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Sterling as Usual Is Letter Perfect

Donald T. Sterling

Sterling World Plaza

Beverly Hills

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Dear One and Only,

I’ve got to admit, you still leave me speechless.

Well, give or take the ensuing 1,250 words. For better (I should complain about three columns a year?) or worse (then there’s your basketball team), you’re still you after all these years.

I do miss the lottery parties in Malibu with the tents and starlets, but I’m sure your Westside friends had a good time Wednesday, roaming around the front office and watching you play Man of Decision with your basketball people.

It’s true, your basketball people are a little down after you scuttled their deals for Baron Davis and Andre Miller, two of the game’s brightest young point guards.

The way we hear it--from everyone, I might add--the deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Miller for Darius Miles and your No. 8 and 12 picks, was going through ... until you decided hours before the draft the Cavaliers could have Lamar Odom but not Miles.

Improbably, or miraculously, your people then scrambled around and were closing in on another deal--Odom, 8 and 12 to the New Orleans Hornets for Davis--which should have been a no-brainer, because you had just signed off on that package....

But you nixed that too, saying something about not liking Baron’s flashy style.

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Of course, Odom and Miles are gifted prospects. The problem is there are two of them, competing for minutes with each other, not to mention Quentin Richardson, Corey Maggette and Eric Piatkowski.

As popular as Miles is, he isn’t a starter, nor will he be one soon, even if Odom had been traded.

Nor can Odom be considered indispensable after you jumped three places in the West last season while he played 29 games.

Nor is either the shooter you need to complement an inside game (you hope is) built around Elton Brand and Michael Olowokandi. Odom and Miles have more potential, but because Richardson and Maggette are better shooters, they’re better fits.

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As you know, I’ve followed your act for a long time (for me, it’s like getting paid to watch Comedy Central), but this was an all-timer. It ranks up there with the five years you spent insisting Danny Manning wouldn’t leave, the Glen Rice-for-Manning deal you knocked down and the trade you finally OKd for Dominique Wilkins--another upcoming free agent, whom you let walk away.

Then, after you orchestrated this latest farce, you sat down with our T.J. Simers, just to show how fearless you are these days.

This yielded gems such as: “Why would people think I wouldn’t pay for the best?”

I can’t imagine.

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With all due respect to T.J., I’ve been around you longer and have learned to translate what you say into the language we use in our universe, which parallels yours.

You said: “We would like to sign [Brand] for six years.... of all the players we have, there is a clear consensus he belongs here as a cornerstone of the franchise.”

This means: You already know that he’ll stay if you’ll pay him the $120-million max, which you intend to do.

Indeed, there appears to be just such an understanding, pleasing Brand’s agent, David Falk, who doesn’t like to tarry with negotiations before going abroad on vacation.

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On the other hand, you said signing Olowokandi is up to General Manager Elgin Baylor: “If he wants Olowokandi, we’ll have Olowokandi.”

This means: There is no deal on Olowokandi and you don’t like his agent, Bill Duffy, running around telling everyone they want the max too. If they keep that up, Baylor can just go out and find himself another center.

And, of course, if Olowokandi gets out of here, it’ll be Baylor’s fault, not yours.

You said hitting the luxury tax threshold is “my No. 1 objective in the universe.”

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This means: nothing.

You’ve said that stuff since they were taking the ball out of the peach baskets. Back here on Earth, you’re $7 million under the salary cap and $17 million under the projected tax threshold.

Wednesday was your crossroads. I actually thought the situation was now so promising--not to mention profitable, with attendance almost doubled over your last season in the Sports Arena, to 18,000 a game--there was no way you could miss it, fail to enjoy it and do what you had to do to keep it going.

Of course, everywhere else, they thought you were the same old Donald, which is why one team--Seattle--called up and offered cash for your No. 12 pick.

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The Clipper rebirth had gone on around you, with little contribution needed from you. For three years, since moving the team into Staples, you hadn’t had to make a decision harder than agreeing to Chicago’s generous offer of Brand for your No. 1 pick.

Meanwhile, Baylor, who had previously gotten you Olowokandi, brought in Odom, Miles, Richardson, Maggette and Keyon Dooling. Last season’s payroll was $35 million--the league minimum--and Portland and Phoenix paid $5 million of that to take Will Perdue and Vinny Del Negro off their caps.

This was crunch time. You had a young team with the size, talent, character and chemistry to grow into a title contender in three or four years when the Lakers’ day was ebbing.

What would you do under these new, different and wholly fortuitous circumstances?

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The answer turned out to be the same: as little as you thought you could get by with.

I’ve got a surprise for you. If you aspire to the elite level, you’re going to have to do more than sign Brand and Olowokandi. There isn’t a person in basketball, within your organization or without, who thinks you’ll pay the dread Third Big Salary--which is why everyone thinks you shot these deals down.

Both Davis and Miller are free agents next summer, but you could pay either $10 million a year, deal off a spare player or two and still be at--not over--the tax threshold, which, we know, is your “No. 1 objective in the universe.”

It’s not even about money, because you’re not only profitable but assured of staying so for years. It’s about tenacious, tight-fisted, ego-asserting-despite-your-

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humble-manner control.

It’s just you being you. As we just learned, nothing changes that, not bad times or even good ones.

Unfortunately, you aren’t going to be able to win a title and then pay for it. That’s not how it works.

At present, you don’t even have a starting point guard. Jeff McInnis played well, but he’s a mouthy little guy and, worse, one more free agent than you feel like dealing with while you’re engaged with Brand and Olowokandi.

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McInnis is as good as gone. Presumably that will turn out to be Baylor’s idea too. All you’ll have at the point is Dooling, who played 14 games last season and has started one NBA game; Earl Boykins, who’s great for an elf, and Marko Jaric, who’s coming from Europe, which makes him an NBA rookie.

Of course, you may still get Davis or Miller.

The Cavaliers won’t max out Miller and Davis has told the Hornets he won’t re-sign. Both probably will be moved and you’ve got way more to offer than anyone else.

The problem is, if the no-brainers are this hard, how will you ever do stuff that’s actually difficult?

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You keep wondering why your friend, Jerry Buss, wins and you don’t. He risks everything because he cares about winning, as opposed to talking about it, as you do. And there are more owners out there who care as much he does.

But there’s only one you.

Promise you’ll never leave me,

Mark Heisler

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

A Logjam

*--* The Clippers appear overstocked at forward and light at point guard after Wednesday’s draft: FORWARDS Elton Brand (6-8): All-Star anchor of front line Obinna Ekezie (6-9): Practice fodder at best Melvin Ely (6-10): Draftee shot-blocker deluxe Tremaine Fowlkes (6-8): Had right stuff--in IBL Harold Jamison (6-9): NBA’s other Jamison Corey Maggette (6-6): Unfulfilled potential Darius Miles (6-9): Improving by leaps, bounds Lamar Odom (6-10): At NBA crossroads Chris Wilcox (6-10): Draftee in Miles mold GUARDS Earl Boykins (5-5): Could be short-timer Keyon Dooling (6-3): Must get in shipshape Jeff McInnis (6-4): Probably leaving Doug Overton (6-3): Clippers’ senior citizen Eric Piatkowski (6-6): Has Clipper tenure Quentin Richardson (6-6): Usually right on Que CENTERS Michael Olowokandi (7-0): They love ‘Kandi Sean Rooks (6-10): Better Clipper than Laker

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