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Into the Spotlight : Owner Donald T. Sterling Emerges From the Shadows, Rubs Elbows With Celebrities as Clippers Gain Acceptance

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s Roseanne Barr night!

At a prime courtside seat in the Sports Arena, in which she has been preceded by Jack Nicholson, Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Douglas, Orel Hershiser, Alan Thicke, Boom Boom Mancini, Craig T. Nelson, Bruce McNall and Al Davis--to name a few--the famed comedienne and her family sit, watching the Clippers and Seattle Supersonics.

To her left, her host, Donald T. Sterling, sits in warmups and gathering gloom. His Clippers are sinking once more.

Of course, there’s a writer on his other side, so maybe he’s being diplomatic. In similar situations, this master of body language has crossed his arms over his chest for extended periods, dashed his program to the floor, or walked to the baseline seat of General Manager Elgin Baylor and sat in the aisle next to him for a conference.

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What a many-faceted gem is this Sterling, or an actor trying out various approaches. Even top Clipper brass was amused when, after returning from the Super Bowl, where he had been Davis’ guest, Sterling came attired in outlaw chic: black pants, black leather jacket and, even though the game was being played indoors, sunglasses.

The Seattle lead reaches double figures.

How long, oh Lord, how long?

Well, for 100% of Sterling’s nine-year ownership, thus far. The Clippers were the only NBA team without a single winning season in the ‘80s. They are charter members of the NBA lottery and have never missed one. Sterling’s lottery parties are social landmarks. Their reservation for June is made and confirmed.

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How to account for this?

Bad luck?

Coincidence?

Donald T. Sterling?

“Why isn’t Ben playing?” Sterling asks ex-team President Alan Rothenberg, TV personality and president of the California bar, sitting a couple of seats over.

Rothenberg, ever plugged in, notes that the Sonics don’t have a true center opposite Benoit Benjamin, just former Clipper forward Michael Cage. At the half, the rebound figures are 13 for Cage, one for Benjamin.

Wait a moment . . .

Rising as if from years of torpor, the Clippers rally.

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Whatever their problems--how about that team meeting in Sterling’s Beverly Hills office to complain about Coach Don Casey?--these kids are up to their teeth in talent. The Clippers can now stumble into being competitive most nights. Given uninjured guards, they seemed playoff-bound.

Tom Garrick steals the ball and dunks. The crowd goes crazy. Believe it, the Clippers are Los Angeles’ declasse darlings. The Seattle lead is down to 101-97.

Benjamin, fouled, goes to the free throw line.

“We did a computer study a few years ago,” Sterling says, his optimism wondering if it’s safe to come out.

“It showed 25% of games are won by four points or less. We’ve got to find a way to score four more points and hold the opposition to four less. That’s a spread of eight. That shouldn’t be too hard.”

Exactly how to do it?

Ah, there’s the rub.

Benjamin makes two.

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Seattle, 103-102. The Clippers run a last play. Winston Garland looks inside for Benjamin, can’t find a passing lane and fires from 18 feet. A moment later it’s over: Clippers 104, Seattle 103.

Casey dances over and twirls his owner.

“You’ve got to come celebrate with us,” Casey yells. “We don’t have too many of these.”

Sterling asks the writer if he wants to visit the locker room. The writer demurs. Sterling demurs, too.

“Imagine how emotional he must be, to come across the floor to embrace the owner,” Sterling says of the departing Casey.

Not to mention eager to remain employed. Casey has had tombstones in his eyes since Ron Harper went down and the playing roster went to Beverly Hills to critique their mentor’s performance.

“You can’t imagine how much I want Coach Casey to succeed,” Sterling says. “He’s an underdog, a former assistant coach. Of course, Elgin will make all those decisions.”

Note that no one has asked about Casey’s prospects.

Another night at the Clippers is history.

The Great Sterling

Haven’t we seen this somewhere?

In his recent PR offensive that landed him on the cover of California magazine, in Business Week and Forbes, Sterling’s publicist framed him as the West Coast’s answer to Donald Trump.

Actually, he is more like the West Coast’s answer to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby.

Like Gatsby, Sterling is immensely wealthy--the biggest landowner in Beverly Hills--infinitely hospitable . . . and seems to have arrived on the scene full-grown.

Like Gatsby, Sterling is vague about his early years.

There, the comparison ends. Gatsby concealed underworld connections.

Sterling was merely poor.

He was born Donald Tokowitz--the T in DTS--of immigrant Jewish parents in Chicago and raised in East L.A’s Boyle Heights. He has said his father changed their name “many years ago.” An old friend says Donald changed it in the early 1960s.

In a recent California magazine story, Sterling said his father was in the produce business. The story also noted Sterling’s reluctance to discuss his youth.

Now, he’s a little more forthcoming; he says his father was a pushcart peddler.

Sterling attended Roosevelt High, Cal State L.A. and Southwestern law school. He tried personal-injury cases and won several big judgments. An early client remembers him as smart, tenacious and tireless, a seven-days-a-week guy.

When he had something to invest, he sunk it into Beverly Hills real estate. That was in the ‘60s, a time when the market was not slumping but dying. Sterling’s plunges thus took courage or foresight. An old associate suggests a psychological predisposition to acquire real property. Whatever, he had it big-time.

Sterling had a single-minded vision of Southern California as the golden land. When the market exploded in the ‘70s, it made him rich beyond his dreams.

Formally modest, he mentions repeatedly he merely took a ride on “galloping inflation.” Thus he denies himself the credit due one who scaled the heights, every step of the way on his own merits.

In the ‘70s, he became friendly with Jerry Buss, with whom he had done business. At Buss’ elbow, he glimpsed the fast lane. Sterling’s cash, paid for about 20 Buss developments, financed the purchase of the Lakers.

Following Buss’ example, Sterling bought an NBA team.

That’s as far as that comparison goes, too.

Buss got Los Angeles, the Forum, the Kings, the Lakers, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the right to draft Magic Johnson.

Sterling got the Clippers, a wandering franchise that had started in Buffalo, been traded en masse for the Boston Celtics, then transferred to San Diego, where it moldered.

Sterling’s purchase price is reported to have been nearly $13 million. Actually, a former associate says, he paid no money, only assuming some $11 million in deferred-payment debts. Former owner Irv Levin threw in about $100,000 in advance season-ticket sales, so in effect, Sterling got a signing bonus.

Then followed three whirlwind seasons in which Sterling learned to be a public figure the hard way.

He was fined $10,000 by the league for saying the Clippers had to “bite the bullet” and finish last so they could draft Ralph Sampson. A model named Patricia Simmons showed up, saying she was a friend of Sterling, claimed Coach Paul Silas’ desk and rose to the post of assistant general manager.

The San Diego press suggested pointedly that Sterling’s behavioral excesses often followed a few white wines. The league considered lifting his franchise, but settled for his promise to hire Rothenberg and pay his debts.

The deals started: Tom Chambers to Seattle; Terry Cummings, Ricky Pierce and Craig Hodges to Milwaukee; James Donaldson to Dallas; Byron Scott to the Lakers.

In return, the Clippers retain one player--Ken Norman.

Whether this belongs at Sterling’s doorstep, or truly represents incompetence as much as bad luck, is another question.

For example, several of the deals, including the Cummings-Pierce-Hodges for Marques Johnson fiasco, were made by Carl Scheer, a respected NBA hand. Even when Sterling hired competent pros and let them run the show, nothing worked.

The roll of Clipper injured became another Who’s Who: Bill Walton, Norm Nixon, Marques Johnson, Derek Smith, Danny Manning, Ron Harper, Gary Grant.

In 1984, he moved his team to the Sports Arena. The Coliseum Commission made it attractive, promising support from the lawyers who had helped fight the NFL antitrust suit and improvements to the arena. However, Sterling became persona non grata within the NBA and fought in court for four years to hold his ground.

His single decision to move, and the passage of a decade, have enhanced the value of his franchise to the $70-million range. Sterling says he has turned down $100 million.

Downtown With the Donald

In his penthouse office Sterling, in workaday plain blue suit, white shirt and tie, stands behind his desk, framed against the backdrop of the Hollywood Hills.

The room is spacious, offers a panoramic view of downtown Beverly Hills and is appointed with Louis XIV desk, Napoleon-era clock, Chinese screens, parquet flooring from Bordeaux, impressionist paintings.

Sterling offers his visitor a seat, but remains standing on the other side of the Louis XIV. He talks, he strides around the room, he turns pensive and looks out the window when he talks about his departed father’s final years--"I saw him every day. It was the highlight of my life.”

He keeps protesting that he doesn’t want to do this story and seeks to maintain a low profile.

Indeed, when the Clippers first arrived in Los Angeles, Sterling gave few interviews and didn’t even appear in the media guide. Rothenberg said, “You’re going to call him the Howard Hughes of the NBA.”

Sterling has returned to the media guide. Out-of-town writers are often marched over at halftime and introduced to him. He sends flowery letters of praise to Los Angeles sportswriters he has never met. A man who hires Marilynn Monroe’s former public relations agent can’t be described as a hermit.

Sterling shows pictures of the guests at his last public function in the office: Wilt, Pia Zadora, Pat Sajak. He has already mailed copies to Clipper officials.

Is he star-struck?

He says he is merely dressing up his team’s image, but . . .

“I like sports people,” he says, almost breathlessly.

Sterling is often breathless. Here’s the buoyancy that launched him out of Boyle Heights:

“I like people who are achievers. But don’t we all?

“This is a town where the entertainers work. They love sports like you do and everybody else does. There’s a certain common denominator that exists in sports, you understand? Where you can call anybody like you’ve known them for a lifetime and ask them to be a special guest.

“George Allen called me the other day: ‘Don, this is is George Allen, I’m going to come in and have lunch with you.’ Well, I had never met him before. He’s now at Long Beach State. He wants to build a nice facility, get uniforms for the players, to raise some money--all good, worthwhile projects. He came with Willie Brown from the Raiders, because they know I’m close with the Raiders.

“When Detroit comes to town, Arsenio Hall wants to come. Last night, I went to Spago’s after the game. Eddie Murphy congratulated us on beating Seattle and said he wanted to come to a game.

“So . . . what is the point I’m making?”

That he, indeed, likes celebrities?

“Winning is the most important thing,” Sterling says. “But there is a lot of little boy in me.

“When I meet the governor of New York and he says, ‘Do you think you have a good starting five?’ that makes me feel good. The night before, my guests were the chancellor of Pepperdine, Charles Runnels, and George Page, the owner of the museum. That’s exciting!

“Bruce McNall (owner of the Kings) sits down with me. He says he has more fun at the Sports Arena than he does at the Forum--and I understand what he’s talking about. It’s more fun watching a team when you’re not suffering. I like Bruce. I like Buss. I love Al Davis!

“You know who you should talk to? Our commissioner. Say, ‘I’m doing a profile on Sterling, is there any hope for the guy?’ ”

OK, suppose he is a poor kid who can’t believe his good fortune and isn’t sure what it is a rich guy is supposed to do. What’s the problem? Only in assuming that his background isn’t somehow becoming .

Ah, but celebrity--his own--is a double-edged sword.

People sneer at the Clippers. Sterling dies inside. He knows what they say--"You think that people perceive you as a loser . . . I know I’m a winner.”

He will apply himself overtime, as he always has.

There must be an answer somewhere and he’s going to find it.

“I’m a lawyer by profession,” he says. “Lawyers are taught in law school from the first day, one, ascertain the issue and, two, address it.

“You might say the issue is easy. You don’t have high-enough quality players--I don’t know what the issue is.”

The search continues.

The Issue

How did such a nice, gentle, smart, soft-hearted, well intentioned man get into this quandary?

What’s the Clipper problem?

Well, after you list the pre-existing ruin of the franchise, the new owner’s inexperience, buzzard luck and over-exuberance, there is still the question of management.

It might be better now than the days when it could have been said, if it weren’t for bad management, the Clippers wouldn’t have any management at all.

However, Clipper management is still erratic, as much concerned with his image as that of the team.

Clipper insiders, past and present, defenders and critics alike, agree on several Sterling characteristics: he is overly tenacious in negotiations; he is cheap, although he has learned to come up with market prices for his Danny Mannings; he is indecisive; he prefers to ask a million questions rather than act; he creates a power vacuum beneath him, into which top lieutenants from the Sterling Corp. and the team tiptoe but can’t dominate; his coaches and general managers aren’t allowed to develop true authority.

Says a former associate: “His way is psychological warfare. He puts doubt in your mind. Maybe it’s his training as a lawyer. He’s an expert at avoiding taking a position.”

Item: the Norm Nixon negotiations. Nixon wanted a three-year, $900,000 deal. Negotiations stalled. Nixon got an offer sheet from Seattle. The Clippers were then obliged to pay $1.6 million for four years to retain Nixon’s services. Nixon came back unhappy.

Item: Sterling has hired four general managers, with only Scheer described as a man who would question his decisions.

Scheer came and went within two seasons.

Item: Sterling has hired four coaches, three of them former Clipper assistants working for bottom scale.

The fourth was another old NBA hand, Gene Shue. Shue pushed for changes, couldn’t deliver immediate results and, when the players started grumbling, got the ax in his second season.

Item: The Clippers met with several likely draft picks last spring, but not Danny Ferry, their eventual choice. Ferry fled to Italy rather than sign. Then Benjamin announced he was going to Italy, too. The Clippers managed to reel Benjamin back in.

Item: the mid-February team meeting with Sterling.

Sterling says he did it only after Baylor asked him three times and he turned Baylor down twice.

Sterling says: “The third time, Elgin said, ‘I’m the general manager and I’m telling you there has to be a meeting with the team. All of the players feel the owner doesn’t care.’

“We called the coach and told him the players were coming in. We would take very careful notes. If the coach wanted to come in, he could come in.

“Ten players came in (all but Benjamin and Jay Edwards, reportedly). And I’ve never seen Elgin so aggressive. He said, ‘All right, I’ve arranged the meeting with the owner. Speak!’

“Elgin thinks he’s the father of all these kids. He doesn’t usually talk that aggressively.

“So the players, each one, expressed themselves.

“They thought they did (have a problem with Casey). I asked each of them if they were 100% content with the coach they had in college. Do you know, not one said he had a good relationship with the coach they had in college, except one?”

Wasn’t the meeting undermining his coach?

“I think that’s a good question,” Sterling says. " . . . If I want my general manager to perform at his optimum level, I have to do what he tells me. I asked Elgin, ‘Did you ever in your career have a meeting with the owner? And Elgin said no.

“I said, ‘Then Elgin, why are you asking me to meet with the players?’

“Plus, confidentially, I don’t ever want to meet with anyone I can’t say yes to. I don’t want to talk on the telephone to someone I can’t answer in the affirmative. I’ve reached that stage where I can have someone else do that.

“And I asked (Baylor), ‘Do you think it undermines the coach?’ And he said no.

“To listen doesn’t undermine anybody. And when those players left, Elgin made it very clear that they weren’t going to influence Elgin Baylor in any way, whatsoever, so they wouldn’t be confused.

“And then he said, ‘I expect you, each of you, to play hard. And you give that coach 100% support.’

“They didn’t like that, but they respected him. And a couple got up and accepted that. And others didn’t. And he walked right over there--got off his chair and walked over. And he said, ‘Did you hear me clear?

“I personally asked the coach to come in after the meeting and assured him no matter what turn the season took, he was our coach the rest of the year. And he really appreciated that.

“Shortly after that, all the coaches came in and were given a written draft of everything the players criticized. I thought the coaches handled it very well.”

Casey says it really wasn’t a big deal but doesn’t want to discuss it in detail.

Baylor says he wishes it had stayed in the family.

Springtime in Clipperland

Things are looking up again as another season wanes and another of Sterling’s lottery parties nears.

The Clippers, who got Cleveland’s top pick in that Ferry-Harper deal, could even have two lottery choices. Imagine that party.

Sterling says the Clippers might make money for the first time. With network TV money trebling and cable deals bubbling, he expects a substantial profit next season.

He is finally in the NBA mainstream. Commissioner David Stern offered him a chance to settle everything for a modest price: $6 million, none of it out of Sterling’s pocket, but instead his share of recent expansion fees; plus an apology for moving without permission.

Sterling, enchanted, served on the owners’ committee that awarded Stern his $30-million contract.

“The last time he was in town, I took the commissioner to the Bistro Gardens for lunch,” says Sterling, fairly crooning with joy. “We sat there two hours, like two wonderful friends.”

From his New York office, Stern says, “The 1990 Donald Sterling is a person who is intensely interested and committed, both emotionally and financially, to the success of his team and the NBA. I think that’s a pretty important thing to a commissioner.”

Sterling, told that Stern has been consulted, is eager to hear what the commissioner said.

The quote is read to him.

“Was there one wonderful quote?” asks Donald Tokowitz Sterling.


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