The Sterling Affairs Episode 4

When the explosive tape of Donald Sterling broke, it came at a moment when power in the NBA was changing. Players, owners, and a new commissioner were faced with a major test that would re-shape the league.

43 mins

Transcript

 

[ESPN

REPORTER: I’m sure you were made aware about the comments of Donald Sterling.  Just wondering, your thoughts, and if were you surprised?

DOC RIVERS: I don’t know if I’m surprised or not. I didn’t like the comments obviously. I’m going to tell you now I’m speaking on behalf of the team so the players are not going to deal with this issue. A lot of guys voiced their opinions. None of them were happy about it. We’re trying to go after something that we’ve all dreamed about all our childhoods and Donald or anyone else has nothing to do with that dream. Right now our goals haven’t changed. Our focus is on Golden State and it’s going to stay on Golden State.]

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: This is Episode 4: Fallout

 

BLAKE GRIFFIN: Playoff basketball is the pinnacle of basketball. That’s what you play 82 games for. That’s what you go through training camp for. The ups and the downs of the seasons. The pain, the blood, sweat and tears.

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Blake Griffin and the Clippers were right in the middle of the playoffs when TMZ released that Donald Sterling tape. Late on Friday night, April 25, 2014. 

 

[TMZ
DONALD STERLING: I’m just saying, in your lousy Instagram, you don’t have to have yourself with, walking with black people. You don’t have to.]

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Everyone had heard it. It was all anyone could talk about all weekend. And now here it was, Sunday morning—not even 48 hours later, and the Clippers, who had a 2-1 lead in the series against the Golden State Warriors, were supposed to play Game 4 up in Oakland.

 

The players had worked their asses off, from the time they were too young to hold a regulation ball to get to this day. This was Sterling’s mess, not the players. And yet here it was, landing on their shoulders, consuming them. 

 

BLAKE GRIFFIN: I just remember as a team we had to talk about it almost every time we met, you know what I mean? Because it was that big of a thing.

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Clipper Coach, Doc Rivers, had seen a lot in his time. He’d experienced the highs and the lows of the NBA. First as a player, then as a coach. He’d also survived his own house being burned down in what is believed to have been a racially motivated incident. But even he had never seen anything quite like this.

 

DOC RIVERS: Like I didn’t understand the magnitude. I knew what Donald Sterling has said was awful, but I thought it was a sport thing. And then, when we went to the press conference. When I pulled up and I saw CBS truck, ABC truck, and then I saw the newsmen. I had to let the players, I always get off the bus first and on that one I said, “All right, guys. Go in the gym.” I sat on the bus for 20 minutes saying, “Okay, this is not a sports story.” I remember that 20 minutes thinking what the players asked me to say had to be represented, because it was about them. That’s what I kept thinking. This is about them and representing them.

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Doc had begged his players to speak with one voice, and when they agreed, he offered them his. He would face the questions, he would give the answers, he would try to navigate this all consuming mess. 

 

[KABC

DOC RIVERS: our goal is to win the NBA title and we’re not going to let anything stand in the way of that.]

RAMONA SHELBURNE: He did his best to be both his team’s shield and their voice. 

 

[KABC
DOC RIVERS: That’s adversity that we didn’t want but we have it. We have to deal with it internally. But we’re not going to share it with anybody else.] 

 

RALPH LAWLER: this is the the greatest moment of Doc Rivers’ career as a coach or as a man. He was all that was left really, because Sterling was in disgrace.

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Longtime Clippers broadcaster Ralph Lawler.

 

RALPH LAWLER: Doc had no place to turn, nobody to ask about anything. And he just did an unbelievable of somehow getting it together and then keeping it together. I don’t know how he did it. 

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: But not even Doc could keep the world’s prying eyes and ears from his players.

 

BLAKE GRIFFIN: I remember going to take my nap and waking up and my phone being like 200 messages or something like that. 

 

MARC SPEARS: The phones of the Clippers players were going crazy.

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Marc Spears is a writer for the Undefeated. He was covering the Clippers and Warriors playoff series.

 

MARC SPEARS: Everybody had an opinion, and I know it got to be overwhelming for a lot of the Clippers players because everybody was trying to tell them what they should do. 

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Players, former players, journalists of all stripes and credibility, were shouting their opinions from the rooftops. Even Stephen Jackson who had played for the Clippers earlier that season.

 

[SPORTSCENTER
STEPHEN JACKSON: I would not money or nothing could not make me go play for somebody that respects my race – while a lot a long list of people who died while I’m able to make millions of dollars and provide for my kids today. And You can hear it in my voice that I’m upset with it because I know these guys still might go out there and play about somebody that’s disrespecting their race and their elders.] 

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: The Reverend Jesse Jackson was giving interviews about how the Clippers should react. 

 

[SPORTSCENTER
JESSE JACKSON: The question is what will they do? I know in the case of Trayvon Martin the Miami Heat made the statement by wearing their hoodies reacting to racist attack and the killing of Trayvon Martin. What will the players do? What will the Players’ Union do?] 

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: The story was all over the news, all over sports talk radio.

 

[SPORTSCENTER

LISA SALTERS: You know, I asked Doc Rivers was you know if there’s any kind of protest planned.] 

 

[SPORTSCENTER
STEPHEN A. SMITH: I was actually told within the hour that players were considering actually not playing.]

 

[SPORTSCENTER

LISA SALTERS: You know we’ve already heard some people asking for the Clippers not to play, for fans to not go to the games.] 

 

RYAN HOLLINS: It was a tough situation because it was like “What do you do”. When you had people coming out the woodwork, texting us saying ‘don’t play in a game. Make a stand.’

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Clippers center Ryan Hollins felt that pressure. He felt everyone’s outrage over Sterling — and he didn’t think it was fair.

 

RYAN HOLLINS: People tried to be–pretend to be so appalled when the story came out but it’s like yo, y’all knew who he was. Why are you surprised? He’s the same dude at that white Christmas party that you knew, he’s the same dude who had to– kicking black people out his buildings. Why are you so appalled right now? That you heard in the words that were supposed to be behind closed doors? Like bruh do your research.

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: But his teammate Matt Barnes understood a small but powerful nuance: what a difference a recording makes.

 

MATT BARNES: this is one time where I think the organization knew and I’m sure the NBA knew like we have a bad apple. And he finally fucked up. And we have proof now. You know what I mean we have tape now. 

 

MATT BARNES: You’re looking at the scale and the magnitude of a owner of a professional team saying this stuff and being caught and I knew as a team we needed to do something to stand together to show that that’s just not right. 

 

MARC SPEARS: You know, and ultimately they had to decide what they should do, not grandma or LeBron James. 

 

MARC SPEARS: I’m sure the Warriors players were texting some of the Clippers players, like “Hey, like what can we do?”

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Marc Spears of the Undefeated.

 

MARC SPEARS: The Warriors were ready to join forces with them and whatever they decided to do and they’re kind of in a locker room waiting to get word.

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Andre Iguodala was one of those Warriors players willing to take a stand with the Clippers.

 

ANDRE IGUODALA: I was all in. Like shut down the whole season. Maybe that was too far, but as far as that game that day, you can reschedule it, you gotta sort this thing out because there’s some deep rooted stuff with him that had to be addressed.

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: The Clippers. The Warriors. The NBA. All of them were in uncharted territory. No team had ever refused to start a game in the NBA before. Never mind the playoffs. What would the league do? Who would be disqualified or forced to forfeit? And was it even fair to ask these men to give up their lifelong dream? When they’d done nothing wrong. And the fault for all the hate, all the racism was still living comfortably in Beverly Hills.  

 

BLAKE GRIFFIN: When we were trying to decide what to do, and everybody was saying we should boycott, we shouldn’t play. The idea was like, okay, we haven’t been playing for him in the first place. “We didn’t gather up before jump ball and say, ‘Donald Sterling on three! One, two, three!’” 

 

RYAN HOLLINS: We don’t play for Donald. I’ve never played one game in my career for Donald Sterling. Never played for none of these owners. I played for myself, I play for the NBA for the love of the game. 

[ABC

ANNOUNCER: Welcome to Oakland California – Oracle Arena. The L.A. Clippers and the Golden State Warriors it’s Game 4 of their first round best of seven playoff series]

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: When the Clippers arrived at Oracle Arena, the stage was set for a protest. A Clipper’s protest. All eyes were on them.

 

MARC SPEARS: I thought the Clippers had the grandest of stages to make a worldwide stand against what Sterling said. It was a Sunday afternoon. Playoff game in which the whole world was watching.

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: As if he hadn’t already done enough damage to his players, Donald Sterling managed to make things even more difficult. Word got out that he was coming to the game.

 

RYAN HOLLINS: While this is happening Donald goes. “Well I’m still going to the game”. He’s still in La La Land and we’re like yo this dude is nuts.

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: As usual, the job fell to Doc Rivers to find a way to fix it.

 

[NBA

DOC RIVERS: It was an hour before the game I am on the phone with ownership having the most heated argument you could possibly have. I think I didn’t get onto the floor until like a minute because I was still in the argument about who was going to come to the game.]

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: In the end, Doc won and Donald, for once, caved. The Clippers’ owner stayed away and watched on TV with Clippers President Andy Roeser. 

 

While back at Oracle, ready or not, it was time for the Clippers to make their statement.

 

[ABC

ANNOUNCER: …the Clippers, there’s been a whole lot of talk about what action the players should do, what do you hope to see today from these teams?

VAN GUNDY: Well the only action that would be wrong is inaction or neutrality…] 

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: At 30 minutes to game time, the Clippers left the locker room to wait in the tunnel. 

 

[ESPN RADIO 

KEVIN WINTER: The Clippers huddled in their hallway, right outside their locker room, they locked arms, they had their heads down and they were overhead shouting quote it is just us only us, we are all we got.]

 

MATT BARNES: It was back and forth and ideas on what to do and this, this and that.

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: The announcer’s voice echoed through the sold out crowd at Oracle Arena introducing the Clippers. It was time to take the court.

 

MARC SPEARS: I remember they walked out. I’m like, “They’re going to do it. They’re going to do something. This is going to be that moment.” My Tommy Smith, John Carlos 1968 moment. I’m going to be here to see it. It’s in Oakland. It’s the home of the Black Panthers, right? 

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Back in the locker room, the Clippers had finally landed on what they were going to do

 

MATT BARNES: and I just said, “let’s turn our jerseys inside our warm up shirts, so it doesn’t say Clippers basketball on em” And then as soon as we get out of there let’s throw them in the center court together.

 

MARC SPEARS: Doc Rivers had told the Clippers players was, “Whatever you guys decide to do; do it as a team.

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: The Clippers emerged from the tunnel, and jogged to center court. 

 

[ESPN RADIO

KEVIN WINTER: they took off all their warmup tops, and what the Clippers are wearing are t-shirts that are inside out so it is basically just an all red top. Their tops do not have anything related to the name Clipper on them right now.]

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: After the slightest of pauses they turned, left center court, and started their practice, forming their layup line. 

[ESPN
DOC RIVERS: We’ve been taught by Jesse Owens in the Olympics, who performed right in front of Hitler, that you perform. You go out and you don’t let anyone talk you out of your job, and what you dreamed of. we have a shot. And I think that’s the message. So I think this is a message of action.] 

 

MARC SPEARS: To be honest I got teary eyed. I was sad. My mom’s from the south, my parents have dealt with a lot of racism things, so I was hoping that they were going to make a grand stand. I was hoping that they weren’t going to play, I remember when they started playing, man, I got tears in my eyes of disappointment. I think if they had boycotted. It would have been a history book story. It would have been iconic. But, they decided to go the more peaceful road. 

 

 

[ESPN RADIO

They’re not playing for the Clipper organization today, they are playing for Doc Rivers, and they’re playing for each other as a group, not for Donald Sterling’s team]

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: The Clippers wanted to make their statement on the court… but once the game tipped off.

 

[ESPN RADIO 

Curry turns a corner on a pick, flips one up and in as he is knocked into the end line, crawls into the lap of a photographer and knocked in a fall away hopper, what a play!]


RAMONA SHELBURNE: The Warriors came out firing. The Clippers had nothing.

 

[ESPN RADIO

The Warriors look as though they will not be denied on this afternoon]

 

RYAN HOLLINS: They blasted us just because our energy was gone and we were focused on everything but basketball.

 

[ABC
Led by 20 in the first quarter. As Curry went 5 for 5 from downtown on the first period. Had 17 first quarter points.]

 

RYAN HOLLINS: They fed on it. I don’t know if I can go this far but like they played against us like they’re playing against Sterling. Like we were the bad guys. Like they attacked us like they wanted his head. You know? And I don’t know if that was exactly their mindset. But there was no mindset of we’re cool that you guys or we feel bad. They ain’t feel bad for us. They owned it. 

 

[ABC

MIKE BREEN: The looks tell it all for the Clippers in what’s been a long 24 hours for them.]

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: The Clippers lost 118-97. 

 

[SPORTSCENTER
JAY HARRIS: You saw the result. Now they need to win a basketball game.] 

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Doc and his team left San Francisco Sunday night in a bad situation. The series was tied at two games a piece. The Clippers were suddenly in danger of not making it out of the first round.

 

RYAN HOLLINS: We’re about to throw our season away. So we had to get it together. We had to figure stuff out man. 

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Now the series was headed back to LA.

[NBA PRESS CONFERENCE
DOC RIVERS: We’re going home now, and usually that would mean we’re going to our safe haven. And I don’t even know if that’s true, to be honest.

CHRIS PAUL: I’d be lying if I was to say I wasn’t nervous about what it’s gonna be like.]

[SPORTSCENTER
PJ CARLESIMO: Is it going to be easier or harder to go back to L.A. and deal with it?]

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Because the city of Los Angeles was dealing with the Sterling tapes, too. 

 

The city that’s home to some of America’s worst racial divisions. The Watts riots in 1965, the riots after the Rodney King verdict in 1992, the OJ Simpson trial. Now the largest residential landlord in Los Angeles. A man with a history of housing discrimination, is saying this? On tape? There was legitimate fear that when the series moved back to LA, violence might erupt.

 

Especially with a fuse like Donald Sterling—a man who could start a firestorm with a wet match.

 

[KTLA

FAN: Donald Sterling is a person who should not own a black team, a basketball team, with black players. It’s outrageous. 

FAN 2: I think Donald Sterling is despicable, and a bad guy.]

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: The hashtag boycott-Clippers was trending on every platform you can hashtag on. 

 

And Doc Rivers had to take that on, too

 

DOC RIVERS: I had to show up at the Staple Center and put out this crazy fire that I had nothing to do with. The employees were threatening to walkout. They were getting bombarded by people calling them Uncle Tom, racists, and they didn’t do it. Donald did it. 

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: The phones at the Clippers offices were ringing off the hook with calls from angry, hurt people from all over: You’re scum for supporting a racist like Donald Sterling. You’re just as racist as he is. There were so many death threats and the whole situation was so traumatic that the NBA had to call in a crisis counselor. 

 

RALPH LAWLER: The league brought in some people for emotional support, and my broadcast buddy Brian Sieman saying, “You’ve got to go sit down with that person and talk to him. You’re all messed up.” I did not do that. I perhaps should have, I might have shortened my period of shock and grief, It was such a terrible time for all of us. I may have handled it as poorly as anybody, because I’d been around for so long, 35 years in or something or other, and it just really rocked me. It it was an emotional roller coaster, but it was all downhill. You never thought you’re going to get back to the top again.

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Then the Clippers’ sponsorships began to evaporate.

 

[MIKE & MIKE

MIKE GREENBERG: Among the largest sponsors the Chumash Indians,They have dropped out, as has CarMax, and Virgin America. State Farm, Kia and Redbull are suspending their marketing operations. In fact, Redbull has told the Clippers they do not want any signage in the Staples Center.]

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: The Clippers were hurtling towards elimination if they couldn’t get their basketball focus back. And both the team and the NBA were flirting with the not yet invented term of being cancelled if the league didn’t deal with Donald Sterling.

 

[AD BREAK]

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Justice, never mind racial justice, can be a tricky thing to ask for in the NBA, or anywhere else for that matter. A professional sports league is a very particular bubble. Where crazy amounts of wealth and fame help shape a world that often feels cut off from reality. But a league like the NBA is also a reflection of the world around it — where historically the power has been held by old, rich white men. 

 

Even the commissioner, the one person in a position to serve “justice” — literally works for the owners, not the players.

 

But unfortunately for those old, rich white men — times were changing.

 

Kevin Johnson was representing the NBA Players Association at the time, and spoke to the press about the kinds of conversations that were happening behind the scenes. 

[ESPN
KEVIN JOHNSON: we all got on the phone, and the players around the league said, we want an immediate investigation

[ESPN
KEVIN JOHNSON: They wanted to make sure that the players voices were heard. They didn’t want to be passive participants, they wanted to be active and have a seat at the table. And lastly, they wanted the maximum sanction, the most severe sanction possible that were allowable under the NBA guidelines.] 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Johnson made these demands public — including asking Silver for a full reckoning of Sterling’s history of racist incidents, and answers about why the NBA had never sanctioned him. 

The Clippers chose not to boycott Game 4, but that didn’t mean Game 5 was a lock to play. If Silver’s investigation didn’t end with a judicial outcome, the protests would no longer be polite, or silent.

[ESPN
KEVIN JOHNSON: right after I talked to the players I called Commissioner Silver and he just said, this is really hard for the league right now. And I tell him, it’s hard for the league, but it’s a defining moment, it’s our moment of truth and it’s us using sports once again to transcend everyday challenges of society and lead by example.]

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: The NBA no longer had the option to sit back and do nothing about Donald Sterling’s racism.

 

It’s not that Donald Sterling’s beliefs were unique…or even new. That plantation mentality has been around as long as this country has existed.

 

The players understood the world was changing. 

 

And it was changing, in part, because of them.

 

Seven years earlier in 2008, when Donald Sterling was in the middle of his housing discrimination suit with the Department of Justice, the NBA was still a league where the players remained relatively quiet on political issues.

 

MARC SPEARS: You know, I remember when LeBron James had a teammate who was protesting about what was going on in Darfur, and they asked LeBron about it, and he was like ‘I need to do more research’. ‘No comment’.

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: But then LeBron James did that research — and chose to comment.

 

[OUTSIDE THE LINES

SHELLY SMITH: James says he will help raise awareness about China’s role in Sudan.

LEBRON JAMES: There should be some kind of light shined upon it and as athletes our words are so strong that a lot of people listen to it.]

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: He had realized something: his voice as a player mattered. With millions of fans around the world, he had the power to influence. And he had a responsibility to do something with that power. 

 

[OUTSIDE THE LINES

LEBRON JAMES: You know at the end of the day we’re talking about human rights. We’re not talking about contracts here. We’re not talking about money. We’re talking about people’s lives being lost.]

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: A tremor of change started to rumble throughout the NBA… two years later, in 2010, LeBron James claimed his power as a superstar in the league in a way no player ever had before. 

 

[ESPN “THE DECISION”

REPORTER: The answer to the question everybody wants to know, LeBron, what’s your decision?

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: He announced his decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers live on national television. 

 

[ESPN “THE DECISION”
LEBRON JAMES: This fall–this is tough–this fall I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat…]

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: His plan: go to Miami and form a super team with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. 

 

[NBA
Bosh for 3, that’s good! ]

 

[NBA

Wade splits the defense and throws it down!]

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: It worked. The Heat went to the finals for four straight years. 

 

[NBA

drives it away, LeBron James throws it down, Miami back up by 1.]

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: But losing their superstar decimated the value of the Cavs and terrified owners around the league — the realization that one player could impact their bottom line like that. And, even worse, the fear that players could and would band together to make the league work the way they wanted it to. 

 

So the owners began the fight to make it harder for any player to ever have that much power over a franchise again. 

 

 

[SPORTSCENTER 

KEVIN NEGANGHI: The NBA lockout officially began last night. 12:01 a.m. Eastern time]

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: The owners wanted their power back. And, in the 2011 lockout, they got it. 

 

[SPORTSCENTER

HANNAH STORM: After one hundred and forty nine day lockout approximately half a billion dollars in losses, a handshake agreement early Saturday.] 

 

The owner’s revenue share went up, as did the penalty for teams who went over the salary cap.

 

[SPORTSCENTER

HANNAH STORM: What kind of deal has this ended up being for the players?

STEPHEN A. SMITH: Well it hasn’t ended up being the greatest deal in the world we all know that they’ve had to give back in excess of a billion dollars.]

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: A clear win for management. And a clear message from owners to players: we’re still in control.

 

Didn’t last very long though. Because the real world finally came crashing through the NBA’s bubble.

 

[ABC NEWS 

ANCHOR: This is the face of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, whose death has provoked weeks of demonstrations and, tonight, a rally in New York City

(rally chanting sound: justice! now! justice! now!)]

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: The NBA couldn’t control how horrors in the real world would affect its African American players, or how those players would respond.

 

[SPORTSCENTER

BRAM WEINSTEIN: And as you can see here LeBron James took to Twitter he posted a team photo of the Miami Heat clad in hoodies. It was accompanied by the hashtag. We are Trayvon Martin.] 

 

MICHELE ROBERTS: We’re now in an area of social media.

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Michele Roberts is the Executive Director of the NBA Players Association.

 

MICHELE ROBERTS: These young men have millions of people following them and they know it. And these young men know that the million of people that are following them are listening. 

 

MICHELE ROBERTS: There is a certain degree of power that comes with that knowledge.

 

MARC SPEARS: Something happens, they can instantaneously tell you what they think. Good, bad, indifferent. They could speak to millions of people but just by the push of a button.

 

MATT BARNES: That social media whole aspect changed, it was a real power shift just on a day to day basis. The world is hearing from the players not the owners. 

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: And in the years leading up to this moment, players like Matt Barnes were all about embracing that new power.

 

MATT BARNES: We’re definitely more than shut up and dribble now. You know basketball is such a small part of who we are and what we do, you know, where most of — we’re all men first and foremost. You know fathers and husbands, brothers and then you know business owners and philanthropists and we do so much stuff out there. 

 

MICHELE ROBERTS: It’s a fight that didn’t begin with Donald Sterling. It’s been happening historically, both in our game and other sports, for many, many, many years. But the players that I work for, are men. And they demand to be treated like men, not “mere athletes”, but as men. And men don’t tolerate the kind of ignorance that was Donald Sterling. You don’t tolerate that in your space.

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: When this tape came out, the players had megaphones and they weren’t afraid to use them. Like the Warrior’s Andrew Iguodala.

 

ANDRE IGUODALA: We can’t forget how much power we have and whenever we get an opportunities we gotta put pedal to the metal and just attack them. We gotta go at they necks when they give us the opportunity or cause we always get exposed when we make mistakes and they don’t! No one’s really held accountable the way we are when we make mistake so I always say, “listen, when we get the opportunity to put our foots on their neck we gotta go get them.”

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Through the players union, the players made it clear to Adam Silver:

 

[MIKE & MIKE
KEVIN JOHNSON: the players feel that this owner if not fit and worthy to be part of the NBA family and as one family, if there’s a hint of racism, like cancer, you have to immediately take it out.] 

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Adam Silver’s investigation moved fast. He took four days to talk to players, coaches, and owners. 

 

His investigator talked to Donald, who confirmed, yes, that was him on that tape. He also talked to V and her lawyer. V maintained that Donald knew she was recording him — and she provided proof of a third person on one of the tapes to back up that claim. This was an important detail. Maybe the most important to Silver. Because it’s illegal to record someone without their knowledge in the state of California. And now that Silver knew the tape was legit, he could act.

 

On Tuesday April 29th at 2pm Eastern time, mere hours before Game 5, Adam Silver called a press conference. 

 

[SPORTSCENTER

You are looking live at midtown Manhattan where NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is expected to take the podium any second now.]

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: It was one of those “where were you when?” moments when everyone, everywhere comes to a grinding halt. 

 

[ABC NEWS

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Dominique I apologize I have to interrupt you because we see the commissioner right now.]

 

[SPORTSCENTER

KEVIN CONNORS: Here comes the commissioner now he’s made his way into the room. So Jemele we’ll hold that let’s go out to the commissioner live now.] 

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: I was standing outside the Clippers practice facility, reporting for ESPN. 

 

[ESPN
RAMONA SHELBURNE: I need the mic, they’re coming back, need the mic, need the mic!]

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: In one ear I had a feed from the studio, and in the other the press conference. My job was to make sense of Silver’s decision in real time.

 

 

[SPORTSCENTER

KEVIN CONNERS: Hold that. Let’s go out to the commissioner live now.]

 

[ESPN

ADAM SILVER: Shortly after the release of an audio audio recording this past Saturday morning of a conversation that allegedly included Clippers owner Donald Sterling. The NBA commenced an investigation which among other things included an interview of Mr. Sterling. That investigation is now complete.] 

 

BLAKE GRIFFIN: The only people that were going to really make a change, not just stand up, was Adam Silver and the other owners.

 

[ESPN 

ADAM SILVER: Effective immediately I am banning Mr. Sterling for life from any association with the Clippers organization or the NBA. Mr. Sterling may not attend any NBA games or practices. He may not be present at any Clippers facility, and he may not participate in any business or player personnel decisions involving the team.]

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: I was shocked by what I heard. I was prepared for a lengthy suspension. I was prepared for a fine. I wasn’t prepared for this. Adam Silver was not going for the maximum sentence, he was doing more than we even realized he could do.

 

[ESPN

ADAM SILVER: he will also be barred from attending NBA board of governors meetings or participating in any other league activity. I am also fining Mr. Sterling 2.5 million dollars, the maximum amount allowed under the NBA constitution.

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: The commissioner works for the owners. And here he was banning one of them… for life. 

 

I couldn’t imagine his predecessor, David Stern doing this. The guy who turned the other cheek so many times. But Adam Silver had listened to the players. He’d taken a stand against an owner that many of us knew the league had abided by for decades. 

 

RAMONA: Why did you ban Donald Sterling for life?

 

ADAM SILVER: I believe that he had crossed the line that broke the essence of the contract of the moral fiber of this league. The values that had been part of this league from its earliest days. And I didn’t think it could be repaired, I think that’s where the lifetime ban came in. I felt that there was no way that we could turn the clock back at that point.

 

MATT BARNES: His tenure was gonna be judged on what he did off that very first incident, you know as commissioner and I think he handled it great. 

 

ADAM SILVER: I will say that there was probably an advantage in my newness to the job in that it all happened so quickly. I didn’t spend a lot of time putting my actions into a broader context of sports leagues or society because I had an immediate issue that required an immediate decision.

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: By making this decision and listening to his players, Silver validated the player’s power in this league. 

ADAM SILVER: I saw this as an incremental step in terms of player rights. I often trace player empowerment back to the early days of this league. And to me, this was part of the DNA of the players in this league.

 

[ESPN
ADAM SILVER: This has been a painful moment for all members of the NBA family. I appreciate the support and understanding of our players during this process we stand together in condemning Mr. Sterling’s views. They simply have no place in the NBA.] 

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Silver had acted swiftly and fairly—exactly what he said he would do. 

 

[SPORTSCENTER

MAGIC JOHNSON: It’s a great day… 

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Magic Johnson, the guy who had been at the center of Donald’s racist tirade.

 

MAGIC JOHNSON: It’s a great day for the United States. It was a great day for the NBA. It was a great day for all people of all races but especially you know African-Americans and Latinos who, you know, he was speaking out against.]

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Marc Spears was across town where a crowd had gathered at City Hall.

 

MARC SPEARS: What I do remember is being at city hall, and like Kareem being there and Kevin Johnson and Steve Nash and former players and some current players, and they’re ready to pounce. And The announcement came out and everybody was ready to scream and picket and burn Staples Center down. Adam Silver was like we’re going to ban this man. When that came out, we’re like what? Wow, like stunned! Everybody was absolutely stunned put down their picket signs, and their flaming torches, like everything they’re about to do. Nothing we could do stronger than that. I don’t know if Adam Silver will have a greater moment in his career and it happened in the early days. 

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: I was still standing outside the Clippers practice facility when the press conference ended — cars were driving by and honking their horns in celebration. It felt like all of Los Angeles pulled back from the brink.  Finally, someone had done something about Donald Sterling. 

 

Inside, the Clippers kept practicing. They had a game to play.

 

[PRIMETICKET

MARK ROGONDINO: All eyes, sports fans and otherwise, focused on Staples Center tonight. It’s game five between the Warriors and Clippers.] 

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Silver’s decision had come just a few hours before the Clippers were set to play Game 5 back in Los Angeles.

 

[PRIMETICKET

RALPH LAWLER: I feel like I aged 30 years in the past 4 days. It has been an emotional roller coaster. And I really feel that today, with Commissioner Silver’s swift and very thorough announcement. The cloud was lifted from the players’ heads, the fans heads. You see a ray of sunshine. You see some blue sky and think, hey, there’s hope and we could have a great three game series starting tonight]

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: In all my years of covering sports, I’ve never experienced anything like that Game 5 at the Staples Center.

 

[ABC

Stand up! We stand as fans, we stand to show our team that we’re here. So stand up until tipoff because tonight we are one!]

 

[PRIMETICKET

RALPH LAWLER: The crowd will never be more important than it is tonight. This club is emotionally drained. Doc Rivers said he’s emotionally drained. I can tell you I’m emotionally drained and that extra adrenaline, that lift you get from a raucous crowd could be the difference in this ball club here tonight.]

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: The stands were filled with fans wearing black. All the ads had been covered in black. Every last one of them. At game time, every NBA team turned their website to black, with the message: We Are One. 

 

[ABC

ARENA CROWD: We are one! Louder! (chant repeats from crowd) Make some noise for your Los Angeles Clipperrrrrs. Your house, our house!]

 

DOC RIVERS:I felt the energy. It was the liveliest building I had ever been in as a Clipper. It was amazing.

RAMONA SHELBURNE: The Staples Center was booming with this overwhelming feeling of Donald Sterling. The racist had left the building.

 

But his wife Shelly was still there.

 

SHELLY STERLING:I think it was suggested that I sit all the way up on top. 

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Even though her husband was no longer allowed anywhere near the building, Shelly Sterling came to Game 5. She’d been at Game 4 — she’d sat in her courtside seats, and it hadn’t gone over well. At Game 5, she’d been asked to sit up in a luxury box. 

 

Shelly Sterling: I couldn’t even see what the game was about. I think they just wanted to see the reaction of the fans. What they might say if I sat on the floor, they might get upset. I just felt that if that’s what they want, I’ll do that so I don’t cause any problem… And I can still watch my team.

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: Technically, this was still her team. She was still allowed to be there. And in many ways, she was still welcome. 

 

BLAKE GRIFFIN: I thought Shelly was very, very kind, very, very nice. She at least talked to me by name, spoke to me by name, and you know, was encouraging.

 

MATT BARNES: I got a chance like I talked to her a lot more than I talked to Don and I really just found out I was a pleasant nice lady.

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: But Shelly’s presence did put the team in a tough spot.

 

MATT BARNES: She was guilty by association. 

 

RYAN HOLLINS: It was. It was very awkward.

 

SHELLY STERLING: I felt I wanted to be at the games. It’s my team… And I loved the team.  

 

RYAN HOLLINS: You know, you didn’t know her personally, you felt bad for her but it still was a weird energy. Why you still here why you want to be on the front row? You married him you, how far removed are you from that? So yeah I do feel bad but I don’t know how much I trust you.

 

SHELLY STERLING: I felt that I’m not a racist, and we never were racist. And I wanted to show the people I’m not afraid of anybody, and I have nothing to fear.

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: While Shelly watched from above, the Clippers tried to get their mojo back on the court.

 

[ABC

ANNOUNCER: And he hits it again. It doesn’t matter what side, left side, right side, Blake Griffin has found the stroke now]

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: The Clippers won that game… and held on to win the series.

 

But I decided I couldn’t keep following the Clippers playoff run. Not because I had any way of knowing they’d lose in the next round to Oklahoma City and be done with their season. But because what was going on in the playoffs wasn’t really the story anymore. The story now was what the hell happens to this franchise? 

 

Sure, Silver had banned Donald. But it was a gesture, not a solution. Donald still owned the team. And Adam Silver still had to figure out how the NBA could undo that fact… and find a new owner. And he needed to do it quickly.

 

I needed to follow how this all would shake out between Adam Silver and the Sterlings. I had a hunch that the drama was only starting. Although I had no idea how dramatic it would end up being. Donald was never one to back down from a fight. And every other day some celebrity or billionaire was coming out as a potential buyer for the team. 

 

[KABC

REPORTER: As the team wins on the court there’s no shortage of celebrities who want to get in on the action. 

FAN 1: I’d say Magic Johnson.

FAN 2: It’d be cool if it was Magic, I guess.

REPORTER: Boxer Floyd Mayweather and rapper Sean Diddy Combs. 

REPORTER 2: And the list grows.]

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: In addition to Floyd and Diddy, there was speculation that music mogul David Geffen and Oracle CEO Larry Ellison were going to put in a bid. Their group also included Oprah Winfrey. 

 

Oprah seemed to understand that the writing was on the wall for Donald Sterling and the NBA. This wasn’t just about the sale of a basketball team. As she told TMZ, this was bigger:

 

[TMZ SPORTS

OPRAH WINFREY: all I gotta say is: We’re all off the plantation. The plantation days are over.”]

 

RAMONA SHELBURNE: But to get there, we would end up where everything with Donald ends up… in court. But this time, it wouldn’t be the Sterlings versus someone else, it would be Donald versus Shelly.

 

Credits

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!