For decades the Los Angeles Clippers were considered a punchline because they usually lost on the court, and ever-bumbling owner Donald Sterling received the bulk of the blame. Now that the team is making regular playoff appearances with multiple star players and a chance at championship contention, the aging Sterling finally appeared to have a chance at redemption simply by keeping quiet and allowing his rising team to make him look good. But any chance of that ended last night when a recording was published which contained comments from Sterling that were not only racially tinged but almost bizarre.
The eighty year old Sterling was caught lecturing his twenty-something year old girlfriend about bringing black people as her guests to Clippers games, stating that he was okay with her running around with them in private but he didn’t want her to be seen with them in public. The recording published by TMZ appears to be a smoking gun which Sterling won’t be able to easily dispute the accuracy of. What makes the comments particularly odd is that Sterling’s girlfriend is half black herself. If Sterling does attempt to explain away his remarks, he could try to point to his girlfriend’s race as evidence that he’s not a racist, and attempt to claim that he was merely clumsily referring to a specific group of her friends he doesn’t approve of, who happen to be black. But even if he were to try to go to such great lengths to spin such a flimsy explanation, he’ll have a hard time explaining why the black man who specifically set him off is none other than Los Angeles Lakers legend and hometown basketball legend Magic Johnson.
The comments couldn’t come at a worse time for the Clippers, who are currently up two games to one in its playoff series and appear ready to finally move deep into the playoffs after a series of early round exits. Whether the players use this as a rallying point or whether the controversy causes them to collapse, the public’s focus on the team is now squarely on its owner’s racist tendencies. Will fans immediately boycott the remainder of the team’s playoff games? In the upcoming offseason will black free agents – or for that matter white free agents – want to sign a deal with a team whose paychecks come from someone who is apparently so racist he doesn’t want Magic Johnson in the building? And while it seems a given that new NBA commissions Adam Silver will suspend Sterling pending an investigation, will the league’s other owners come together to force Sterling to sell the team or to at least step down from operations? Sterling may be newly compelled to address some older controversy as well, which includes being sued by the federal government over his alleged refusal to rent the properties he owns to minorities.
Meanwhile, Magic Johnson has stated on Twitter that he and his wife Cookie will “never go to a Clippers game again as long as Donald Sterling is the owner” while also stating that he feels “sorry” for his friends Doc Rivers and Chris Paul, who coach and play for the team respectively. By not only making racist remarks but also picking a fight with one of the league’s most enduring stars in Johnson, Donald Sterling has – wittingly or not – drawn the lines for a battle which he has almost no chance of winning. Regardless of how his Clippers players fare in the current postseason, it seems unlikely that Sterling will still be in control of the team by the start of the new season in the fall.