Clip and Save: Sterling Says He Won't Mess It Up

The Clippers swung a big-time trade Wednesday, the kind of move that had General Manager Elgin Baylor and Coach Alvin Gentry talking playoffs, and someone had to go and spoil it by reminding everyone the team is owned by Donald Sterling.

Right now you're probably thinking: What's the Bozo owner going to do to mess it up this time? No way he's going to keep these players together. You think Donald T. Cheapskate is going to pay the money that a Lamar Odom or Elton Brand is going to demand?

So I went to him and asked him about being cheap, about being a big-time loser, and what does it feel like to be a spectator at Laker parades? In fact, I believe I addressed him at one point as the Bozo owner--after he agreed to a sit-down interview with The Times for only the second time since 1990.

"I'll tell you right now," Sterling said while pounding his fist on the desk. "I'm not going to screw this up--you can bet your life on that."

You notice, he's not betting his life on that.

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SAYING IT, and doing it, of course, are different things, but let's begin with something encouraging that is going to be announced today. The man, who supposedly grips money as if it has been super-glued to his hand, has decided to guarantee the final two years of the four-year contract that Gentry signed when he became the coach. A baby step, but a move forward.

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AND THIS: You want to know what he's going to do when it comes time to compete with the rest of the NBA and either pay Odom or let him walk--he says he's going to pay the maximum going rate. I checked: both hands were on the desk and there were no fingers crossed.

"You want me to put it in writing right here," he said, and he must have noticed I was looking at his fingers. "I think Lamar Odom is an All-Star. There's nothing to discuss. I tell him all the time, 'You better spend the money because you're going to have a lot.'

"Listen, my whole philosophy is I want the best and I will pay for it, and then add value and hold it for life. I want All-Star basketball players and I'm prepared to pay them the most money they can get. Now don't be a journeyman and ask me for a superstar's salary. But if you're a superstar, you should get it--like Lamar Odom."

I wanted to stop my tape recorder and replay it for him, but I was afraid I would have to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. I don't know, they still haven't identified the person who bought the winning $141-million lottery ticket last week in that San Jose liquor store--maybe I've found him.

"I think it's going to be a privilege to pay Odom whatever the max is, and I think Brand may be another player just like that and I will pay him the max," Sterling said. "I'm going to tell you something else--I think Darius Miles is going to be a max player--Corey Maggette might even be another one."

So how come no one has ever gotten the max before?

"There has never been a player--with the exception of one [Danny Manning]--that we haven't kept that we wanted to keep," he said. "Take last year. I asked Elgin, 'Do you want to keep Maurice Taylor?' It doesn't matter what the agent says--it's all about money. Elgin says this is Lamar's team, and it's never going to be Lamar's team with Taylor here. So he tells me, 'I'd rather go in a different direction.'

"I ask him, 'Do you want Derek Anderson, and he says, 'We think we can do better.' "

It appears they have. More than 2,500 new customers have already put down a deposit on season tickets for a team that at times might have played the most entertaining basketball in the NBA last season.

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NOW THE Clippers of old, of course, would have taken the local kid in Tyson Chandler, the cheap kid who would have been bound by contract to the team for five years--so you ask: Was Sterling out of the country when the trade with Chicago took place?

"I have my opinions, but do you know Elgin?" Sterling said. "Elgin is a very stubborn, powerful man. I personally think that Eddy Curry was the guy I would have drafted. He would have been a big, strong guy that could have helped us in two positions. He's not skinny [like Chandler]. Now am I paying Elgin to make the decisions? Why would I impose my opinion on him?"

I could like this guy, if he's sincere.

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BUT WHAT about Donald T. Cheapskate--actually trading a second-round pick Tuesday to Philadelphia for cash?

"I think Elgin should have traded that choice for a pick next year," Sterling said. "I asked him, 'Are we in the business of selling draft choices?' He told me there was no room on the roster for another player and we would just have to cut him, but I thought we should have traded the pick."

Maybe Cheapskate's first name is really "Elgin."

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THE CLIPPERS have had one winning season since moving to L.A. in 1984, and Laker owner Jerry Buss has an office filled with NBA championship trophies.

"I couldn't be happier for him and he deserves it," said Sterling, who also has an office filled with honors--marking his successful career as an attorney, investor and philanthropist. "I'd like to be successful in basketball, but I like a lot of the things that have happened in my life and I'm doing just fine.

"And you know what--I know we're going to get it done here. The day is coming--absolutely--when we'll win the trophy."

For those who dwell on history, that's going to be a tough sentence to read without giggling out loud. A little more than a year ago Sports Illustrated dubbed the Clippers the worst franchise in sports, and I suggested to Sterling Wednesday that most people have him pegged as the Bozo owner of sports.

"I think they're right--I am [a Bozo owner]," Sterling said. "Honestly, I am. Sports is measured by performance and I haven't gotten it done. I have to take the hit for that."

With the Clippers on the rise, however, it's now within his power to end one of the longest running jokes in sports. If saying all the right things counts for anything, it's a good start.

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T.J. Simers can be reached at t.j.simers@latimes.com.

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