On a Saturday evening in March, the Clippers, hotter than they had been in decades, were warming up for a game against the Atlanta Hawks at Staples Center and V. Stiviano was holding court as usual in a suite-level VIP lounge.
The 31-year-old companion of team owner Donald Sterling was a familiar figure at Staples, strutting to her usual court-side seat in sky-high heels and skintight pants. This night, she and an entourage of girlfriends were awaiting the start of the game in the plush lounge when a man approached carrying a manila envelope.
"V?" he asked. "This is for you."
Stiviano beamed and tore open the envelope. Her face fell. A girlfriend, reading over her shoulder, shook her head and said, "Uh-oh, you've been served!"
In the lawsuit, Sterling's wife, Rochelle, known as Shelly, depicted Stiviano as a serial seductress of rich old men, including the 80-year-old Clipper owner, and demanded the return of four luxury vehicles, $240,000 in cash and a $1.8-million house. The suit appears to have set in motion a chain of events that led the NBA to strip the Beverly Hills billionaire of control of the Clippers and ban him from the league for life.
A month and a half after the suit was filed, TMZ posted a recording of Sterling telling Stiviano not to be seen in public with black men. The Clippers organization issued a statement accusing her of leaking the recording as payback for the suit. Through her lawyer, she acknowledged recording the conversation on her phone, but said that it was with Sterling's permission. After Shelly Sterling became antagonistic toward her, Stiviano said, she gave copies of the recording to friends for "safekeeping." She said she suspects one of them sold it to the gossip site.
The suit lays out a timeworn tale — the betrayed wife battling to save her family from a young, avaricious mistress. But interviews and court records suggest that neither Stiviano nor the Sterlings fit easily into conventional molds.
Stiviano is adamant that she never had a sexual relationship with Sterling. She reveled in the glamorous lifestyle he underwrote — the red Ferrari he bought her bore the license plate V♥YOU — but acquaintances say that more than a year after she met him in 2010, she was still toiling over a stove on a catering truck and spending much of her free time as a volunteer helping crime victims.
The Sterlings, meanwhile, were dedicated business partners who worked hand in hand to amass a real estate fortune during their 59-year marriage. On a personal level though, theirs was not a storybook union. Donald Sterling openly kept a string of mistresses and in at least one case, had a woman sign a contract acknowledging that he would never leave his wife and giving up the right to sue for palimony, according to court filings and testimony.
Sterling "is happily married, has a family and has no intention of engaging in any activity inconsistent with his domestic relationship," read a "friendship agreement" signed by Alexandra Castro in 1999.
Shelly Sterling was well aware of her husband's affairs, Castro wrote in court papers. On one of their first dates, she and Sterling dined with Shelly in the couple's Malibu mansion and then went as a trio to a movie where Donald held his mistress' hand, according to Castro.
"Mr. Sterling informed me that... he and his wife had decided long ago to remain married and not divide the very substantial estate which he had accumulated during the marriage," Castro wrote in a court filing after the relationship ended and the Sterlings sued her.
The impetus for Shelly Sterling's suit against Stiviano and the current state of the relationship between the three remain unclear. The Sterlings, their representatives and Stiviano did not respond to requests for comment. Her attorney said that she was blindsided by the suit and was unsure of exactly how it came about.
"That's what we are asking ourselves," lawyer Mac Nehoray said, adding that Stiviano remained on good terms with Donald Sterling and was convinced his wife was acting alone in pressing the suit. "Donald did not want the money back."
If Shelly Sterling launched the suit without her husband's knowledge, it would be a rare instance of the couple not working in concert on financial matters. Since they married in 1955, shortly after graduating from Boyle Heights' Roosevelt High School, Shelly Sterling has been intimately involved in their business. Even after their rental empire made them billionaires, she was still going from building to building to collect tenant checks, according to testimony in a housing discrimination suit.
Stiviano and Rochelle Sterling, 80, often attended the same social functions and sat near each other at Clippers games. According to Stiviano's lawyer, their friendly relationship cooled in December, the month Donald Sterling gave the younger woman a three-bedroom home near the Beverly Center.
Shelly Sterling went to Laura Wasser, a divorce attorney known for her aggressive representation of rich and famous women like Maria Shriver, Britney Spears and the former Mrs. Mel Gibson. Wasser filed a suit seeking the return of the house and other gifts and portraying Stiviano as a habitual gold digger.
Stiviano "engages in conduct designed to target, befriend, seduce and then entice, cajole, borrow from, cheat, and/or receive as gifts, transfers of wealth from wealthy older men whom she targets for such purpose," the suit said.
Instead of hiring a process server to give Stiviano a copy of the suit, the norm for law firms, Shelly Sterling asked Santa Monica attorney Jim Henderson Jr., the stepson of a close friend, to deliver it to her personally. Henderson said that in return for his help, she gave him Clippers tickets.
Shelly Sterling's suit cited California's law giving spouses equal right to assets accumulated during the marriage and said that because her husband did not consult her before lavishing gifts on Stiviano, the younger woman should be forced to return the property.
In a response filed four days before the recording became public, Stiviano's lawyer mocked the notion that Shelly Sterling would have been caught off-guard by her husband's showering a younger woman with gifts, given his history of "gold-plate dalliances."
"Instead of chastising her philandering husband, let alone curtailing his carousing, Mrs. Sterling seeks to punish [Stiviano] who has done nothing wrong," her lawyer wrote.
It is unusual to file suit under the community property statute outside of a divorce case. It was not new for the Sterlings, however.
In 1999, at a birthday party for Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, the Sterlings were introduced to Castro, 27, the daughter of Colombian immigrants. In an account in a court filing years later, Castro wrote that Sterling immediately began wooing her and appeased her concerns about getting involved with a married man by showing her separate bedrooms he and his wife kept in their Malibu home, one of two they own.
His wife was a "nice person" and "close friend" but their marriage was "a business relationship," Castro said he told her.
He said "he was worth several billion dollars...and still could not be happy because he did not have anyone to share love with," she recounted in court papers.
Castro signed five separate agreements saying that she understood Sterling was happily married and that any disputes between them would be resolved in private arbitration, court filings show.
In 2002, Castro ended the relationship, in part, she wrote in court filings, because he reneged on a promise to have a child with her. Sterling asked her to come back, according to court papers, and when she refused, he sued, demanding the return of a four-bedroom million-dollar home in Beverly Hills.
When her lawyer questioned Sterling during a deposition, he initially denied any kind of intimate relationship with Castro and said he knew her only as an aspiring real estate agent. He alleged that she enticed him to invest in the Rodeo Drive house and then put the title of the property in her and her mother's name.
Castro's lawyer said that when he confronted Sterling during a deposition with photographs, voice mails, plane tickets and hotel bills, Sterling admitted the affair.
"I showed him a photograph of himself in his underwear in her apartment and I asked him if that was a photograph of himself," attorney Douglas Bagby recalled.
Having previously said he barely knew Castro, Sterling then began describing their trysts in lurid detail and painting her as a combination of prostitute and stalker. "The girl was providing sex for money," he said during the deposition, adding that she had told his wife about their sexual escapades.
Castro asked the judge to refer Sterling to prosecutors for perjury, something the judge declined to do. As the suit dragged on, family lawyers filed a second claim against Castro, this one under Shelly Sterling's name, calling Castro a "gold digger" who pursued older, wealthy men. They also filed for a temporary restraining order against the woman, claiming that she had threatened and harassed Donald Sterling in public.
Castro's lawyer said the Sterlings appeared to have realized that under family law, Shelly "has a much better chance of winning than" Donald. Both cases were settled under confidential terms in 2004.
Since then, it appears that Castro has reconciled with the Sterlings. Property records show she kept the Beverly Hills home that was the subject of the suit and at one point was renting it out for $13,500 per month.
When a tenant sued her in 2009, Donald Sterling's longtime attorney represented her and the billionaire himself offered the opposing attorney free Clippers tickets to urge on a settlement, saying that Castro was a friend. Stiviano's attorney said his client often saw Shelly Sterling and Castro socializing together.
Sterling met Stiviano, who is of Mexican and African American descent, in Miami at the 2010 Super Bowl, according to Shelly Sterling's suit. At the time, Stiviano was 27 and still legally named Maria Vanessa Perez. Like the Sterlings, she had grown up in Boyle Heights and was a Roosevelt graduate. Stiviano was the eldest child of a family with at least a half-dozen children that lived in a small apartment on East 6th Street, a former neighbor recalled.
Shelly Sterling's suit contends that Stiviano jumped from one wealthy, older man to another, extracting their fortunes, but Stiviano's lawyer said the Sterlings were the first rich people his client had ever encountered. In the year after they became acquainted, Stiviano was trying to start a catering business and drove a food truck painted "Catering to the Stars" to far-flung jobs.
In 2011, on the San Bernardino set of the low-budget romantic comedy "Should've Put a Ring on It," Stiviano cooked for the cast and crew, and pitched in as the wardrobe stylist.
At the same time, she was volunteering two to three days a week with the Los Angeles County district attorney's office. Her supervisor Hyo So said she was a diligent worker who lasted longer than most of the hundreds of volunteers he had worked with. She went to court hearings with crime victims — a group closely intertwined with her personal history. Her mother, she wrote in a petition to change her name, had been the victim of a violent crime.
"I asked her, 'You are beautiful and smart and live in Beverly Hills. Why aren't you doing something that makes money,' " So said. She replied that she wanted to help others, he said.
Stiviano stopped volunteering in the summer of 2011, and it appears that her role in Sterling's life was growing. Shelly Sterling's suit said the relationship soon became exploitative, and her husband gave Stiviano $240,000 in cash, two Bentleys, a Ferrari and a Range Rover, in addition to the three-bedroom house.
But Stiviano's attorney said the younger woman "brought him deals" connected to the Clippers and other ventures "and made him a lot of money."
"If she were on commission, she would have gotten far more," Nehoray said.
In an interview Friday with Barbara Walters on ABC, Stiviano said she loved Sterling only "as a father figure" and brushed off any suggestion that she was a rival to Shelly Sterling.
"Mr. Sterling's marriage is Mr. Sterling's marriage and relationship. I'm not part of that life," she said.
Times staff writers Nathan Fenno, Laura J. Nelson and Broderick Turner contributed to this report.