Clippers owner Donald Sterling stunned a packed Los Angeles County courtroom Wednesday by calling his wife a "pig" after suggesting in earlier testimony that he intends to have his say for a long time to come and pledging to continue his fight with the NBA until his last breath.
"I will never, ever, ever sell this team," Sterling said on the third day of a hearing over the control of the Clippers. "And, until I die, I will be suing the NBA to make them pay for the terrible violations of antitrust that they have imposed on me and my family."
The 33-year owner of the Clippers said he intends to win $9 billion in damages in a federal lawsuit filed against the NBA.
While the NBA, prospective new Clippers owner Steve Ballmer and Shelly Sterling had hoped for a quick resolution to the case, Donald Sterling appeared willing to do whatever it would take to prolong his contest with his wife and the pro basketball league.
Even by Sterling's pugilistic standards, though, the outburst he leveled at his wife of 58 years Wednesday stood apart. After he had finished on the witness stand and after only about 20 minutes of his wife's testimony, including comments about her husband's faulty memory, flashes of anger and mental incapacity, she approached him in the front row of the court gallery.
"Get away from me, you pig," Donald told her. She gasped and backed away as her husband added, "Shelly, how could you lie?"
The court grew quiet and an opposing lawyer demanded Sterling's ejection. Judge Michael Levanas instead admonished the billionaire real estate magnate: "Please don't make any statements to your wife. It's somewhat disturbing to hear that, for everyone, I think."
Although Sterling's mental capacity is not at issue in the probate hearing, which will determine whether Shelly properly took control of, and sold, their NBA team without her husband's approval, his serial outbursts seem certain to complicate his attempts to win back the Clippers, along with alienated fans, players and sponsors.
They also stripped the dispute down to its essence — a public airing of a fiercely personal feud between two willful people, who insist they know what's best for themselves and their family, which includes an adult son and daughter.
Adam Streisand, the lawyer representing Ballmer, said the outburst exposed Sterling as "a seriously demented tyrant" and should help persuade the judge that "this is a man who has to go. He cannot be a member in the NBA community one day longer."
Sterling's lawyer, Bobby Samini, said his client apologized to his wife shortly after the eruption, which he blamed on Sterling's sense of betrayal.
Sterling resumed his testimony Wednesday and once again criticized the NBA, the veteran lawyer representing his wife and even his own attorney. While his opponents want a narrow-bore trial and a prompt resolution that can't be appealed, the longest-tenured owner in the pro basketball league is firing scattershot at his enemies and saying it may take a good, long while to settle multiple scores.
Sterling's threat to continue his fight against the NBA has been a recurring theme in his battle to retain the team. On Tuesday, he had testified that he could sell the team for $5 billion and that he intends to win $9 billion in damages in a federal lawsuit he filed against the NBA.
The crisis for the Sterling family and the Clippers, the team they have owned for 33 years, began in late April, when the gossip website TMZ posted a recording of Sterling admonishing his frequent female companion, V. Stiviano, not to bring blacks to Clippers games. The NBA quickly slapped him with a $2.5-million fine, a lifetime league ban and a recommendation his ownership be terminated.
A month later, Shelly Sterling declared she was the sole trustee of the family trust that owns the team after two doctors concluded that her husband exhibited signs of Alzheimer's and could no longer tend to his own business affairs. She then sold the Clippers for $2 billion to Ballmer, the former Microsoft chief executive, and is asking the probate court to validate her actions.
Donald Sterling's ability to shock and alienate has surfaced several times over the last 75 days, including voicemails he left threatening the two doctors who declared him mentally incompetent.
Wednesday's most personal verbal assault came after Shelly left the stand and Levanas was talking to lawyers about procedural matters. She approached her husband, who was sitting on the aisle in the front row. After his broadside, she backpedaled to her seat and began to cry.
"Don't buy into this pretense, this guy who sits on the stand and tells you how much he loves his wife," said Bert Fields, Shelly's lawyer. "Think about V. Stiviano when you think about how much he loves his wife."
Sterling, never a reticent man, had started his testimony Wednesday on a milder note, sounding only slightly combative when Fields suggested that he had once declared himself retired. After admonishing the Clippers owner several times previously, Levanas said: "That's not too bad. It's better than yesterday." The gallery laughed.
Sterling responded warmly under his own lawyer's cross questioning. Max Blecher, walked the owner through his 1981 purchase of the team, its difficult early years and a lawsuit Blecher helped the owner win over the NBA when he moved the team from San Diego to L.A. But Sterling soon was scolding Blecher for not letting him finish, talking too softly and for purportedly mischaracterizing a letter in which he suggested his wife might sell the Clippers after the NBA sanctioned him.
The heart of Sterling's case lies in his claim that he was misled into taking two mental exams at his home. Asked if his wife had told him the tests could lead to him being ousted as a trustee, he responded: "On the contrary, she deceived me. I trusted her. I believed in her. I never thought a woman would not stand by her husband and so I believed it when she said it was a routine examination."
Sterling reserved his greatest disdain, though, for the NBA. He said Shelly, 79, was "terrified, frightened to death," adding: "She thinks the NBA will take everything away, everything she has worked for. She is wrong. But that is what she thinks."
Calling the league "like every other corporation in America, only worse," Sterling said he backed away from signing off on a sale of the team, which he briefly said he supported, when he learned his wife would not be able to keep about 25% of the team.
If the court fails to validate the sale to Ballmer, the NBA has said it would ask other owners to vote to seize the team and then sell it at auction.
He said he now welcomed the NBA going ahead with its plan to strip him of the team. "I want them ultimately to sell the team and then we will have our remedies available to us," he said, referring to his federal antitrust suit.
Shelly's short turn on the stand included her description of how she was her husband's sole caretaker and looked after his medical care. When asked if the couple was separated, she responded, "Uh, sort of." She said she cried when she watched Donald on CNN ranting about Johnson and others.
"I felt so bad," she said. "I couldn't believe that was him."
She is scheduled to return to the stand Thursday.