Donald Sterling's statements left fellow NBA owners cringing. He didn't deny what surfaced on an audio recording — words the wealthy owners were sure had cast a bad light on all of professional basketball. One NBA insider predicted the Clippers owner was "as good as gone."
The year was 1982.
On Thursday, 32 years later, a committee of 10 owners voted to "move forward as expeditiously as possible" to strip Sterling of his ownership of the team.
When fellow NBA owners believed they were on the brink of tossing Sterling out of their exclusive club three decades ago, though, he dodged, then seemed to acquiesce. Then he hunkered down, surviving as owner of the Clippers.
That history may be instructive now, as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has set the clock ticking on a new attempt to oust Sterling again, with his team now worth nearly 100 times as much as he originally paid — and in the midst of what could be its most successful season.
Sterling remains mostly out of sight and has declined through representatives to comment Thursday. But an NBA executive with close ties to the Clippers owner said it was "way too early for him being an eager or willing seller," adding, "He'll make the NBA go through the process, whatever it is. Then he'll make whatever decision he's going to make."
Still, others who know him say that — despite his decades-old fight with the NBA — the man who made his fortune renting apartments will take the most practical course. They believe that he may bow to a simple truth: that his team has reached a peak value and that his association with it is only likely to drive that value down.
"What is his endgame if he doesn't sell?" said Adam Schlatner, a New York-based sports business attorney who has worked on NBA labor matters. "There is no financially viable way for him to remain owner. The sponsors will not come back, the players will be a problem and ticket sales will go away. He can't remain owner, as a practical matter."
Sterling obviously didn't feel compelled to bow to similar, if less forceful, sentiments in 1982. That was just a year after he had bought the team for about $12.5 million and quickly tried to move it from San Diego to Los Angeles. Other owners objected, then grew increasingly critical of Sterling when he failed to make payments to players, hotels and others.
Concern then, as today, also focused on an audio recording. Sterling had told guests at a luncheon that the Clippers needed to finish last so they would have the opportunity to draft a top player, like Ralph Sampson, then a star at the University of Virginia. It's against league rules for teams to intentionally lose games — though Sterling never specifically suggested that.
Still, a special committee of six NBA owners recommended Sterling's removal in September 1982. The next step called for the league's advisory and finance committee — the same group that met Thursday to discuss Sterling's current fate — to consider terminating his ownership.
But Sterling then announced his desire to sell the team, buying him time and taking steam out of the league's effort to remove him. By February 1983, then-NBA President David Stern described the Clippers as being operated in a "first-class" fashion.
Three decades later, Sterling faces an entirely different landscape. His team has gone from a perennial also-ran, with the worst cumulative record in professional sports in North America, to a potential championship contender that many believe would fetch more than $1 billion.
And Sterling's insulting racial remarks have jeopardized his ability to maintain support from players, coaches, sponsors and fans. More than 15 companies announced shortly after Sterling's words became public last week that they were severing, or suspending, ties with the Clippers.
The process set into motion by Silver moved ahead with Thursday's committee vote, which was taken via a telephone conference call. Jeanie Buss, the highest-ranking Los Angeles Lakers official and the team's governor, was part of the committee. She could not be reached for comment.
In announcing the sanctions Tuesday, Silver said his findings were against Donald Sterling alone, and not other members of his family. That could provide leeway for owners, if they sought to use it, to keep his wife, Rochelle "Shelly" Sterling, on as an owner.
The NBA's constitution lays out the timetable for terminating an owner or ownership group. After charging a violation of league rules, a formal written accusation must be presented within three days to the owner, who then has five days to respond. It is unclear whether this timetable has formally begun. A failure to respond is deemed "an admission by said member or owner of the total validity of the charges as presented," the constitution says.
Ten days after a response is received, the rules call for owners to hold a special meeting to hear the charges. Unlike in a criminal proceeding, there are no strict rules of evidence and an owner is obligated to testify in his own defense.
Three-quarters of the owners must sustain the charges in order to terminate another's ownership interest.
Complicating the attempt to sever Sterling from his team is the family's ownership structure of the team, which is via a trust. The NBA executive familiar with Sterling said Donald and his wife have equal shares in the trust, with each taking control if the other dies. Their children, Joanna and Chris, are slated to get the proceeds of the trust when both parents die.