Shelly Sterling said Thursday that she would like to maintain for life her half-ownership of the Los Angeles Clippers, while allowing a new co-owner — who would replace her husband, Donald — to control the operations of the NBA franchise.
The statement clarified her long-term intentions, raising concerns among elected officials, civic leaders, fans and Clippers Coach Doc Rivers about the continued tenure of either of the Sterlings, who have owned the team for 33 years.
Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson called for a clean break from the Sterlings, while Rivers said Shelly Sterling's continued ownership could create "a very difficult situation" in which the team "wouldn't know really who was in charge."
The reactions came a day after Shelly Sterling said that — regardless of the NBA's pending vote to force Donald Sterling to sell the Clippers — it was her legal right to keep her half-interest in the team.
The Clippers have been operating under a cloud for two weeks, since the celebrity website TMZ released an audio recording in which Donald Sterling, 80, told a frequent courtside guest that he did not want to see her at games with black people. Days later, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver fined Sterling $2.5 million, banned him for life from the league and began a drive to get at least three-fourths of team owners to separate the Clippers boss from the franchise.
Shelly Sterling's lawyer on Thursday decried a "rush to judgment" against her and said that, as the Clippers co-owner, she "has the same right as anyone else in America to enjoy and control the fruits of [her] labors, and that includes deciding whether to keep or sell her 50% interest in the team."
As the Clippers prepared for Friday night's second-round playoff game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, observers said they didn't doubt that both Donald Sterling and his wife could wage a protracted legal battle to keep the franchise.
NBA officials said it would be at least two more weeks, following the issuance of formal allegations against Sterling, before fellow owners would be in a position to judge whether their longest-tenured partner should be allowed to stay in place.
Silver said when he announced his sanctions against Donald Sterling that "there have been no decisions about other members of the Sterling family." That would appear to provide some hope for Shelly Sterling to maintain her half-ownership, held in a family trust.
But analysts said that it could be difficult for Sterling's wife of 58 years to do so.
"If the ultimate objective is to get a new owner for the team — and it clearly is — it's highly unlikely that anyone would bid for 50% ownership," said Alan Rothenberg, a prominent attorney who worked for the Sterlings as the Clippers' president for 10 years. "And that's especially true if the other owner is someone connected to Donald — and with the same last name."
Attorney Pierce O'Donnell, representing Shelly Sterling, disagreed, saying: "Arrangements with a new owner group to their and Shelly's mutual satisfaction would not be difficult."
Civic activist and businessman Steve Soboroff said he believed that most of the public, players and sponsors would not accept ownership by Sterling's wife. Despite her claims to be estranged from her husband, the community will view her as a mere proxy for Donald Sterling, Soboroff said.
"My hope is that Donald and Shelly realize that their financial position will never be better than it is today," said Soboroff, who worked to bring the Clippers to Staples Center and to move their practice facility to the Playa Vista development near Marina del Rey. "The value of the team will decrease substantially if they fight this legally, so they should sell to benefit the people Donald and Shelly Sterling want to benefit most in the world, and that is Donald and Shelly Sterling."
A prominent agent for NBA players said a transfer of power from Donald Sterling to his wife would be "100%" problematic for the Clippers in attracting free-agent players. "That Shelly Sterling thing is not going to fly," said the agent, who did not want to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Although Shelly Sterling, 79, has not granted an interview since the recording was leaked, her representatives say she has been unfairly tarred for her husband's remarks and for multiple accusations of racial discrimination related to their apartment-rental business.
"They may share the same name, but they don't share the same values on race," attorney O'Donnell said.
O'Donnell also said that a court had never found that the Sterlings had discriminated while renting to 15,000 tenants over decades. The Sterling business paid a $2.8-million settlement in a discrimination case brought in 2006 by the U.S. Justice Department, but that agreement did not include an admission of guilt, O'Donnell noted.
Still, there has been little public support for the Sterlings.
L.A. City Councilman Bernard C. Parks said that "the community is looking for nothing less than a clean sweep," removing both Sterlings.
Ricky Chu, whose family has owned season tickets for more than two decades, said they would probably ask for a refund if either of the Sterlings remained involved. "At what should be the high point of franchise history, there's all this turmoil coming down," Chu said. "It's best to have them both gone."
Rivers, the Clippers' first-year coach, did not say whether he would remain with the team if Shelly Sterling kept her 50% interest. But Rivers, also the team's senior vice president of basketball operations, said that in the overall organization, "I can guarantee you every person wouldn't be on board" with her continued ownership.
Also contributing to this story were Times staff writers Bill Plaschke and Scott Reckard contributed to this report.