James Murray, 49, didn't give the idea of disgraced Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling attending his church, Praises of Zion Missionary Baptist Church, a second thought.
That is, until Sterling actually came to the South L.A. church Sunday. KCAL-TV Channel 9 reported that Sterling asked the church, whose members then voted, if he could attend a service.
Pastor J. Benjamin Hardwick told his congregation a week ago that the embattled owner would be at a June service.
"I sat in the back, but I saw Sterling," Murray, a church member since 1977, recalled about Sunday's service. "People clapped for him when he walked in. It lasted about a minute."
Sterling sat in the front row of the San Pedro Street church and was welcomed with warm applause from the congregation, which was captured by KABC-TV Channel 7. Sterling acknowledged the parishioners by smiling and standing, lifting his right hand.
The Clippers owner has made headlines since April after an audio recording of him disparaging blacks became public. The controversy left Sterling with a lifetime ban from the NBA and a $2.5-million fine handed down by Commissioner Adam Silver.
Sterling's presence churned mixed feelings for not just Murray, but fellow parishioners and residents living near the predominantly black congregation.
"He's not a member, he was just visiting," one man noted while sitting on a front porch across the street from the church.
The pastor declined an interview Monday with The Times about Sterling's visit, but staff said the church would issue a statement Tuesday.
Pearlean Coleman's eyes widened when she learned Monday about Sterling's visit. The decades-long member, who is 79, missed Sunday's service but stomped her foot on the sidewalk leading to her 83rd Street home.
"If I could talk to him, I would have told him a thing or two. Honey, you just don't know," Coleman said. "But I have to stand behind my pastor. He's a very nice person and maybe he was trying to show [Sterling] something."
Even if Sterling's visit was a lesson, Murray lowered and shook his head while leaning on a gate outside his 88th Street and Central Avenue home.
On one hand, Murray commended his pastor for standing by a common idea heard in many churches.
"He said, 'We're all God's children,' " Murray recalled. "He's a good pastor, a good minister. You can't turn away someone from God's house."
But Murray couldn't overlook a CNN interview earlier this month during which Sterling cited Magic Johnson's HIV-positive diagnosis and said the NBA Hall of Famer wasn't a good example for the children of Los Angeles.
"When he said that, I felt he was speaking to me, too," Murray said. "How are you going to speak about Johnson and come to a black church?"
Sterling's visit to the church comes days after he sued the NBA and Silver for damages in excess of $1 billion. In the complaint obtained by The Times, Sterling alleged that the NBA committed antitrust violations, breach of contracts and denied his constitutional rights.
Besides the lawsuit, his wife, Shelly Sterling and the Sterling Family Trust are awaiting approval from the NBA Board of Governors to finalize the sale of the team to former Microsoft executive Steve Ballmer, who bid $2 billion for the Clippers.
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