Late in the fourth quarter the Clippers led by 4 points, and it looked like they were actually going to start their season off with a win. 

PETE BABCOCK: And then all of a sudden, one of the teams are shooting a free throw at the other end of the floor and he came running across the middle of the court. The game was going on. He ran across the middle of the court and jumped into Paul Silas’s arms, 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: That would be head coach Paul Silas

PETE BABCOCK: You know, and Silas didn’t know what to do. I mean, he was like dumbfounded. It was like, “What’s going on?” it’s like we were all just literally dumbfounded. We didn’t, no one knew what to do.



STERLING: I love my team. I live and die sometimes with every basket, especially towards the end of the game.]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: At the outset, Donald Sterling seemed genuinely enthusiastic. Even if the ways he expressed it were a little strange. This is a guy who put up billboards all over San Diego to advertise his new team… But they were all plastered with pictures of himself.


But that enthusiasm quickly soured. As that first season wore on, and the Clippers started piling up losses…it became pretty obvious that Donald Sterling was not the savior San Diego had been waiting for.


The Sterlings didn’t even move to San Diego — they stayed in LA.

SHELLY STERLING: And we would drive to San Diego like sometimes twice a week. Sometimes stay there for a few days.


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Donald wasn’t there to roll up his sleeves and turn his team around. He wasn’t there to rebuild. He was there for whatever money, perks, and attention he could get for himself. By belonging to this very exclusive club of NBA owners. And he wasn’t going to invest a single cent more than he needed to.


PETE BABCOCK: I remember he said something about he had a friend who had a sporting goods store in LA, and every time Donald Sterling would drive down to our games, he could just bring a box of tape in the trunk of his car and it would save us money.


ROY FIRESTONE: I remember one time Donald Sterling asked the coach of the Clippers why he had to pay for the players socks.

ROY FIRESTONE: Can’t they get their own socks?

PETE BABCOCK: And you know, trying to explain to him, “We go through a box of tape every day.”

PETE BABCOCK: “Well, can’t we reuse the tape? 

ROY FIRESTONE: It was always about trying to save money. It’s all about “I don’t have to pay make other people pay”. 

PETE BABCOCK: You got the feeling that he just didn’t understand the business, was naïve about it, or maybe he knew exactly how things operated and was just trying to find a way to save his money. 

SHELLY STERLING: I guess when you’re the newest one to buy a team, it’s a lot harder because it’s like the child that’s new in the school. So um… it was a little difficult because we didn’t really know much about anything.


RAMONA SHELBURNE: But these weren’t your average growing pains. And they didn’t stop with socks and athletic tape. Soon, Donald Sterling was blatantly disregarding the NBA’s code of conduct. Toward the end of the first season, the team was considering acquiring a top player — someone who might actually help the team win games. But Sterling started to openly muse, publicly, about whether that was a good idea. Wouldn’t winning hurt their draft chances? 

DONALD STERLING: Based upon a rocky start and a number of games we lost if we play as hard as we can the probabilities are that we’ll end up at a certain point and that point will enable us to draft a first round, number one draft choice in America.]

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Donald was straight up suggesting they lose games to get a better draft pick. Which was a huge no no. Tanking is one of the NBA’s — actually, one of the entire sports worlds’ — third rails.

DONALD STERLING: I say this after a great deal of thought and study and investigation. We must end last to draw first, to get a franchise maker.]

RAMONA SHELBURNE: The league had to act. Their new owner was causing trouble. They fined Sterling for his comments and put him on warning. 

[ARCHIVAL ES8200005274

Reporter: the NBA commissioner Larry O’Brien levied a fine of $10,000 against the owner Friday for what he called conduct prejudicial and detrimental to the NBA.]

RAMONA SHELBURNE: At the end of his first season, the Clippers finished in last place, winning just 17 of 82 games.

And here it is. It’s all over. So the San Diego Clippers have lost again.] 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: As bad as the Clippers had been before Donald bought the team, this was a new low. But two hours north,

The LA Lakers have won it at home!]

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Jerry Buss and the Lakers took home another championship trophy.

GREG WYATT: The crowd is chanting We’re number one. And for the second time in three years. The Los Angeles Lakers are indeed. Number one in the NBA.] 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: So maybe it shouldn’t have been that surprising that Donald Sterling decided the grass was a lot greener up in LA.

PETE BABCOCK: The league rules are very specific in that you have to have the Board of Governor’s approval to move the team. You can’t just pack up your team and move it to wherever you want it to be. 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: To move a team, you need permission. Donald did not have permission. The NBA quickly stepped in to prevent the move.



JOHN GREGG: In mid-September a special committee of team owners met in New York where they recommended that Sterling be forced to terminate his ownership because of the aborted move to L.A. and other problems.]

RAMONA SHELBURNE: All the way back in 1982, the NBA was on the brink of kicking Donald Sterling out. 

ALAN ROTHENBERG: The NBA got an injunction against him, sent him back. At that time, they started proceedings to take away the franchise.

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Future NBA Commissioner David Stern, who was then an Executive Vice President, tried to fix the problem by sending Alan Rothenberg to babysit Donald.

ALAN ROTHENBERG: He doesn’t know what he’s doing and everything he’s doing is wrong. 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: The same Alan Rothenberg who represented Jack Kent Cooke in the Lakers sale to Buss.

ALAN ROTHENBERG: David Stern called Donald and said, “Call Allan Rothenberg. Bring him down there and straighten it out.”


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Sterling said he was sorry, and that he wouldn’t move the team after all… that he’d even try to sell the franchise on his own. He made Alan Rothenberg president of the Clippers — which made it look like they had their act together. As a temporary fix, it worked. The owners never voted to remove him and the league backed down.

But then…

Al Davis, the legendary owner of the Oakland Raiders, and a friend of Sterling’s, pulled off his own unauthorized move to LA — and got away with it.



MAX ROBINSON: In sports the Oakland Raiders late today won the antitrust suit against the NFL. That means the Raiders are now free to move to Los Angeles though the NFL plans to appeal.] 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: A court had ruled in Davis’ favor, based on a loophole in the NFL’s bylaws. Alan Rothenberg noticed that the NBA bylaws had that SAME loophole. He went to Sterling.

ALAN ROTHENBERG: I said, “If you wanna move, this is the time,” 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Donald jumped — and he didn’t even tell his staff they were moving. 


PETE BABCOCK: I came home and the TV stations wanted to come out to the house and talk about the move.


RAMONA SHELBURNE: But the Clippers general manager, Pete Babcock, didn’t have anything to tell them.

PETE BABCOCK: It was out of the blue. We had no idea it was coming. I’m talking about the basketball staff; had no idea it was coming.

RAMONA SHELBURNE: The league fined Sterling, and Sterling responded by suing the NBA and Jerry Buss for $100 million. It was a total power move, and also a pretty crappy thing to do. But it worked. The Clippers were now a Los Angeles franchise.



JIM HILL: Can you tell me what your biggest problem was in San Diego?

DONALD STERLING: I don’t think we had any problem at all in San Diego. You know, I love San Diego, but there may not be another city in the world like Los Angeles.


GREG WYATT: Owner Jerry Buss is already given his okay, taking a shot at his Beverly Hills buddy saying, “Now L.A. will have one very good team and a very bad one.”]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: For Donald Sterling, the LA move was a chance for him to start fresh. But things did not improve.



ANNOUNCER 1: In trendy Los Angeles, two things are consistent: the Lakers win and the Clips lose. ]



ANNOUNCER 2: “The Clippers still drop their 17th straight to start the season, matching the NBA record for such futility.”]



NICK BAKAY: Lakers, Clippers. Same town, same game, same league but when it comes to tradition these teams have less in common than a polo match and a soup line.] 


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Instead of becoming LA’s newest celebrities, the Clippers became the butt of every joke.


ROBIN HARRIS: That’s why I loooove watching a Clippers game. I’m serious That’s right. You sit anywhere you want to. I wore my tennis shoes one night I sat down with the team. Don’t laugh, they throw my black ass in the game. Scored 18 points. 9 rebounds. 10 assists. I damn near had a triple double! Then the coach get mad, talking bout why you can’t come back next week? I said motherfucker I got something to do next week.]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: I grew up in Los Angeles in the 80s. I remember watching Clipper games on TV as a kid. The games themselves weren’t really anything to talk about, I mean the team almost never won. And yet… the voice of the Clippers, Ralph Lawler, somehow made me care.





RALPH LAWLER: Well, that was my job and a part of the craft. I just felt that was my job to find a way to keep people interested in a game that very often wasn’t very interesting because we had a lot of those. A lot of years that weren’t very interesting.


RALPH LAWLER: But there’s always a story to tell. If you have a 15-win season, there’s some young player or players that you’ve got a story to tell about them that humanizes them, that makes people like them, makes people, you know, root for them.



RALPH LAWLER: Wow he got fouled! How about that for the rookie?! Woo!]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Ralph was a master at making the Clippers likeable, no matter how much they lost. Honestly, a lot of fans tuned into the games on TV for Ralph more than the basketball… because god knows there was no one over at the arena…just Penny Marshall and Billy Crystal.



LARRY KING: How did you become a clipper fan?


LARRY KING: When no one was a Clipper fan

BILLY CRYSTAL: They asked me to play they said listen we only get about four guys tonight can you still dribble? 

LARRY KING: At the Sports Arena, right? 

BILLY CRYSTAL: Yeah I had Laker tickets for a while maybe they were great but there wasn’t like no challenge you know and then a friend of mine calls it’s come on you want to go see the Clippers play and I said all right. There was nobody there, I mean it was a triple-double meant there were three couples in the audience.] 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: At every level, the Clippers screamed “not showtime.”

But that didn’t seem to bother Donald Sterling. Or at least it didn’t seem to register. He got a lot of negative press, but it was attention. People knew his name. And he liked that.


That’s kind of all he really wanted — to be the center of attention. That’s why he started throwing his parties. 


SHELLY STERLING: They were fabulous.


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Donald and Shelly Sterling’s infamous “White Parties” — so called because guests were expected to come wearing white. 

SHELLY STERLING: Everybody came in white, 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Except for Donald who got to wear black.

SHELLY STERLING: It was just fabulous. It was just a big white party.

RAMONA SHELBURNE: The biggest White Party took place at the end of summer as a way to kick off the basketball season. 


SHELLY STERLING: We’d have the players there, and they’d get up on stage. And a lot of the fans, and a lot of the ticket holders were there.


DON CASEY: We’d go down to Malibu, in the white, show and tell.


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Don Casey attended the parties when he was a coach for the Clippers


DON CASEY: Plastic cups like this size, so you can’t drink too much wine. Okay. Little hot dogs with sticks in them, I mean this guy’s a multimillionaire. 

ALAN ROTHENBERG: His Malibu white party party was notorious. After I went one time with my wife, I was never allowed to go again. It wasn’t quite my style anyway so.


ROY FIRESTONE: What was so seedy and oily about it is he’d have. Forgive me but it’s true, he’d have like grade C actors and actresses. The hangers on and the people who wanted to get back in show business. But he’d also mingle with people who were stars. Billy Crystal was one. 

ALAN ROTHENBERG: And he hired more than just impersonators. There were some lovely ladies there, who were walking around.


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Donald called them hostesses. He had them at every party he threw. He’d actually advertise for them in the paper — looking for California model types. But they were glorified call girls, there to look good and entertain the male guests. And Shelly had to smile and endure it. Another public humiliation at the hands of her husband.


DONALD STERLING: Maybe I’ve had too much wine (off mic, Shelly responds) Shelly said maybe not enough.]


ROY FIRESTONE: There was always a photographer around Sterling. He had to have a private photographer for everything he did.




QUENTIN RICHARDSON: The way he was walking around and his voice, the way he was talking. fabulous, this and that.

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Quentin Richardson was drafted by the Clippers in the first round of the 2000 draft. He was from Chicago, he played college ball there, and then declared for the draft after his sophomore year. He was barely 20 years old when he landed in LA and experienced his first Donald Sterling party.

Q RICHARDSON: you know, we were there as his guest as the athletes, but then you had, his friends and his normal guests. It was like, definitely not the same type of looking crowd as we are. And so for us, we were all kind of standing there and just checking everything out. And it’s like, you know, this is for a lot of us, the first time, this is the first preseason team type owner’s meeting, or house, or any of that, that we’ve ever been to or been involved in. So, I’m just like, I’m going to be respectful, say what’s up, be cool, but then I’m over here. 



DONALD STERLING: We won it all and we won it with a player from the Los Angeles Clippers…]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: This was the best part of the party for Donald Sterling, showing off his players.


RALPH LAWLER: Then he’d have the individual players stand up and tell why they love LA. There’s one of his favorite questions, and so you’d have all these guys standing up… Danny Manning and Charles Smith and um you know. Mark Jackson… stand up and have to say why they love LA. He’d say, “And there’s a lot of beautiful girls, aren’t there?” And I mean, you’d go, “Oh, come on please.” 


ROY FIRESTONE: I remember poor Wilt Chamberlain, who was getting up there he was almost at the end of his life, and he looked very rail thin to me and he pulled me aside. he says, “What what am I doing here?” I said, “You tell me.” He goes, “I don’t even know this guy.” It was almost heartbreaking 


Q RICHARDSON: I was just like, okay, I’m ready for somebody to make the first move, so as soon as somebody else leaves, I’m gone. I just don’t want to be the first one to leave but I’m out of here. 


RALPH LAWLER: He would hold your hand and he would just would not let go. It 

was really, really uncomfortable. I mean, you just … you go, “Oh my God.” You just 

wanted to be someplace else.

RAMONA SHELBURNE: The thing is, as awkward as these parties were, Donald never seemed happier. He got to be the belle of his own ball. And for a few hours a captive audience had to at least pretend to think it was really cool that he owned the worst team in basketball.

Because in real life, no one was fan boying over Donald Sterling. So Donald found ways to manufacture that for himself. To force the conversation to the fact that he owned the Clippers.


ALAN ROTHENBERG: Whoever happened to walk up, he would ask them advice about the team. 


RALPH LAWLER: He would go to the airport after a game, and the baggage handlers would say, “Donald Sterling came over to me and said, ‘Do you think we should trade Danny Manning?’” 

PETE BABCOCK: He talked to the waiter at the restaurant. He talked to the usher at the games. His famous thing is, “What do you think of my coach?”


RALPH LAWLER: He would just as likely he’d be listening to a cab driver as he would be to a general manager or a scout in his ball club.


ROY FIRESTONE: He would call me sometimes late at night. You know, I’m Roy Firestone. You know everybody you’ve watched all these interviews. Tell me about Larry Brown and why he should be the coach of our team. It’s 10 to 11 at night. I don’t know personnel in that respect. He goes Roy your opinion matters.


ROY FIRESTONE: You know he called Billy Crystal… “What do you think of Larry Brown? If you say I should hire him I’m hiring him.” 


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Billy Crystal must have told him to hire Larry Brown, because he did. And it was a good hire. In 1992 and again in 1993, Brown actually led the Clippers to the playoffs, for the first time since before Donald owned the team…but then he resigned. 



BOB LEY: Well they have been the Buffalo Braves they’ve been the San Diego Clippers and now they are 10 years in L.A. they’ve had eight different coaches just in Los Angeles. 

CHRIS FOWLER: Casey, year and a half, Shula a year and a half. Calvin fill in brown year and a half. Why are they searching so long for a new coach. He’s only going to be their year and a half.
LINDA COHN: At least there’s consistency in this brand.]

RAMONA SHELBURNE: At every level of the organization, the Clippers were a revolving door. And if there had been an exit interview on the way out, one of the most common reasons for leaving would have been: Mr. Sterling.

And, yes, that’s what he made everyone call him.


RALPH LAWLER: It was always Mr. Sterling. 


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Ralph remembers assistant coach Dave Wohl telling him about a coaches meeting back in the early 90s.


RALPH LALER: And they’re having a meeting in a hotel suite and Dave goes, “Well, Don, the thing we have to do is…,” and he said they stopped the meeting immediately, Sterling sternly and forcefully said, “It’s Mr. Sterling.”


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Donald made everyone call him Mr. Sterling, even us reporters. 


RALPH LAWLER: We used to joke, we wondered if Shelly called him Mr. Sterling.

RAMONA SHELBURNE: But it wasn’t a joke when Donald made the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2000… as the man responsible for the worst franchise in the history of sports. 

Sports are about winning and losing. And as an owner, you’re supposed to put your team in a position to win. Because that’s how the rest of the world measures your success: by how your team performs on the court.

But that’s not how Donald measured success. Because he was making money off the team the same way he was off his properties — just by holding on to them and investing the bare minimum. And by following that one abiding principle: Location, location, location.

ALAN ROTHENBERG: his philosophy is, “I’ve got a team in the heart of Los Angeles. The people are coming out because they’re fans of the NBA and the visiting teams. 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: It’s true. For a long time, Clippers ads would feature the OTHER teams’ players. Come see the Clippers play Michael Jordan or Charles Barkley. To Sterling, a ticket sold was a ticket sold.

And if Donald could just sell tickets based on other team’s stars, why should he bother trying to get any of his own?

PETE BABCOCK: Each year negotiations about the draft picks were extremely difficult. Instead of meeting halfway or one side coming down, the other side coming up some, and trying to compromise, our ownership’s position was, “We just keep lowering the offer every week.”

JEROME STANLEY: You see you knew Donald could always come in and undermine a deal. 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: After his early days as Jerry Buss’ assistant, Jerome Stanley went on to be a player agent … and no agent ever wanted to deal with the Clippers…because of Donald.

JEROME STANLEY: Donald was known for breaking his word in a deal. So you always had to know that when you’re dealing with the Clippers that anything could happen at any moment.

ALAN ROTHENBERG: Donald, with his training as a PI lawyer, most of the time, you’re getting your money in a settlement from the insurance company. And you never accept the first offer, because it’s not the real offer, and the best offer is at the courthouse steps. 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: This negotiating tactic had made Donald hundreds of millions of dollars in his real estate business, but the courtroom steps approach doesn’t work in the NBA. Because in the NBA you’re dealing with people, not buildings. 

DON CASEY: Donald what you don’t realize is your buildings, they can’t talk back to you. Human beings can talk back to you.

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Don Casey was the head coach of the Clippers for one year, in 1989. That was the year the Clippers’ first round draft pick, Danny Ferry, opted to sign with an Italian team rather than play for Donald Sterling’s team. The reputation of the Clippers was that bad. 

LARRY BURNETT: In three different seasons, they didn’t even win 20 games. That makes them the losing-est NBA team of the ‘80s.]

RAMONA SHELBURNE: And working for the losing-est team was about as dysfunctional as you’d expect it to be

DON CASEY: When it gets dicey, they call it the bunker mentality. Every door is closed. You walking up and down, the doors are all closed. You don’t want to see or they don’t want to be involved or they don’t know what to say.


RAMONA SHELBURNE: While a good owner might take a struggling team and grab the reins, Sterling was just the opposite.

DON CASEY: the last two weeks of season, he would start disappearing. He’s not around because somebody else is going to fire you. 


RALPH LAWLER: He would call me down to his office on Wilshire in Beverly Hills. I’d go upstairs and sit in this giant room with hardly any furniture. This marvelous desk and a couple of expensive pieces and you’d sit there in this parquet floor and he would want to know everything that he thought he was not privy to from the general manager or the PR people or the coach or whatever, and would ask you a bunch of questions, none of which you wanted to answer.

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Perhaps no move better exemplified Donald Sterling as an owner than moving to the Staples Center.

The Staples Center was a wildly ambitious project in Downtown Los Angeles. Developed by the owners of the LA Kings hockey team. A brand new arena. Meant to accommodate multiple teams, able to handle both hockey and basketball on the same day. State of the art concert venue… the kind of new digs that sports franchises dream of… but if you’re trying to launch the fanciest new sports arena in LA, you might want to be able to say you’ve got LA’s best sports team on board. The hurdle for the developers though: The Forum. Jerry Buss not only owned the Lakers, he also owned the building they played in.

ALAN ROTHENBERG: So why is he going to move the team from his building?

RAMONA SHELBURNE: For maybe the first time in Clippers history, they had a huge advantage by being the underdog. The Staples Center had to have an NBA team, and they had no choice but to go to the Clippers. 

ALAN ROTHENBERG: And they negotiated with Donald. the Clippers would have been the prime tenant and therefore with the best terms, and the best choice of dates. 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Donald knew he had the upper hand, so he dug in his heels and waited. The courtroom steps.

ALAN ROTHENBERG: Again, negotiated, negotiated, negotiated, couldn’t do a deal.

RAMONA SHELBURNE: What he failed to appreciate was that he needed the developers more than they needed him… So as Donald wasted their time with never-ending negotiations they decided.

ALAN ROTHENBERG: Okay, we’re going to go all the way now, and buy part of the Lakers, and get Jerry to move the team into Staples.

RAMONA SHELBURNE: They made Jerry Buss a deal he couldn’t refuse. Construction began with the Lakers as their prime tenant, and then their LA Kings. By the time Donald finally agreed to terms, the Clippers were third billing. Worst dates. Worst locker rooms. Worst everything. 

But even when he lost, he won. The Clippers began playing at the Staples Center in 1999. And that, along with the accompanying cable TV deal, drastically boosted the value of the team — without him having to agree to any big money contracts with star players… or winning a single game. Ticket sales increased by 266%. Because it was downtown. Because it was a shiny new venue that people wanted to go to. Because it was the same place the Lakers played. If you couldn’t get into a Lakers game, maybe you’d check out the Clippers.  

And all that increased revenue…went right into Donald Sterling’s pocket. He’d only paid 12 and a half million for the team in the first place. The profit margin was incredible. 

You know who he didn’t share it with/who didn’t profit from it? Anyone who played for him.

Nobody had to bear the burden of Donald’s cheapness as an owner more than his own players.

ALAN ROTHENBERG: “Why should I spend any more money? It’s crazy. Any money that I spend on these players is just giving money from my pocket to the players.” 

DARIUS MILES: We definitely noticed that stuff was different between our team and the other teams. When I got to Cleveland, Cleveland had their own plane. Their practice facility was in the stadium. 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Darius Miles was drafted alongside his good friend Quentin Richardson in 2000. They quickly learned that there was no such luxury for Clippers players. In fact, the team didn’t even have its own practice facility. They practiced at Southwest LA College, a junior college. 

Q RICHARDSON: you’ve got a professional team, and they’re practicing at a facility that isn’t even suitable for a D-1 college team. This is like a junior college, well, not “like”, this is a junior college that we’re practicing in.

DARIUS MILES: They used to tell us, don’t go two blocks over. That’s the hood. we couldn’t take showers at the practice. weight room was like, we all couldn’t be in there at the same time. And there was only 12 of us on the basketball team. 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Donald Sterling had owned the Clippers for almost 20 years at this point. He was long past the grace period of not knowing any better. He was choosing, and had chosen over his entire tenure as an owner, not to understand or do what would be required of a winning organization. To show no courtesy or respect to his players. 

DON CASEY: He would sit there and literally, a play would go, and
he would go sending these signs, like all visible signs of discontent. Some games he
would leave early, walk up and down, and slowly down it’s like eight minutes to go in
the game.

RAMONA SHELBURNE: He used to sit in his courtside seats and heckle his own players.

ROY FIRESTONE: he had harassed players as they ran up and down the court. “Hey Pooh! Pooh Richardson. I’m paying you enough goddamn money…” While the guy’s in the game. Here’s the owner of the team sitting in the chair at sideline, yelling at his players on the court while the game is going on. Have you ever heard of anything like that?

RAMONA SHELBURNE: The whole situation was one big mess that never seemed to get any better. The Clippers players did their best to steer clear of Donald. No one wanted anything to do with him.

DARIUS MILES: Sometimes we used to stay in the showers long. We used to see him in there, stay in the shower longer or go in the training room. We kinda avoid him when we see him coming in.


RAMONA SHELBURNE: The locker room was Donald’s favorite place to visit his players.

Q RICHARDSON: And out of nowhere, here he comes. He rolls in, he’s got his entourage with him like, women, men. Sometimes it could be more than ten people, He comes in and obviously, when the owner comes in everybody’s going to kind of stop, turn around, give him the proper attention. But it’s like, people literally coming in and out of the shower, towels on, half not dressed, half, you know what I’m saying, naked and stuff like that. 

DARIUS MILES: He come in with his group of people and it was just like, “Look how beautiful my players is.” “Look how beautiful you guys is. And you doing so well.” “Aren’t they beautiful” to the people that he with and you know, stuff like that.

RAMONA SHELBURNE: It doesn’t matter what generation of Clippers players I talk to, everyone has uncomfortable Donald Sterling locker room stories. 

OLDEN POLYNICE:  It’s like he walks in the locker room and I have a towel on.


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Olden Polynice put up with the same stuff when he joined the Clippers in 1991

OLDEN POLYNICE: So I’m sitting there and I’m the only guy in the locker room. and he said, “Hey Olden, how you doing?” He put his hand on my shoulder, he’s rubbing, “Look how big and strong he is. Wow, look at that.” I’m like, “Okay, this is getting a little awkward.” So I put my hand out, shake his hand. His friends, shake their hands and say, “How y’all doing?” He goes right back, “Wow, look at these muscles.” I’m like, “Oh hell. What the fuck is going on here?” So I’m sitting there, now I’m starting to sweat a little bit. Because I’m like, “Nobody’s in here. There’s a reason why they left.” And it’s like he just kept looking at me like, “Wow, look at this buck.” Now when he said that, that’s when I, “Oh shit.” I’m like, “Buck? I was like what the fuck?”

OLDEN POLYNICE: Black slave on the trading block, yes. I’m telling you that’s when I was like, “Holy shit.” That fucked me up.

RAMONA SHELBURNE: It was clear Donald saw his players as his property, and always had. 

It’s right there in that same early interview, right after he bought the team


DONALD STERLING: I must say that I was rather naive when I bought the team. I was under the distinct impression that one that owns a professional franchise just shops around to find which player meets his needs and he buys them. I find that the more desirable the player the more difficult it is to acquire that player and so there are several players that we wanted and were prepared to pay for but weren’t available.]

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Even in a league where there are “owners” and players are “traded,” Donald’s views crossed a line. Most people understand you don’t “buy” other human beings. Donald didn’t. He didn’t even know enough not to say it out loud. At best, he saw his players as employees who worked for him and should be grateful he gave them a job. At worst, he saw them as property he owned. Their value established only by what they could be sold for.

But no one was going to call him out on it or make him deal with the consequences. Not at the parties, not in the locker room, not in the press, not in the NBA league office.


JEROME STANLEY: He had become so… So bloated. That’s the word. So bloated with being rich, being able to do what he wanted to do and have everything come back to him that he had a disconnect with what he could do, what he could get away with, what’s right and what was wrong. And what sounded wrong. He had lost his connection, because people had patronized him for so long. He had lost his ability to connect with the real consequences in life.



This season of 30 for 30 Podcasts was produced in association with The Undefeated.

Reported & hosted by Ramona Shelburne

Executive Producer: Julia Lowrie Henderson

Story Editors: Erin Leyden, Jody Avirgan, and Raina Kelley

Producers: Meradith Hoddinott, Ryan Kailath, Stephen Hoffman, and Lauren Gaffney

Archival Producer: Jason Heilig

Associate Producer: Vin D’Anton 

Production Assistants: Derwin Graham, Eve Wulf, and Jefferson Yen

Production Managers: Cath Sankey and Jennifer Thorpe

Original Music by Hannis Brown

Mix Engineering by Hannis Brown and David Herman

Production assistance from Adam Braunstein at ESPN LA radio

The 30 for 30 Podcasts team also includes Mitra Kaboli, Andrew Mambo, Ryan Nantell

Executive Producers for ESPN: Connor Schell, Rob King, Libby Geist & Kevin Merida

Director of Development: Adam Neuhaus

ESPN Audio: Traug Keller, Tom Ricks, Megan Judge, Pete Gianesini, Ryan Granner

This season was produced in collaboration with Western Sound:

Executive Producer: Ben Adair

The Western Sound team also includes: Cameron Kell and Stepfanie Aguilar

Natalie Meade provided fact checking. Hayley Fox did legal research.

Counsel for Creators provided legal counsel.

Special thanks to Stacey Pressman, Mario Ruiz, Chris Morales, and ESPN LA radio

JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE! Courtesy of 12:05 AM Productions, LLC and Jimmy Kimmel Live!