After weeks of signaling that he would fight hard to hold on to the Los Angeles Clippers, Donald Sterling launched a new strategy Friday that would transfer full ownership of the team to his wife, Shelly, a source close to the family said.
Shelly Sterling would then negotiate a sale of the team if she were allowed to retain a minority stake in the franchise, which could be worth more than $1 billion, said the source, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The proposal was given little chance of succeeding by people familiar with the NBA's constitution and procedures. The league requires any change in "controlling" ownership to be approved by the NBA board of governors, made up of one representative from each of the 30 teams. The governors have not voted on a transfer between the Sterlings, and the league has indicated it doesn't want any Sterling to own any part of the team.
The Sterlings' latest move did not appear to soften the NBA's determination to push ahead with the proceedings that would oust the couple. "We continue to follow the process set forth in the NBA Constitution regarding termination of the current ownership interests in the Los Angeles Clippers and are proceeding toward a hearing on this matter on June 3," league spokesman Mike Bass said.
The NBA leveled formal charges against Sterling on Monday, a little more than three weeks after the website TMZ posted an audio recording of the owner making disparaging comments about African Americans. Under the league's constitution, he must respond to the allegations by Tuesday and can then make his case to his fellow owners at the June hearing. The NBA requires a vote of three-quarters of the board of governors to remove an owner.
But the intra-family transfer could just be a maneuver by the Sterlings to judge the league's reaction, trying to determine whether Commissioner Adam Silver would accept anything short of a forced sale, said one attorney who specializes in pro sports transactions.
"One could read this action as sending a message to the commissioner," said Irwin Raij, a lawyer who advised Guggenheim Baseball Management in its 2012 purchase of the Dodgers. "The commissioner said he did not want to turn this dispute into a protracted situation. And this is their way to say, 'We got your point. We are throwing an idea against the wall to get some reaction to it.'"
The latest turn comes about one month after Donald Sterling's rant to a companion was leaked to TMZ. He admonished his love interest and sometime assistant, V. Stiviano, 31, that he did not want to see her in public with Magic Johnson and other African Americans, and that she should not bring blacks to Clippers games. In a later CNN interview, Sterling attempted to explain that his harsh words were motivated by jealousy.
But the league maintained that the damage had been done — as evidenced by the flight of sponsors, the threat of a players' boycott and the expressions of anger from thousands of fans. Silver fined Sterling $2.5 million, banned him for life from the NBA and set in motion a process to end his franchise rights.
The NBA stated in its formal charges that Sterling and his wife had signed several contracts with the league, including a 2005 agreement in which they agreed that the full ownership interest of both could be terminated if just one of them broke league rules.
The league said that any continuing interest of Shelly Sterling would give the appearance that her husband continued to own the team. In addition, NBA lawyers said, California's community property laws would effectively give Donald Sterling a half-interest in whatever portion of the Clippers remained in his wife's hands.
The source who has heard about the Sterlings' proposal said, however, that Shelly Sterling would sign legal documents to exclude her husband from his community interest in the team. "The Sterlings realize that is something they would have to do to satisfy the league," said the Sterling ally.
The source said that Shelly Sterling has no interest in controlling the Clippers — and making decisions on players, coaches and basketball operations. She merely enjoys going to games, entertaining friends at Staples Center and being part of a franchise that she has co-owned for decades.
If the league greeted the proposal skeptically, it might stem from the last time it tried to terminate Donald Sterling's franchise. In September 1982, the league started the process to force Sterling to sell the Clippers after claims that he failed to pay players, hotels and vendors, and made remarks about losing games in order to secure a higher draft pick. Sterling, in response, said he would sell the Clippers. Although no sale happened, the NBA quickly backed off, even describing the Sterling-led Clippers as a "first-class" organization in February 1983.
Both of the Sterlings' attorneys declined to comment Friday on the reported ownership transfer. The couple have not been seen publicly together in recent days. Shelly Sterling has insisted that they are estranged, and that she was considering filing for divorce after 58 years of marriage. Donald Sterling referred to Shelly as his "ex-wife" in an interview on CNN.
But the NBA's lead investigator in the case, attorney David Anders, said he compiled ample evidence that the couple remain "inextricably intertwined." His report to the league noted that they attended Clippers home games together, and spent February's All-Star Weekend in New Orleans, sharing a hotel room.
Anders concluded that Shelly Sterling had worked with her husband and a team executive to craft a statement to the media last month, a day after the scandal broke, leaving the misleading impression that Donald Sterling might not have made the racially inflammatory remarks. Shelly Sterling has denied helping write the news release.
Donald Sterling has long said he is not one to budge, once he owns something. He once declared in a deposition: "I buy and hold for my lifetime."
In another interview, though, he also suggested a willingness to search for resolutions to difficult problems. "A problem is a question of perspective," he said. "To me, other than illness, I believe anything can be resolved."
Also contributing to this story were Times staff writers Mike Bresnahan and Broderick Turner.