Donald Sterling is still trying

Donald Sterlingtalks publicly about as often as his team wins, the last time sitting down here nearly two years ago -- his remarks igniting a firestorm between Clippers owner and his own coach, Mike Dunleavy.

Dunleavy challenged Sterling to dismiss him if not pleased with his work, while going on to say at the time, “I’m totally willing to be the guy on the line; just let me do it. You put the trust in me, gave me the contract, so let me do what I want to do and if it doesn’t work out, it’s all on me.”

Since then, the Clippers have compiled a 39-106 record, criticism of Dunleavy’s coaching style mounting, chants calling for his firing getting louder, and “yes,” Sterling says, “that affects me.”

“If he wins,” Sterling says, “and he deserves the chance to win with healthy players, it will be perfect. But he has to produce when the players return; there has to be accountability. If he doesn’t, then I will have to do what an owner has to do.”

In a wide-ranging sit-down at his Malibu home Tuesday, Sterling talked about his admiration for Jerry Buss, the day Dunleavy told him “Kobe is a Clipper,” his willingness to spend more money than Buss this season, as well as touching on the $2.725 million paid to settle a discrimination lawsuit with the government and, unknown until now, the Clippers’ efforts to support suspended broadcaster Ralph Lawler.

“We have a magnificent partnership with Fox,” Sterling says. “They thought there should be a four-game suspension. I don’t know if you know that or not. As an organization, we reviewed the broadcast repeatedly and felt maybe there was an overreaction on everyone’s part. But in respect of our TV partner, we compromised on a one-game suspension.”

There is no easier punching bag in sports to repeatedly pound than Sterling, but for the last several years it’s an easy argument to make here: Sterling has done very little wrong, if anything, as owner of the Clippers.

He built a state-of-the-art practice facility, allowed Dunleavy to go free-agent shopping with an open checkbook, cut ties with Elgin Baylor after 23 mediocre years as general manager, and now has hung in there with the same coach for seven seasons.

He gave Baron Davis $65 million to come here, never dreaming he would play like a dog. He extended Dunleavy’s contract and, although he wasn’t buying it at the time, agreed to extend Chris Kaman’s contract.

“It’s only $55 million,” jokes Sterling. “Elgin and the coach both said, ‘Some day you are going to be very happy with Kaman.’ I really, really had my doubts, I’m embarrassed to say. But they were 100% right.”

When Bryant declared himself a free agent a few years back, Sterling went after him. At one point, Dunleavy told Sterling he had worked out a deal to sign Bryant.

“I drove from my house in Malibu to the Four Seasons in Newport Beach to meet Kobe and Kobe said I didn’t need to say anything because he was going to be a Clipper,” Sterling says, a day later learning Bryant had been convinced by Buss to remain with the Lakers.

Sterling says he remains committed to winning, despite the black cloud that seems to hang over the organization, calling it “sad and embarrassing,” the fact his team has enjoyed only two winning seasons in the 25 it has been in L.A.

“I can visualize a Clippers parade,” he says. “I’m telling you, I will win. I promise you that. I will find the combination.

“How long am I going to live? Forever? I will do whatever it takes. I think the Clippers can pay more than any team in America. We have unlimited resources. I’d be thrilled to pay [$121 million as the Lakers will do this season] and do it tomorrow, if I could only sign quality players who warranted it.”

Told most fans would never believe such a thing, he says, “I will pay for quality but not reward journeymen. I’m always asking the coach, ‘Is there anyone special out there we can get?’ ”

Here’s hoping Dunleavy mentioned LeBron James, putting Sterling to the gold-bar test.

Sterling has probably sat courtside now for more than a 1,000 defeats, too ill to attend Monday night’s win, turning the TV on and off, again and again, “because I get so emotional. I care that much.

“Do you know how hard it is to win a championship, to win a trophy? That’s why you have to admire the Lakers. I give Buss so much credit. I haven’t been able to do it. He’s done it.”

Buss has turned control of the Lakers to his daughter and son, but Sterling says he has made no secession plans when it comes to the Clippers.

And if Buss is considered one of the best owners in basketball, Sterling certainly takes honors as the worst.

“Well, I think that’s a little bit of an overstatement,” Sterling says, an argument ensuing and then finally Sterling capitulating. “If you say so, then maybe it’s true.”

“I suffer emotionally every time we don’t perform well,” he says. “I don’t know how I lived through them. But what’s the alternative? What if you have a child and that child just can’t seem to perform? You can’t sever the relationship with the child. And this team means everything to me -- not for financial reasons, but because it’s an extension of me. Imagine how sad I am.”

He talks a better game than his players play it. He says he would pay for better players but the better players won’t take his money.

“Why can’t the Mets sign more players?” he says, knowing they will get only those the Yankees don’t want.

“If somebody could tell me how to win, I’d give them anything,” Sterling says. “The Lakers have made some fabulous decisions in their selection of players. On the other hand, we have not.”

He has given Dunleavy $5 million a year and complete freedom to make those personnel selections now as GM.

No coach has worked longer for Sterling than Dunleavy, and while some suspect the $5 million that Sterling owes Dunleavy next season will be enough for him to keep his job, Sterling says winning outweighs everything.

“If a coach is discharged, there is always a stretch provision, which means you pay them off over five to 10 to 15 years, so you have the funds to hire someone else right away. How much we’re paying him is no consideration.

“I do have a lot riding on him, but it has nothing to do with money. It’s about winning, and if he cannot get the job done, I think he has so much pride in himself, he will step down on his own.”

He says he has no ultimatums when it comes to what Dunleavy must do to keep working for the team, but adds, “I think if our first-round choice [Blake Griffin] and Eric Gordon were healthy, he would take this team to the playoffs.

“This coach has over 1,200 games under his belt. And he was a player. If he can’t coach, there’s something wrong with the system.”

Sterling says life is good now save the continuing frustration that comes with his disappointing basketball team, even dismissing the suggestion that he took a public relations hit when he paid $2.725 million to settle a discrimination lawsuit.

“I didn’t pay a penny -- the insurance company did,” he says, giving his one-sided account of the suit. “I’m glad you brought it up because I don’t think it hurt me at all. The reason it was settled was because they didn’t have one person to stand up and say I discriminated against them. If they had the one person, I’m high profile and they would’ve liked to have gone at it.

“We absolutely denied doing anything wrong, and rather than it going on and on, the insurance company said it would settle.”

If only he could dismiss his team’s poor record so easily, the Lakers a constant reminder of what happens when things go well, and it was Sterling who bought property from Buss so Buss would have the money to buy the Lakers.

“There are other owners who think we’re successful because we generate so much income,” Sterling says. “We turn more than a nice profit every year.

“But you know what? I’d rather not generate any income -- and win.”