Here was a story, it seemed, that resonated with a disparate and diffuse metropolis.
It was the tale of one city and two men — one on the ascent, a giant who staked his life’s claim not on his championship banners, but on minority ownership in business and professional sports; the other on the decline, shouting over his shoulder as he’s being shown the door.
Across the Los Angeles area — at a coffee shop in Ladera Heights, outside the gleaming office buildings of Beverly Hills — the verdict came down Tuesday and it was not generous to Donald Sterling, the 80-year-old billionaire Clippers owner.
For decades, Los Angeles has served as an incubator for race relations. The melting pot was forged in the embers on Western Avenue, rendered by Watts and the National Guard, seasoned with O.J. Simpson and the LAPD, watched to a boil by a public that couldn’t even agree on the difference between riot and unrest.
It fell to Sterling, of all people, to deliver a moment of clarity and unity when he responded to calls for his ouster from the NBA by attacking Magic Johnson.
“How do you talk about Magic like that?” said Michael Purnell, a 42-year-old barber at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. “That’s Magic Johnson. Everybody loves Magic.”
The most passionate debate Tuesday wasn’t about whether Sterling was right or wrong in his attacks on Johnson. It was about whether he’s even worth talking about at all, whether he is still relevant to the city where he grew up and made his fortune.
“He’s an old man with no filter,” said veteran civil rights attorney Connie Rice. “He’s a relic of a bygone era. It’s time to move on.”
It had been two weeks since recordings surfaced of the Clippers owner telling his 31-year-old companion, V. Stiviano, that though she could spend time with African Americans, she should not allow herself to be photographed with them. Those comments earned Sterling a lifetime ban from the NBA and a $2.5-million fine — but it wasn’t until Sterling finally broke his silence, and attempted to defend himself, that Los Angeles’ jaw landed on the floor with a unified, collective thud.
In an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, which aired in full on Monday, Sterling insisted that he could hold on to the team he has owned for 33 years, said fans and sponsors remained in his corner and blamed the media for his troubles. Then Sterling turned to a familiar face and an improbable foil: Johnson, the former Lakers superstar, part of the Los Angeles Dodgers ownership team and one of the most beloved figures in California sports history.
“What does he do for the black people?” Sterling demanded. Jews, Sterling said, take care of their own. But some African Americans “don’t want to help anybody.” Johnson, Sterling said, “acts so holy.” Sterling assailed Johnson for sexual promiscuity and for contracting the virus that causes AIDS.
Many viewed the public’s swift, united verdict against Sterling as an indication of progress.
“Typically, there’s been a blind eye toward the bigotry of the wealthy and powerful as long as they keep their mouths shut,” said author, civil rights leader and commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson. “But in this case, a man who’s a part of the good old boys’ club is now a pariah. The message is: Your money, your status is not going to insulate you in the future.”
On the subject of Magic Johnson on Tuesday, however, there seemed little room for debate.
Johnson has famously gone on to bring a host of businesses, such as Starbucks coffee shops, into underserved communities. His foundation has granted about $20 million to organizations that work on HIV-related issues, and he recently teamed up with an investment fund to develop properties in urban neighborhoods.
Johnson has not made a secret of his determination to foster minority business ownership. In the early 1990s, Johnson was in consideration to become an NBA coach, but the talks fell apart when he demanded to also be permitted to buy a share of the team. That team? The Clippers.
Outside a Starbucks in Ladera Heights, a group of men sat sipping cool drinks and smoking cigars Tuesday under an umbrella in the sweltering heat. Johnson himself visited the Starbucks when it opened for business and swept the stoop to demonstrate support for minority-owned businesses in working-class neighborhoods.
The men contrasted Johnson’s work in recent years to some of the undertones of Sterling’s career — a record $2.72-million settlement on allegations that he discriminated against African Americans, Latinos and families with children at apartment buildings he owned; an allegation by former Clippers executive Elgin Baylor that Sterling envisioned a “plantation-type structure” for the franchise.
Julian Paige, 56, a retired aerospace manager from nearby View Park, said Sterling never learned an important lesson: “Better to be thought of as a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt,” he said to laughs.
“All you are is a piece of meat at the end of the day, and Donald Sterling acted it out for all of us to see,” Paige said.
Mia Mitchell, 28, was a pupil at Raymond Avenue Elementary School in South Los Angeles when the 1992 riots broke out near her home at Normandie and Florence avenues. She said she has vivid memories of seeing flames outside her kitchen window and missing classes because school was closed.
When it comes to race relations in Los Angeles, “we’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go,” said Mitchell, an African American attorney who works in an office next door to Sterling Plaza, the Beverly Hills building housing Sterling’s offices, and lives in Inglewood.
Mitchell said she was baffled that Sterling, after so much exposure to athletes and celebrities of color, would speak ill of African Americans.
“I just think he’s from a different time,” she said. In Los Angeles today, she said, “we’re blessed by being more open to different races.”
Times staff writer Martha Groves contributed to this report.