Magic Johnson defends himself against Sterling's broadsides

Magic Johnson defends himself against Sterling's broadsides
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, center, talks with Magic Johnson, right, accompanied by Kiki Vandeweghe at a Clippers game. (Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press)

Magic Johnson described Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling as "delusional" in thinking that his players love him and lost "in another world" if he believes that the public wants him to maintain his grip on the NBA franchise despite his racially inflammatory remarks.

The critiques by the onetime Lakers great came Tuesday, a day after Sterling lashed out at Johnson as an unworthy role model who did little to support fellow African Americans. Sterling also implied that Johnson misled him in an attempt to take over the Clippers.

Johnson mounted a robust defense of his integrity and his role as a leader of the black community, saying in an interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper that he was disturbed and angry that Sterling seemed entirely unaware of the business and charitable works that Johnson and other African Americans have done for their community.

"The problem is he is living in the Stone Ages," Johnson said. "He can't make those comments about African Americans or Latinos. He just can't do it."


Johnson's interview came as he continued to receive an outpouring of support from the community and from political leaders — including President Clinton and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti — and on the day when the NBA said it was still moving toward stripping Sterling of the franchise that he bought in 1981.

But the complications surrounding the ownership crisis became clear earlier Tuesday, when Sterling's wife, Shelly, described her resolve to hold on to the team. Her attorney pledged to "go to war," if necessary, to maintain Shelly Sterling's half-ownership of the Clippers. The 79-year-old, who says she is estranged from her husband, told NBC's "Today" show she was being unfairly punished for his failures.

"I didn't do anything wrong," Shelly Sterling said. "Why should I suffer and lose my team? I would like it to be left as a legacy to my family, and I've helped build it. I just can't see me not owning it, or a piece of it."

Donald Sterling, 80, said in his CNN interview Monday that he might fight a decision by NBA owners to oust him from the 30-team league, though he said he hoped to avoid an expensive conflict.

"He's a man who's upset and he's reaching," Johnson said in explaining why he thought Sterling attacked him. "He's trying to find something that he can grab on to help him save his team. And it's not going to happen."

Johnson, who owns many businesses and is part of the group that controls the Los Angeles Dodgers, said he believed Sterling would not be able to maneuver his way out of his predicament.

"He can't buy his way out of this one. He has bought his way out of all the other situations," Johnson said. "He can't do it with this one."

The tempest around the Clippers began the night of April 25, when the website TMZ posted a recording in which Sterling told his frequent companion, V. Stiviano, that he did not want her to publicly associate with blacks. Sterling was upset because Stiviano, 31, had posted on social media a photo of herself posing with Johnson.

Days later, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banned the league's longest-tenured owner from the league, fined him $2.5 million and began a process to strip him of the team. A vote by the owners has not yet been called.

Sterling's appearance on CNN was widely anticipated to center on his apology, but instead the apartment magnate criticized Johnson as someone who had shamed himself by contracting HIV.

Johnson's string of rebuttals began with him describing the years of work he had put in, counseling and consoling others with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. He described his foundation spending millions on the cause, but noted that he had not taken out newspaper ads, like Sterling, to tout his good works.

"I don't have to sit and publicize everything I do," Johnson said. "I just feel sorry for him. I really do. It's sad."

He said, "My whole life is devoted to urban America." Johnson added that he not only had brought economic development to underserved neighborhoods, but worked with other African Americans to try to improve the lot of other blacks.

He said Sterling had clearly "not done his homework" or he would have known about those commitments. "I am always going to fight for myself and my people," Johnson said.

Johnson said he had appreciated a message from President Clinton, who called to "thank me for all my work in urban America." Mayor Garcetti said Johnson represents "the best of L.A." and reiterated his call for a change in Clippers ownership.

Two Clippers stars also pointedly declined Tuesday to express the love for Sterling that the owner insisted the team had for him.

"I don't know about all that," point guard Chris Paul said during a shoot-around before Game 5 of the team's second-round playoff series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. "I love my wife, my kids, my family, my teammates. Yeah!"

Added forward Blake Griffin: "If you ask every single guy on this team, they'd say they love their family. They love their teammates. That's who we're playing for."

Johnson said the recent revelations about Sterling support the accusations that former Clipper general manager Elgin Baylor made in a lawsuit, alleging that he was a victim of age and race discrimination, and that Sterling had a "plantation mentality."

"And now we all feel bad that we didn't support [Baylor], because we should have," Johnson said. "And everything that he said is coming to light today. "

Johnson, who led the Lakers to five NBA championships, denied that he had tried to delay Sterling's response to charges of racism to position himself to buy the Clippers. He said he maintains an interest in owning an NBA team, but would prefer it be the Lakers.

The intensity of Sterling's critique belied what has been a generally cordial, though never close, relationship with the Lakers superstar that extends back more than three decades. Johnson described how he attended a party at Sterling's Malibu beach house in 1979, not long after he arrived in Los Angeles from Michigan.

They talked occasionally over the years, though never did business together. When Sterling's remarks were met with public outrage, Johnson said, he was surprised at the owner's response — calling and asking, without an apology, whether Johnson would make a joint television appearance with him. They would be interviewed by Barbara Walters. Johnson said he declined.

"I said, the No. 1 thing you need to do," Johnson recalled telling Sterling, "which you haven't done, is apologize to everybody and myself." Sterling has yet to apologize to Johnson.

The photo that touched off Sterling's angry remarks about blacks was not taken at a Clippers game but at a Dodgers game. Johnson said his pose in that photo with Stiviano was his only contact with the Sterling companion, so he was at a loss to understand why Sterling targeted him.

"He needs to address this young lady, because that is the problem," Johnson said. "That is where the problem started, not with Magic Johnson. It started with his girlfriend."

Times staff writers Mike Bresnahan and Bill Plaschke also contributed to this report.