Pleading for forgiveness for what he called a "terrible mistake," Clippers owner Donald Sterling apologized Sunday for making derogatory remarks about blacks, saying "I'm not a racist, and I've never been a racist," and appealed to NBA owners to let him keep the team.
In an interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper, Sterling broke his public silence just over two weeks after the release of a recording of his remarks. "When I listen to that tape," Sterling said, "I don't even know how I can say words like that."
He said he'd been "baited" into making the remarks by the woman heard on the recording with him.
The NBA did not comment on the interview, but did release a statement late Sunday about Sterling's wife, Shelly. It said that if the league forces the 80-year-old billionaire to sell the Clippers, she would automatically lose her stake in the franchise too — a point her attorney disputed.
Shelly Sterling told ABC's Barbara Walters on Sunday that she would fight to keep her share of the team. "I don't know why I should be punished for what his actions were," she said.
The dueling interviews came as the Clippers scored a dramatic come-from-behind victory, 101-99, over the Oklahoma City Thunder at Staples Center to even their second-round playoff series at two wins apiece.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who fined Sterling $2.5 million and banned him from the league for life, is trying to get the required three-fourths of league owners to agree to force Sterling to sell the Clippers.
Sterling indicated Sunday that he hoped to keep the team. "If the owners feel I have another chance, then they'll give it to me," he told CNN, according to a transcript.
Sterling also alluded to the possibility of a protracted battle with the league. "If they fight with me, and they spend millions, and I spend millions, let's say I win or they win — I just don't know if that's important," he said.
Former Lakers star Magic Johnson, one of the celebrities expressing interest in buying the Clippers, said Sunday that fans would be unhappy if the Sterlings refuse to sell the team.
"The players definitely wouldn't like it," he told ESPN's Doris Burke. "They'll probably boycott. And the sponsors have already made themselves clear that they wouldn't be sponsoring this team if either Sterling stayed on as owner."
Also weighing in was LeBron James of the Miami Heat, one of the game's biggest stars. "As players, we want what's right, and we don't feel like no one in his family should be able to own the team," he said after a practice in New York.
James also foresees a lengthy court fight. "This guy who's owned the team since the '80s is not going to just give the team up in a day," he said. "So we understand it's going to be long, but we want what's right."
CNN plans to air the Donald Sterling interview Monday at 5 p.m. Pacific time. In transcripts of brief excerpts released Sunday, he is quoted criticizing Johnson. Sterling said they'd spoken twice since the uproar began.
"Has he done everything he can do to help minorities? I don't think so," Sterling told Cooper. "But I'll say it, he's great. But I don't think he's a good example for the children of Los Angeles." Sterling did not explain what he was referring to in the excerpts released by CNN.
In the audio recording released by celebrity gossip site TMZ, Sterling was heard arguing with a female companion, V. Stiviano, over her posting a picture of herself with Johnson on Instagram.
"It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you're associating with black people," Sterling said, later adding, "I'm just saying, in your ... Instagrams, you don't have to have yourself with, walking with black people." Sterling also asked her not to bring Johnson to Clippers games.
On CNN, Sterling voiced contrition, over and over, saying he'd hurt many innocent people as well as himself.
"I made a terrible, terrible mistake," he said. "And I'm here with you today to apologize and to ask for forgiveness for all the people that I've hurt."
Sterling called the ordeal of the last two weeks "a terrible, terrible nightmare" and said he loved and respected the Clippers players.
"I hope it's in their heart to forgive me for that mistake," he said. "I don't know why the girl had me say those things."
Asked if Stiviano had set him up, Sterling said yes.
"I was baited," he said. "I mean, that's not the way I talk."
Sterling described himself as foolish. "I thought she liked me and really cared for me," he said. "I guess being 51 years older than her, I was deluding myself."
Cooper, who interviewed Sterling at his Beverly Hills house, asked why it took so long to apologize. "I'm just so emotionally distraught, and the reason it's hard for me, very hard for me, is that I'm wrong," Sterling said. "I caused the problem. I don't know how to correct it."
Whatever the resolution, a statement released Sunday by NBA spokesman Mike Bass indicated that the league did not consider Sterling's wife eligible to own part of the team if her husband is required to give it up.
"Under the NBA Constitution, if a controlling owner's interest is terminated by a 3/4 vote, all other team owners' interests are automatically terminated as well," Bass said. "It doesn't matter whether the owners are related as is the case here. These are the rules to which all NBA owners agreed to as a condition of owning their team."
"I will fight that decision," Shelly Sterling told ABC. "To be honest with you, I'm wondering if a wife of one of the owners, and there's 30 owners, did something like that, said those racial slurs, would they oust the husband? Or would they leave the husband in?"
But she also told Walters: "I guess whatever their decision is, we have to live with it."
Sterling called the Clippers her "legacy to my family" and said she was shocked by her husband's remarks on the recording of his conversation with Stiviano.
Donald Sterling faced allegations that he discriminated against building tenants based on their race and reached a 2009 settlement with the U.S. Justice Department for $2.8 million, without admitting any wrongdoing. Tenants at that time accused Shelly Sterling of racist statements and actions, charges that she denied.
In the ABC interview, Sterling said her husband was suffering from "the onset of dementia."
"For the last 20 years, I've been seeing attorneys for a divorce," she said with a laugh. "In fact, I have here, I just filed — I was going to file the petition. I signed the petition for a divorce. And it came to almost being filed. And then, my financial advisor and my attorney said to me, 'Not now.'"
A family trust owns the Clippers franchise. Sources familiar with the team say they believe that Shelly Sterling has equal ownership with her husband, and each takes control if the other dies. Sterling paid $12.5 million for the team in 1981, but experts have said recently the team could be sold for $1 billion or more.
If the league's 10-person finance advisory committee — the league's executive committee — agrees to file charges against Donald Sterling, the NBA commissioner will have three days to present them to Sterling, who will have five days to respond. An owners' vote would then take place within 10 days. League officials do not expect any vote before the end of the month.
Shelly Sterling's attorney, Pierce O'Donnell, released a statement saying, "We do not agree with the league's self-serving interpretation of its constitution, its application to Shelly Sterling or its validity under these unique circumstances. We live in a nation of laws. California law and the United States Constitution trump any such interpretation."
L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, who had spoken to Sterling and urged him to apologize, said through a spokesman that his remarks to CNN did not change his opinion that the NBA should secure a new owner for the Clippers.
"We still believe a change of ownership is in the best interests of the fans and our city," Garcetti spokesman Yusef Robb said in an email.
Times staff writers Mike Bresnahan, Shelby Grad, James Rainey and Broderick Turner contributed to this report.