Steve Ballmer bought the Clippers, but will NBA ever be rid of the Sterlings?

The former Microsoft CEO has his $2bn team, but Shelly Sterling is still their ‘No1 fan’ and Donald isn’t ducking out of court

The NBA would like fans to believe that the finalization of the $2bn sale of the Los Angeles Clippers to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer on Tuesday marked the end of Donald Sterling’s dreadful legacy as an owner. Unfortunately, a provision in the deal ensures that Sterling’s estranged wife Shelly, current trustee of the Sterling Family Trust, will remain associated with the team as its “owner emeritus and No1 fan”.

This is not the outcome commissioner Adam Silver had in mind when he issued a lifetime ban to Sterling in April after his racially insensitive remarks sparked a league-wide scandal.

According to Sports Illustrated’s Michael McCann, beyond what remains of Ballmer’s record-breaking $2bn bid after taxes, Shelly Sterling will receive the following perks:

Shelly Sterling, per her agreement with Ballmer, will remain connected to the Clippers through the ceremonial titles of ‘Owner Emeritus’ and ‘Clippers No1 fan’. For the rest of her life, Shelly Sterling will also be provided 12 tickets (two courtside) for all Clippers games, six parking spaces, 12 VIP passes and three championship rings following any Clippers’ NBA championship.

Now, Shelly Sterling has earned this arrangement. After all, her decision to take control of the Sterling Family Trust after two doctors said her husband was no longer mentally capable of running it made things infinitely easier for Ballmer as well as the NBA. Had her husband retained ownership, it is very likely the league would have had to force him to sell, something which would have required an contentious voting process among the other owners. Shelly Sterling’s move to secure ownership allowed the NBA to complete the sale as quickly as possible, which was important especially as players were contemplating refusing to play if the Clippers were still in ownership limbo at the start of the 2014-15 season.

So Shelly Sterling’s reward is to remain a visible part of the franchise, courtside whenever she feels like it, while her estranged husband is banned from the stadium. This would be less of a problem if Shelly Sterling, for a long period of time, had not been quite so innocent a bystander when it came to her husband’s racism and misdeeds.

It isn’t just that Shelly Sterling has made racially charged comments as unacceptable as the ones that led to her husband’s downfall. A 2006 video from a local news affiliate in LA features her allegedly posing as a health inspector to gain entrance to one of her husband’s tenants’ apartments. This was around the time the Sterlings were charged with housing discrimination, a case they eventually settled for $2.725m.

Shelly Sterling’s new role with the Clippers is unlikely to be anything more than symbolic, but what kind of symbol could she possibly be? It’s hard to imagine her as anything other than a reminder of a past most fans would rather forget. As Mike Prada of SB Nation notes:

These are lesser transgressions to Donald Sterling’s, but they are transgressions nonetheless. A just ending would involve both Sterlings leaving the Clippers forever. While it’s excellent that Donald Sterling is out of power, it’s a problem that Shelly Sterling is maintaining such a large ceremonial role despite having blood on her hands.

And while it’s true he is “out of power”, it’s not like Donald Sterling is out of sight. On Monday, the NBA filed to counter-sue him for causing “devastating and incalculable harm” to the league. On Tuesday, Sterling responded to news of the sale closing with an attempt to block and overturn it.

The NBA’s countersuit comes after Sterling’s antitrust lawsuit on behalf of himself and the Sterling Family Trust, the trust over which the courts have decided he has no legal control. Sterling has vowed that he will go after the NBA in the courts until the day he dies. That he is apparently suing on behalf of an organization he no longer legally represents makes one wonder if even that would be the end of this.

So, for the foreseeable future, Donald Sterling will be at perpetual legal war with the NBA while Shelly Sterling will be transitioning into her new role as the Clippers’ mascot. (They can’t be replacing Clipper Darrell again, can they?)

Needless to say, the league would rather fans not notice all of this and focus instead on Monday’s celebration of a “new era” at the Staples Center. In a message inviting fans to this Fan Festival, Ballmer took the time on Tuesday to emphasize that his ownership would represent a sharp break from the past:

You may now have heard that this morning I officially became the owner of your Los Angeles Clippers. So as my first official communication, let me say thank you for continuing to support the Clipper organization. We are now looking forward to an exciting new season and I can’t wait to experience the opening tip off with you …

Today marks the beginning of a new era in the life of our franchise.

Clearly, Ballmer has about two billion reasons to convince fans the sale marks a permanent end to the LA Clippers of old. Under the Sterlings, the Clippers have been defined by stories of cheapness, allegations of harassment and discrimination and a long-established history of losing. It would be the best thing for the team, its new owner and the entire league for the Sterlings to disappear for good.

Nothing on Tuesday suggests this will happen any time soon.


Hunter Felt

The GuardianTramp

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