Season Five: The Sterling Affairs Episode 3

Donald and Shelly Sterling escaped poverty, reinvented themselves, and became the biggest residential landlords in LA. But in housing and basketball, they never had to face the consequences of their actions.

51 mins




ALAN ROTHENBERG: Donald’s father died. We go to the funeral. And as we’re going in, I ask, “Where’s the Tokowitz funeral?” And Georgina, my wife said, “No, no, it’s Sterling.” I said, “Honey, no, it’s Tokowitz.” She said, “What are you talking about?” I said, “The T in Donald T Sterling, his name had been Tokowitz, and he changed it to Sterling.” 


RAMONA SHELBURNE: This is episode 3: Property 


The year was 1960, Donald and Shelly Tokowitz had been married for four years. Donald had finished law school and they were moving their way up, through better and better neighborhoods, inching closer to that Beverly Hills zip code that would mean they’d really made it. But that last name, Tokowitz — it was a problem for them.

SHELLY STERLING: People thought, you know, “What kind of name is that? Who are you married to? What kind of person with that name?” And it just was very hard to say and pronounce, and to write, and he felt now that he’s an attorney he wants to have it easy where people will recognize the name, and know the name. 


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Donald needed to present to the world a name that would be worthy of the heights he intended to climb: Sterling.

SHELLY STERLING: We went through tons of names and that was one of the names that stuck.


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Sterling was more than just a new last name. It was an invention. A new identity created by a young couple in pursuit of big things. And why not? This was LA after all. A city full of dreamers, trying to trade their ordinary life for something a little more fabulous.


Donald Sterling was born during the Great Depression into a poor family. He grew up in one of Los Angeles’ poorest neighborhoods — Boyle Heights. He was the son of Jewish immigrants. His father Mickey peddled junk and produce. As a young man, Donald would get up in the wee hours of the morning to go down to the market and help his father stock boxes.


Donald met Shelly in their senior year of high school — he was Donald Tokowitz and she was Shelly Stein. 

SHELLY STERLING: He was very nice, and very cute, and we were like the great couple in school. And you know, he was a gymnast, and I was a cheerleader, so we really got along very good. 


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Shelly and Donald were students at Roosevelt High.

BRUCE PHILLIPS: Roosevelt High School had this kind of historic significance as being the melting pot high school. And this was an era of segregation, legal segregation in America…


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Bruce Phillips is a professor of Sociology and Jewish Communal studies, his family is from Boyle Heights. 

BRUCE PHILLIPS: Here was a high school that brought together all these different kinds of kids.

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Dave Galfond also grew up in Boyle Heights, and went to school with Donald Sterling. 

DAVE GALFOND: As time went on, it became more and more mixed. By the time I got into high school it was Jewish people, black people, Italian people, Asian people, Russian people. A real United Nations. 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Growing up in Boyle Heights, a kid like Donald would come to understand just how important location was on the trajectory of a person’s life. In LA at that time, the city was largely divided by the Los Angeles River: East side — mixed and poor. West side — white and wealthy. 

DAVE GALFOND: We would go out to the west side for dances and whatnot when we got older. And saw how those folks dressed and the cars they drove. So we were aware that we were on a different society level. The houses were bigger, nicer, cleaner streets, the trees and all of that, much nicer than Boyle Heights.

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Donald knew that there was more out there, more than getting up in the middle of the night to peddle fruit and hardly make enough money to scrape by. He’d seen it. He just had to get out of Boyle Heights.

But that was easier said than done. Especially during a time when housing discrimination was a policy of the federal government, and in the eyes of many, including housing laws, Jews weren’t seen as white. 

But Jews could pass for white, especially if they dropped the dead give away of the berg or the stein or the witz from their last names.

BRUCE PHILLIPS: Jews could get around some of the housing covenants just by changing their names, and they could pass, and buy a house.


RAMONA SHELBURNE: And that’s what Donald and Shelly Tokowitz did: after they graduated from Roosevelt High in 1952, Shelly went to work to help put Donald through college, they married, and he became a lawyer, and they ditched that obviously Jewish name and became the Sterlings.


It sounds like the beginning of a classic American rags-to-riches story. Which is a story Sterling could have, and probably should have, been proud of.


Instead, all Donald wanted to do was bury it.

MICHAEL SELSMAN: Don never talked about his upbringing.


MARLENE SELSMAN: Because he does not want to be seen as ever having been poor. 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Michael Selsman and his younger sister Marlene got to know the Sterlings in a way few others would. They met in the early 60s, when Donald and Shelly moved into their first Beverly Hills apartment. Their downstairs neighbors: teenage Marlene Selsman and her mother, Rosie. 


MARLENE SELSMAN: We were neighbors and he was a workaholic. And he would work at the office til two o’clock in the morning and Shelly was home alone bored so my mother, who was like Mother Earth, took her in. She ate dinner at our house every night. 


RAMONA SHELBURNE: The Selsmans became like family to the Sterlings


MARLENE SELSMAN: We were like the Gabors. People would say, “Oh, you’re sisters!” And we’d have to explain that we weren’t sisters. We looked alike, we talked alike, we thought alike, we acted…But we’re not physically related.


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Living in such close quarters in an apartment building, Marlene Selsman sometimes learned more about her neighbors than she wanted to. Especially when the young lawyer would come home late from “work” — smelling of some other woman’s perfume — and pick a fight.


MARLENE SELSMAN: I could hear every single word, which I really didn’t want to because I was trying to concentrate on my homework. And he said “Look it’s my way or the highway. This is who I am, that’s who you married.”



RAMONA SHELBURNE: The life Donald and Shelly were building together wasn’t perfect, but they were committed to it. 

There was a certain type of power and privilege that Donald yearned for, the kind that comes with money, real money. Sure, being a lawyer was a good way to make a buck. But you’re still working for somebody else. Real money comes from owning things. So Donald used the money from his law business to start buying up properties in Beverly Hills. And then together, he and Shelly built an empire. 



BEVERLY WHITE: The concrete canyons along Wilshire Corridor in Beverly Hills would not look the same without the presence of numerous high rise apartment buildings owned by billionaire Donald T. Sterling.]

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Donald and Shelly came to own so much of Wilshire Boulevard people started calling it the Sterling Corridor.


ROY FIRESTONE: He was a trash heap guy. 




ROY FIRESTONE: He was a guy who could find something from nothing and make money out of it. That was his calling card. You know I’m going to use the term slumlord. 


ROY FIRESTONE: He was impossible to miss. His name was on half of Beverly Hills.

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Sterling liked putting his name on everything, preferably in big gold letters: Sterling Plaza, Sterling Ambassador Tower, Sterling International Towers…


ROY FIRESTONE: When you look at Donald Sterling you have a tendency to want to compare him to Donald Trump West.

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Sterling LOVED that comparison. In fact, he invited it. He wanted everyone to think of him as rich, powerful, and dashing. So in 1989 he hired his longtime friend Michael Selsman to help him spread that message.

MICHAEL SELSMAN: I got him on the cover of California Magazine, as the man who would be Trump on the west coast.

RAMONA SHELBURNE: There it is, California Magazine, July 1989. The Man Who Would Be Trump in big white letters. Next to a picture of Donald, in a white Fila jumpsuit, unzipped down to his belly button, one arm raised towards the sky, the other holding a plastic Clippers mug. It was a mix of triumphant and tacky. Much like his buildings…

You can spot a Sterling building pretty easily: they’re the big, boxy, no personality apartment buildings in the nicer neighborhoods of LA. Sometimes a stucco facade, always painted a shade of pale yellow or pale beige, with white trim.

MICHAEL SELSMAN: He always bought buildings in which there were 40 or more apartments, that had a pool, and he coined the phrase, “ultra luxurious.”


RAMONA SHELBURNE: He gave them names like Wilshire Manhattan Towers or Santa Monica Emperor (with 162 properties they’ve long since run out of variations with the name Sterling).


MARLENE SELSMAN: He would buy a building that women had raised their children in, and were married, and lost their husbands, and he’d buy the building and triple the rent, forcing them out. And I’d say, “Don, how can you do this to these little old ladies? They’ve lived their whole lives in this apartment. Now they can’t afford it.” “Let their kids pay for it. Let them move to Fairfax. I don’t care. It’s my building now. I’m going to do what I want.” I said, “I don’t understand how you can do that. It just breaks my heart that you would do that.” Why do you think there is rent control in Los Angeles?


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Because of the Sterling’s.




RAMONA SHELBURNE: And it’s true. In 1986 Beverly Hills had to pass a rent control ordinance because Donald and Shelly would buy a building, slap a new coat of paint on it, and hike the rent. 


But it didn’t stop there. Or in Beverly Hills. Donald and Shelly’s real estate empire kept growing. And they found themselves buying up properties 6 miles down the road, along what is known as the mid-Wilshire corridor, in a neighborhood known as Koreatown.


CHANCELA AL-MANSOUR: A lot of developers saw Koreatown as the investment opportunity that it came to be.


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Chancela Al-Mansour is the Executive Director of the Housing Rights Center. 


Koreatown was no Beverly Hills. In fact, it was pretty much the opposite: a neighborhood that had been in decline for decades, that was still recovering from the Rodney King riots in 1992 and that was populated by a mix of ethnic groups: mostly Latino, African American, and Korean.


But Koreatown was in a great location. 


CHANCELA AL-MANSOUR: This area it’s very highly desirable if you live and work in Los Angeles, this mid-Wilshire corridor. 


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Location, location, location. So Donald and Shelly seized on the opportunity to buy into it cheap. And then they set to work trying to get the best return on their investment, by supporting the Korean residents and trying to force everyone else out.

The kid from Boyle Heights who grew up seeing what the levers of power could do to a neighborhood was now in control of those levers himself. He was reshaping the city in his image.


JOHN GREGORY: It’s clear Donald Sterling has no trouble having African-American basketball players on his Clippers team, but in his apartments some say he would rather pass. 

WOMAN ON STREET: I tried to apply for a place here and they denied me I had the money and everything. 

JOHN GREGORY: Why do you think they wouldn’t rent to you here? 

WOMAN ON STREET: Because I’m black, it’s evident. 

JOHN GREGORY: Sterling is now being sued by the Housing Rights Center for discriminating against African-Americans and Hispanics at two of his apartment buildings in Koreatown. The suit alleges apartment management is ignoring their needs and treating them unfairly.] 


RAMONA SHELBURNE: In February 2003, the Housing Rights Center filed a discrimination suit against Sterling on behalf of 6 tenants. The lawsuit claimed Sterling had said that he intended only to rent to Koreans because, quote, “They will take whatever conditions I give them and still pay the rent.” And that he had also told his employees that “black people smell and attract vermin” and “hispanics just smoke and hang around the building.”



TOM HARVEY: We’re now on the record. This is the videotaped deposition of Donald T. Sterling, volume 5. This matter is now pending in the superior court, State of California, with the County Los Angeles, the Central District.]



JOHN DENOVE: You have a zero tolerance policy against housing discrimination based upon race, correct?

DONALD STERLING: I would think so.
JOHN DENOVE: Do you know if you do or not?

DONALD STERLING: Well, did you want me to read something or …

JOHN DENOVE: As the owner of the company do you know if Beverly Hills Properties has a zero tolerance for housing discrimination based upon race?

DONALD STERLING: My lawyers told me we do in our handbook, is that what you mean?]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: As the Sterlings snatched up properties in Koreatown, their first order of business had been getting the old tenants out: the black and Latino people who had been living there.


CHANCELA AL-MANSOUR: One African-American woman who lived in one of the properties said that she had always been welcomed by the front door person who would always open the front door when she walked to the front door to open it for her. As soon as management changed, not only did the new door person not open the door for her, she was asked to show her identification upon entering her own residence. And we heard that from other black tenants as well, that they were basically intimidated and harassed when they tried to enter their own building.


JOHN DENOVE: Do you agree that it would be improper for you to suggest to a property supervisor that they not rent to African Americans?

DONALD STERLING: It would not be proper for me to ask anyone to murder anybody, or to kill anyone, or to violate any law whatsoever.

JOHN DENOVE: Let me ask the question again. Do you believe that it would be improper for you to suggest to a property supervisor that you would prefer that they didn’t rent to African Americans?

DONALD STERLING: Do I think it would be proper or improper?

JOHN DENOVE: Do you believe it would be improper for you to tell a property supervisor that you would prefer that they didn’t rent to African Americans?

Donald Sterling: Yes. That would be improper.]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Donald Sterling had been a successful real estate baron for three decades, he had a reputation for hard-nosed tactics, but this was, for many, the first time they got a glimpse of just how he operated and thought about the people he was renting to.


The lawsuit also included a video, shot by one of the tenants, showing Shelly Sterling entering his apartment building, claiming to be from the health department.



SHELLY STERLING: Did you take a picture of this too? 

TENANT: And you said you’re Miss Shelby from the Health Department?




CHANCELA AL-MANSOUR: The Sterlings and the managers, many of whom were Korean, were knocking on doors, going up and down hallways, allegedly telling tenants that they were just there to do a little inspection of their units to find out what the condition of the units were, so that if a repair was needed, they would know about it.


RAMONA SHELBURNE: But tenants were suspicious that these supposed inspections were pretext for something else. That the Sterlings were looking for evidence to evict them.


Shelly Sterling still contends she did nothing wrong. That she was doing what she normally did with the apartments — trying to upgrade them and maintain the properties. She still remembers the tenant who filmed her. 


SHELLY STERLING: He said to me, “Are you Miss Shelby from the health department?” I was so scared of this man. So I didn’t even hear pretty much what he said, because he had a big huge dog. And he opened his door, and I was scared. But I said, “Yes, yes, whatever.” And he was a hoarder. I mean it was bad, and we had to get rid of him because the inspector had gone in, and he put a jacuzzi there, and it was illegally wired. So I had to cite him, And so that’s why he was really upset with me.

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Now, when it came out later, it made … that story didn’t make you look good, right?

SHELLY STERLING: None of them did.


RAMONA SHELBURNE: The Sterlings settled with the Housing Rights Center in 2005, without admitting any wrongdoing.

CHANCELA AL-MANSOUR: For most of the families, I think they would say it was a favorable settlement agreement, but we did agree to a confidentiality clause, so I can’t disclose what ultimately happened with that lawsuit other than it was dismissed and the case was settled.


RAMONA SHELBURNE: The terms of that settlement are confidential, but the amount isn’t. The Sterlings paid almost 5 million dollars in attorney fees on behalf of the plaintiffs. 


But it wasn’t just housing discrimination that was getting Donald Sterling in legal trouble.



TOM HARVEY: Back on the record. This is the beginning of disc two of volume five in the continuing deposition of Donald T. Sterling.]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: His behavior towards women was about to catch up with him as well.



JOHN DENOVE: Have you engaged in sexual activity at your office?



RAMONA SHELBURNE: Sterling had been enjoying the company of women who were not his wife for a very long time. That was no secret. Right after he bought the Clippers he was bold enough to make his ex-model girlfriend the assistant general manager. But in the 90s and early 2000s some of his wandering eyes and hands and general horribleness with women started landing him in hot water.


Two separate female employees sued him for sexual harassment. He settled with the first, and won his case in court against the second. And then in 2002, Donald ended up in court with one of his mistresses — a young woman named Alexandra Castro. 



JOHN DENOVE: He first denied ever even knowing the woman. Later he testified that he barely knew her, later he testified she was a prostitute and he had sex with her in the office, sex with her all over Europe, sex with her all over the place.
DONALD STERLING: Your honor. That is so untrue. That is such a lie.]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Donald and Shelly first met Alexandra Castro in 1999, at a birthday party for Raiders owner Al Davis— the man who had given Sterling the blueprint for moving the Clippers to Los Angeles. Shortly after that party, Sterling and Castro entered into a relationship. Donald was 65-years-old. Castro was 27. 



DONALD STERLING: The girl was providing sex for money. She was exciting. It was exciting. I have to tell you and it was good. It was delicious and it was the best of the best, and maybe I morally did something wrong but I did it!]

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Doug Bagby was Castro’s attorney. 

DOUG BAGBY: He was trying to embarrass Miss Castro and make her feel very uncomfortable about being in a lawsuit with him. Because she did attend the deposition of Mr. Sterling and she was sitting there and he was making some highly defamatory, derogatory remarks about her during the deposition.


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Donald’s deposition was truly grotesque.


“Well, I fool around sometimes. I do,” he admitted, “When a girl seduces me and tells me all of these hot stories and dirty things and tells me how much she wants to suck on me and takes my shoes off and licks my feet and touches me. When I’m in a limousine, she takes all of her clothes. The limo driver said, ‘What is going on?’ And she started sucking me on the way to Mr. Koon’s house. And I thank her. I thank her for making me feel so good.”


Castro’s attorney Doug Bagby had to interrupt him “Sir, the question was, is this your handwriting?”


Everything about the situation was as strange and uncomfortable as Donald Sterling using the word suck over and over and over again. This hadn’t been your run of the mill rich old guy and mistress arrangement. Castro drove Donald around, she cooked for him, she scheduled appointments for him, she got the weekend papers for him. Sterling asked her to bathe him, and dress him, to brush his hair, to pick out his clothes. She claims that if she didn’t put his socks on the right way, he would make her take them off and try again.


It sounds a lot like the way V. Stiviano described her relationship with Donald Sterling a decade later

V. STIVIANO: I’m Mr. Sterling’s right hand arm, man. I’m Mr. Sterling everything. I’m his confidant, his best friend … His silly rabbit.]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Also like V., it was a piece of property Donald purchased for his mistress that landed them in court. Donald and Shelly sued Castro over the Beverly Hills house he bought for her.


And when Castro wouldn’t back down, Shelly went ahead and took control. Not by confronting Donald, but by going after the “other woman.” She filed her own lawsuit against Castro “solely as a married woman seeking to protect and recover her community property in her individual capacity.” These are the same words that would grace the lawsuit she filed against V. Stiviano eleven years later. 


MARLENE SELSMAN: She always comes in for the save. She’s like Mayday Malone. Remember, from Cheers? She comes right in and like Super Girl, if a person’s falling, and she’ll just catch them as they fall. 


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Ultimately, Shelly saved the day and the Sterlings prevailed. They had more resources, and better lawyers. Donald and Shelly forced Castro to settle before the case could go to trial. 


You might think that either this case or the housing discrimination case, let alone the combination of the two, would be a bit of a black eye for the Sterlings, and might elicit a little remorse and at least temporarily improved behavior. 


But you would be wrong. Donald Sterling LOVES the chance to argue in court, even if he’s in the hot seat. And he doesn’t mind throwing a few million dollars at a problem to make it go away. Donald just kept right on being Donald. Even as he got into bigger and bigger trouble with his real estate activities.


BEVERLY WHITE: The U.S. Department of Justice is suing the real estate mogul and owner of the L.A. Clippers basketball team for allegedly discriminating against prospective renters based on race and family status]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: In 2006, Donald faced his biggest foe yet. The US Department of Justice came knocking on their door. They sued the Sterlings for housing discrimination. 


BEVERLY WHITE: U.S. Attorney Debra Wong Yang says here in Los Angeles where housing is already at a premium it is imperative that no one be denied housing simply because of skin color, ethnic background or because they have children.] 


RAMONA SHELBURNE: It’s a big deal when the federal government decides you’re a big enough problem that they need to investigate you and file a lawsuit.


BEVERLY WHITE: Federal attorneys who specialize in housing in Washington D.C. are handling the matter which will be resolved in Los Angeles.]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Like a really big deal. So big, in fact, one might wonder, what did the NBA think about all of this? 


Turns out, not much.


TODD BOYD: No one was even talking about it


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Todd Boyd is a professor at the University of Southern California. He writes about the intersection of American popular culture, race and sports.


At the time, the NBA was dealing with lots of questions about race. This was a moment when black players and black culture were coming to the forefront of the league. 


TODD BOYD: This is, this period of time when you could visibly see the impact of hip hop culture on basketball. 


RAMONA SHELBURNE: The owners, who all happened to be white, felt threatened.


So they enacted rules to try to mute the impact of hip hop culture and reassert control. No incident accelerated this reaction more than 2004’s Malice at the Palace. It was one of the ugliest moments in NBA history: when a brawl between the Pistons and the Pacers spread into the stands, with players and fans throwing punches and beer at one another.

ANN CURRY: Today the NBA Players union is expected to appeal massive suspensions handed down after a brawl in Michigan during a game between the Pacers and the Pistons. It was one of the most violent clashes between players and fans in US sports history.]

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Most of the players involved were black, and most of the fans involved were white. Nothing about it looked good for the NBA. And so the NBA came down hard on the players.

TODD BOYD: There’s been this long history of the black athlete being represented as out of control, as potentially criminal in some cases. And if not criminal certainly doing all sorts of things that people would consider inappropriate.

RAMONA SHELBURNE: In October 2005, the NBA became the first sports league to institute a dress code for its players.

MIKE GREENBERG: Players must dress in business casual attire during any team or league business. So expect to see sports jackets and slacks, rather than throwback jerseys and t-shirts]


RIC BUCHER: They don’t want their players looking like rappers. They want em looking like the people that are buying tickets. That’s what’s behind this. That’s why they’re implementing it.] 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: But while the league was so concerned about policing the behavior of its players, no one was batting an eyelash about Donald Sterling when the Justice Department came after him in 2006.


TODD BOYD: If an NBA player got a parking ticket, somebody’s going to write a story about it. But an NBA owner can be guilty of something as egregious as housing discrimination, and it’s like whatever.

RAMONA SHELBURNE: It’s that way in no small part because the owners don’t answer to the league — the league answers to the owners. The commissioner literally works for them. Of course they wouldn’t be held to the same level of scrutiny. 

But this was the time where the league SHOULD have dealt with Donald Sterling. All the signs were there. But they didn’t. And if they had thought of it, that moment vanished when they also became implicated. In 2008, Donald Sterling fired his longtime General Manager, Elgin Baylor. 


BOB LEY: The club said that Baylor resigned while the 74 year old Hall of Famer is suggesting it is more acrimonious than that. His departure from the payroll of owner Donald Sterling punctuates one of the strangest tenures of any sporting executive.] 


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Elgin, a Hall of Fame basketball player for the Lakers, had been dealing with Donald’s complete lack of competence as an owner for decades. 


ELGIN BAYLOR: It was like working with one hand tied behind my back.] 


ROY FIRESTONE: Imagine how many years Elgin Baylor put up with that crap. 




ROY FIRESTONE: And you know, he needed the gig. He needed the gig. The way Elgin Baylor was treated was the most disgraceful thing I’d ever seen in sports for an executive.


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Elgin had watched Donald squander deals, players, opportunities. And, as a black general manager trying to advocate for mostly black players, he’d had to endure the worst of Donald and how he saw the world.


ROY FIRESTONE:  Elgin Baylor famously said of Sterling that he wanted the Clippers to be comprised and composed of poor black guys from the south and the white head coach, the plantation owner. 


RAMONA SHELBURNE: When Donald forced Elgin out, he sued — Donald, the Clippers, Andy Roeser, and the NBA. 


TONY KORNHEISER: At a news conference this week, Baylor who is seeking unspecified money said that Sterling had a plantation mentality.]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Elgin’s suit claimed the NBA had known all along about Donald. That they received all the financials of every team in the league…and that they knew full well that Donald Sterling had underpaid Elgin, both in respect to what other GMs made, but also in respect to what he paid white executives on the Clippers payroll. 



LAWYER: It is offensive that Elgin Baylor would have been paid a salary which based on comparable salary of NBA general managers is a disgrace.]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Elgin didn’t win in court…it was hard to convince a jury that the GM who had been with the Clippers through all of those losing seasons hadn’t deserved to be let go. But in protecting itself against claims of discrimination by one of their owners, the NBA had effectively cast their lot with Sterling. There was no way they were going after him now.


In 2009, things started to turn around for the Sterlings. For one, they put the housing suits behind them. They settled with the Department of Justice 


MIKE FISH: That case resulted in a record two point seven million dollar settlement in 2009. The Sterlings agreed to correct discriminatory practices but once again did not admit any guilt.]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: All told, the Sterlings paid at least $8 million to settle their housing discrimination cases. $8 million was pocket change to them. And Donald Sterling didn’t get so much as a single game suspension for any of it. 


Instead, it felt like in some perverse way the universe was rewarding Donald Sterling.



DAVID STERN: With the first pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, the Los Angeles Clippers select Blake Griffin. ]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: In spite of all of his misdeeds, his team was getting the most anticipated draft pick in years.


STUART SCOTT: Hugs, kisses, a lot of love around. As expected Blake Griffin, the all galaxy, all everything forward from the University of Oklahoma goes number one … ]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: From 1981 to 2009, the Clippers had 36 first round draft picks. Almost all of them didn’t pan out. But Blake Griffin was different. In the 6’ 10” power forward from Oklahoma, Donald Sterling had finally drafted a star. A player whose name everyone would know, whose slam dunks everyone would talk about…and a player that every other owner would envy.


BLAKE GRIFFIN: My name is Blake Griffin. I played for the Los Angeles Clippers from 2009 to 2018.



MIKE TIRICO: This is a debut for the Clippers, the Blazers one – and on cue Griffin, with his first NBA basket – on the lob.]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: It didn’t take long at all for Blake to realize exactly whose team he’d landed on.


BLAKE GRIFFIN: There were rumblings about Donald Sterling at the time. You could look up the lawsuits online. I remember one of the first things my mom said to me was, “Well, I researched your owner and it seems like he’s had some trouble, some incidents with lawsuits and racial profiling and stuff like that.” I kind of just said to her at the time, “Yeah, you know, it’s kind of a known thing within the NBA.” 


RAMONA SHELBURNE: So Blake put his head down and did what he’d always wanted to do — play basketball.



MIKE TIRICO: Griffin flying in to keep it alive! And continues to be aggressive and impressive.]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: On the court, Blake made an immediate impact. 



MIKE TIRICO: Blake Griffin! In the last 90 seconds, has given ya everything that Clippers fans have hoped they would see]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Off the court, he signed big endorsements with major car and shoe companies, and even entered the cultural zeitgeist. Something that was very un Clipper-like.



CONAN O’BRIEN: All right. Everybody, we’re back. My next guest is a member of the Los Angeles Clippers who was just named the NBA Rookie of the year.] 


RAMONA SHELBURNE: At last, Donald Sterling had his Magic Johnson. 


Except Donald and Blake were never going to have what Jerry Buss and Magic had. That relationship was built on trust and respect. It was a friendship and a partnership. Donald treated Blake like a prized possession, a trophy.



DONALD STERLING: The next one I want to introduce you to — maybe I’ve had too much wine.] 


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Donald was eager to show off his new acquisition. And there was no better place than at the season kick off white party.



DONALD STERLING: One of the finest athletes I’ve ever met. I want him to say a few words the one and only number one choice in America. Blake Griffin. 


BLAKE GRIFFIN: Oh thank you guys. I just want to say you know we’re excited as a team and you know we can’t wait to get started … (Donald Sterling interjects, off mic) Oklahoma was nothing like California.]


BLAKE GRIFFIN: He used to always say that. That was like…



BLAKE GRIFFIN: We need your support so thank you guys. And, hopefully, we have a good season.] 


BLAKE GRIFFIN:  That’s wild. 


RAMONA SHELBURNE: So, when you see that, when you see yourself being put in that situation, what were you feeling when he made you do that?

BLAKE GRIFFIN: That was so early in my career. Like I said, I think I was 20 at that time, 21 maybe, and hadn’t really played a game yet. You try to handle it as best as possible. It’s just crazy, watching that and seeing how cringe-worthy it all is. You just don’t want to be there, you know what I mean? It’s sad to say, but we got used to it. You know?

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Who was going to tell Donald Sterling that it was cringe-worthy?

BLAKE GRIFFIN: Nobody. You’re not going to tell the guy writing the checks that this is weird. 

BLAKE GRIFFIN: I kind of always used, when I was describing it to my friends or whoever, I used the term we were his racehorses or show horses. He would come in the locker room after games and he would bring people in to see us. I remember at times he would grab my arm and feel my arm and tell other people, like, “Feel his muscles,” and touch my stomach and stuff. I was 19, 20, 21 when this was happening. That made me feel like I was a possession or a thing that he had acquired. You could say different degrees of a plantation owner mentality. 

SANDY BANKS: There was always this sense that he had a “plantation mentality.” But you didn’t as an outsider hear the specifics. What does that mean?


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Sandy Banks was a columnist for the LA Times. 


SANDY BANKS: I had written about Donald Sterling when he was in trouble for discriminating in housing and not renting to blacks, to Latinos, to families…

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Sandy was well aware of everything Donald Sterling had been accused of. So a new set of ads in the paper, appearing right around the same time Donald was settling his suits, caught her attention.


SANDY BANKS: He was taking out all these ads in the paper promoting his generosity and his donations.


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Sterling had been taking out ads and billboards in praise of himself since his early San Diego days. But these were different.


SANDY BANKS: The ads all said, “What a great man Donald Sterling is. Generosity of Donald Sterling. Humanitarian award to Donald Sterling.”  


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Literally the opposite of what every other story in the paper said about him.


SANDY BANKS: And they all look like cut and paste ads like a third grader made them. There would be Donald Sterling surrounded by a bunch of black people who had been pasted in, and I just wondered, “What’s up with this guy?” So I got an invitation to the holiday summit.


RAMONA SHELBURNE: The Donald Sterling Charitable Foundation Summit — part charity event, part holiday party, but mostly the Donald Sterling show.


SANDY BANKS: He’d made a big deal of giving a million dollars to… I think it was 10 different schools and charities mostly dealing with minorities and low-income folks, and so he wanted a big party to celebrate that. 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: So he threw one for himself, where he could make a big show of handing out these awards.

SANDY BANKS: It was the top floor of a Beverly Hills Hotel. Very elaborate, the minute I walked in he took me over to Blake Griffin who had just come here. And he said do you want… I’m sure you meet him, beautiful woman, good looking guy, sure you want to meet him. And had us take pictures together and kind of marching Blake around the whole night having him take pictures. 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Blake Griffin, his prize racehorse. To borrow Blake’s word — it was cringeworthy.

SANDY BANKS: At the part when he started talking to the whole crowd, when he introduced Blake, he did some little spiel in Spanish, as if he thought that Blake Griffin… and he said something about being Hispanic. And I said okay, that’s odd but I thought, I mean I think maybe he just thought he’s Hispanic. It’s what he looked like to him.

RAMONA SHELBURNE: And that’s how the whole night went.


SANDY BANKS: The thing that stood out most was he was handing out those grants was how little he knew about anybody or anything that he was giving money to, and how much his presumption rested on basically what the person looked like, who came to get the award. 


SANDY BANKS: The first award, he was giving it to Roosevelt High School, which is a high school in East LA. 


RAMONA SHELBURNE: The school Donald had attended as a teenager.


SANDY BANKS: And he said, “This is a school where nobody thought the Hispanic kids could learn, and study calculus, until that teacher came along.” Well the teacher he was talking about was Jaime Escalante.


RAMONA SHELBURNE: The guy whose story became the movie Stand and Deliver. Except Jaime Esclante didn’t teach at Roosevelt. He taught at the rival high school in East LA, Garfield.


SANDY BANKS:  So that was wrong and then it was every time. Belmont High School, was getting a grant. And there was the Counselor, John Kim, And so he presumed that because it was an Asian Counselor, it must be an Asian school. So he said, “Oh, what is that? Now it’s mostly Asian now, right?” And he said, “No, it’s 88% Latino.” And then he introduced Leroy Jenkins, who he said is “One of the most fabulous men to ever run a charity.” And his name is not Leroy Jenkins, it’s Leon Jenkins. And the charity is the NAACP. And he was oblivious to any of the mistakes he made. When people would correct him, he would just say, “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.” And then he’d go on and make another mistake, and there was no shame. And it was just clear that he didn’t … he didn’t see these as people, he saw these as representatives of some group that he wanted to be on record now as helping.


RAMONA SHELBURNE: When Sandy got invited to Donald’s charity summit, she thought she knew exactly what to expect.


SANDY BANKS: I went there prepared to kind of skewer and attack him, and had all my research done. 


RAMONA SHELBURNE: But Sandy found that harder to do than she expected.


SANDY BANKS: I, as a Black woman, felt furious at him. As a reporter I wanted to, “Gotcha.” But as a columnist, I felt compelled to present a more complicated picture of him. The picture that I got of him which I found myself unable to despise him. I felt sorry for him, and I mean, he was an embarrassment to himself and to, I think, most of the people who were watching. But it didn’t come across as malicious, just clownish. You know there was eye-rolling all around, even as people were accepting those grants. But nobody gave them back, you know. 


SANDY BANKS: I saw him as somebody, an old guy who carries around the old prejudices of people. He grew up in Boyle Heights which was very Jewish, but then waves of immigrants from all over and then it later became very Latino, and he was the son of a produce dealer. Changed his name from Donny Tokowitz to be Donald Sterling ’cause he was ashamed of being Jewish. And he’s always been wanting to be accepted, to be like the big guy. You know, the popular athlete. The guy that gets the girls.

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Sandy Banks saw Sterling for who he was — a man unable to stop himself from making tasteless jokes and impolitic comments, but also a man who couldn’t escape his upbringing…and a man still desperately trying to get to the top.


RAMONA SHELBURNE: The Clippers were also trying desperately to get to the top. It’s a long slog, coming from the bottom, having been there for decades. But for the first time, the team was actually making moves to get there. They were building. After the addition of Blake Griffin in 2009, came a huge trade in 2011 that got them another star. A superstar.



LINDSAY CZARNIAK: Breaking news here into SportsCenter, it had been rumored for a while, was he going to the Lakers? No. Is he going to the Clippers? Yes … ]


STEVE LEVY: Chris Paul, not only instant offense but also instant credibility, as Blake Griffin put it today, when basketball fans hear about the Clippers, quote, it’s not going to be a joke anymore.]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Getting Chris Paul was the beginning of a new chapter for the Clippers: Lob City.



RALPH LAWLER: He’s got the ball, he’s got Blake … SLAM DUNK!]


RALPH LAWLER: Here comes Chris Paul … the lob, the jam! Oh what a monster jam by DeAndre Jordan!]


RALPH LAWLER: Welcome to Lob City, ladies and gentlemen]


MICHAEL SMITH:  That’ll get things going the right way … 

RALPH LAWLER: It got me going!] 


RYAN HOLLINS: When I got there there was like the buzz and the hype. Chris Paul signing, the excitement of Blake Griffin the most exciting player in the NBA at that time.


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Ryan Hollins played ten seasons in the NBA. He signed with the Clippers in 2012. The year before he had played for a Boston Celtics team that finished first in the Eastern Conference. He knew what a winning team felt like. Moreover, he knew LA. He grew up in Pasadena, played college ball at UCLA. His entire LA basketball world was built around the Lakers being kings and the Clippers being a joke.


RYAN HOLLINS: But now we were so good that we created that energy that made like the Laker fans jealous like you guys had so many good years and right now the Clippers are running the NBA. 


RAMONA SHELBURNE: In 2013 the Clippers won their first Pacific Division title in franchise history.



MIKE BREEN: Enjoy the moment Clippers fans]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: And they clinched it with a win over the Lakers.



MIKE BREEN: as they will clinch their first division title in their franchise’s 43 years and do it with an extra sweet sweep of the LA Lakers.] 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: This was it, the moment it felt like a torch was being passed in LA. The Lakers were vulnerable. Jerry Buss had died a little more than a month earlier, and here were Donald’s Clippers finally getting the upper hand. Donald could finally be top dog. The 2013 Clippers were one of the most electric teams in the regular season, but fizzled early in the playoffs.


So Donald Sterling did the unthinkable…he listened to what his players wanted. 



GARY SACKS: This is truly one of the biggest moments in Clipper history, I’m definitely excited to be here to introduce Doc Rivers] 


RAMONA SHELBURNE: In June 2013, the Clippers announced they’d hired Doc Rivers as their new head coach. Chris Paul had more or less demanded it, and Donald had actually obliged. Rivers had led the Boston Celtics to a championship in 2008, and built a reputation as one of the best coaches in the NBA. 


We all knew what this meant



RAMONA SHELBURNE:  Well, I mean obviously you make a move like this because you want to get out of the first and second round of the playoffs.] 


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Doc was no stranger to Donald Sterling, he’d played for the Clippers back in 1991. He’d only lasted a year, he could not stand Sterling. This was no secret. So when he signed on to coach the Clippers in 2013, he went in with his eyes wide open. He knew who he was dealing with. That’s why he asked that the Clippers also name him Senior Vice President of Player Personnel. That gave him power over the team’s roster and to stand up to Sterling. This made Doc the face of the organization, he could be the shield, so Chris Paul and Blake Griffin could focus on the court.



REPORTER: With Doc Rivers arrival, and a championship ring on his finger, some see the Clippers as immediate title contenders …

DOC RIVERS: I like the expectations, I don’t run from those at all]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: Doc had what it took to win, his team believed that. They listened, they followed his lead. 





RAMONA SHELBURNE: And as the 2013-2014 season went on, they were focused and dominant.



MIKE BREEN: Bullet pass to Collison, alley oop to OHHH Griffin throws it down!! You could see that one coming all the way down the floor]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: The Clippers were like a whole new organization…one that was actually functional. 


Sure, Donald still made unannounced visits to the locker room with his entourage to show off his players. But president Andy Roeser and company worked hard at keeping Donald from the places where he could mess things up, namely basketball decisions.


RYAN HOLLINS: I don’t know if there is the understanding that you know some owners they know you’ve got a chance to win they get out they get out of the way. And for us we didn’t see him as much as he was prevalent in the past.


BLAKE GRIFFIN: Yeah, he did stay out of the way for a little bit but then it was almost like, okay, he’s been so quiet this season, this huge bomb has got to be coming. It’s got to be around the corner.


RAMONA SHELBURNE: That huge bomb was right there sitting courtside with Donald Sterling.


RYAN HOLLINS: It wasn’t a secret. You knew it was wrong. I guess it’s kind of like those billionaire issues, billionaire problems. Like, OK only you can have an arrangement you’re still married but the chick was there. 


RAMONA SHELBURNE: The thing is, as much as this might have seemed like just another old guy young mistress arrangement..this one was different. Even for Donald and Shelly who had been playing this game for almost as long as they’d been married.


Just 10 years before she met Donald Sterling, V. Stiviano had graduated from Roosevelt High — the same high school as Donald and Shelly. She was a poor kid from a tough neighborhood, and she’d gotten into her share of trouble trying to make something bigger of herself. Now here she was, the arm candy of the Clippers owner — and she seemed to live for the spotlight that came with it. She asserted herself in the Clippers world in a way that felt more wife than mistress.


RYAN HOLLINS: I mean she would pop into the family room. She will pop in like she was very evident. 


RAMONA SHELBURNE: And Shelly Sterling noticed. She was paying excruciating attention to V.’s behavior. Because this was the most pressing threat she had ever faced in almost 60 years of marriage. This woman had managed to drive a wedge between her and her husband, and she was threatening to take over. 


In the spring of 2014, as the Clippers were having the best season of their lives…Donald and Shelly Sterling were at an all time low. The bomb was ticking.


But the Clippers couldn’t hear it over the sound of all their winning.



RALPH LAWLER: Lays it in, Griffin knocks out a jump shout]



RALPH LAWLER: The Clippers have their 49th win of the year]



RALPH LAWLER: And time will expire and the Clippers get the win]



RALPH LAWLER: Griffin will turn spin shoot score!]



RALPH LAWLER: And with a victory, the Clippers clinch a spot in the playoffs for the third consecutive season]