The storm created by Clippers owner Donald Sterling's alleged racist comments about African Americans has put his players in the heart of it while trying to find the right focus to play Game 5 Tuesday night at Staples Center in their playoff series against the Golden State Warriors.
The first-round series is tied at 2-2. But the NBA's investigation into Sterling has become such a distraction that Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said it has overwhelmed his players.
"What other players are going through 'Should I be playing?' thoughts in the middle of a playoff series?" Rivers said in a conference call with reporters Monday. "I sympathize for my players. They didn't sign up for this. And yet here they are and they are in the middle of it and they have to deal with it."
A man reported to be Sterling is heard on an audio recording released by TMZ and later on Deadspin, telling a female friend he was upset she posted a picture on Instagram of herself next to Lakers legend Magic Johnson. The person on the recording didn't want his friend to be associated with black people.
Asked if he thought the voice on the recording belonged to Sterling, Rivers said, "Yeah, I believe he said those things. But I still want to make sure it hasn't been doctored, but yes is the answer."
Rivers added: "I just would like to reiterate how disappointed I am in those comments that are attributed to our owner. I can't tell you how upset I am and our players are."
Several Clippers players have said they've been bombarded with phone calls and text messages from family members and friends, plus in Twitter feeds from the public, all asking what response the players were going to make against Sterling. The players said they were pulled in all sorts of directions by the comments and questions before losing Game 4 to the Warriors in Oakland on Sunday.
Rivers acknowledged the ordeal had been weighing on him heavily, saying he slept about 45 minutes before Sunday's game. "Before a game," he said, "that's never very smart or healthy."
On Monday, Rivers said he "passed" on the opportunity to speak with Sterling. "I don't think right now is the time or the place, for me at least," Rivers said.
Rivers was asked for the second time in two days if he wanted to remain coach of the Clippers if Sterling remains the owner. Rivers has two more years on his contract that pays him $7 million per season.
"For me, I honestly don't want to answer that question because I don't know," Rivers said. "We'll just wait and see."
Rivers gave his players Monday off, with no practice scheduled.
Yet, Rivers said all of the players came to the team's practice facility in Playa Vista.
"I just felt like they needed to breathe," Rivers said. "They've been inundated with this. They've really had no time with their families. I just think they need time.
"Obviously, in most cases, we would be practicing on the floor and doing a lot of stuff today… I would say all of the players are here anyway. I'll go down and talk to them and make sure they're in the right place."
It's rare for an NBA team to skip practice the day before a playoff game.
"Right now, this is more than basketball. This is a non-basketball decision that I thought I had to make. And I thought it was the right decision," Rivers said. "If you get your life better, then you can probably do your work better. I think they needed to do that."
The NBA will hold a news conference Tuesday to make an announcement about its investigation into Sterling.
"I think this is a defining moment," Rivers said. "I think this is a very important decision. I hope that it's a very strong message and I believe that it will be. But other than that, I'm just going to let the league do what it needs to do. And then after that, I think the players and myself will have a reaction."
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