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Clippers learned of infamous Donald Sterling tapes five years ago today

Clippers learned of infamous Donald Sterling tapes five years ago today
Shelly Sterling, left, sits with her then-husband, Clippers owner Donald Sterling, during a game between the Clippers and Detroit Pistons on Nov. 12, 2010. (Mark Terrill / Associated Press)

Seth Burton lets out a long sigh when he thinks about where he was five years ago.

Burton is the senior vice president of communications for LAFC, which boasts the best record in MLS, and in 2014 held the same position with the Clippers when they were battling the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs. That series was overshadowed by the infamous Donald Sterling tapes — taped conversations of the Clippers owner making insensitive racial remarks, which TMZ released April 25, 2014 and led to Sterling’s lifetime ban from the NBA and the eventual sale of the team to Steve Ballmer.

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“I had heard there was a Sterling tape that was bad before the playoffs even started but I didn’t know what was on it,” Burton said. “I just knew it was bad. TMZ started reaching out to me asking for a comment but I didn’t know what he said on it so I couldn’t comment. [TMZ founder] Harvey Levin called me at one point and said, ‘This is really bad.’ He said it was racial but he wouldn’t get into specifics. Every time they called me and asked me about it, I would go to Andy [Roeser, former team president] and ask him about it. He would tell me they were dealing with it.”

Burton finally obtained a copy of the tape the morning before it was released and listened with Clippers coach Doc Rivers in the hallway of the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco, where they were staying.

“I just remember Doc looking at me at one point and saying, ‘This is bad,’ ” Burton said. “It was a bad situation.”

It almost got worse when Burton discovered that Sterling, who was in San Francisco and had attended Game 3, was planning to go to Game 4.

“The first thought that came to my mind was that he can’t show up to this game,” Burton said. “I was in front of the locker room on the phone with Andy, trying to find a way to get through to him that he can’t come to this game. He was already in the car on the way to the arena. He was in his own world. I don’t think he realized this was a big deal. So I said, ‘What will it take to get him to not come to this game? What if Doc talked to him?’

“This is less than an hour before tip-off. So I run into the locker room and I hand Doc my phone and said, ‘Please, Doc, talk to these guys.’ It got heated. He was telling them he couldn’t come to the game. I can’t imagine what would have happened if he tried to walk on the court and sit courtside. It would have been an unsafe environment for him to be in.”

Rivers, who will be in the same visitors locker room at Oracle Arena when the Clippers take on the Warriors in Game 5 of their first-round series Wednesday, still shakes his head when he thinks back to that day.

“Seth was in a panic,” Rivers said. “He ran in and said, ‘I need you right now.’ It was unbelievable. It was tough. It took me 45 minutes to beg for [Sterling] not to come. It was unbelievable.

“I’m on the phone with ownership having the most heated argument you could possibly have ... I think I didn’t get onto the floor until like a minute before because I was still in the argument about who was going to come to the game. By the time I got onto the floor it was just a tough game.”

The Clippers ended up losing to the Warriors 118-97, which evened the series 2-2. The story had become international news by then. Burton, who had been promoted to his position less than a year earlier, often had catered news conferences that attracted about a dozen local reporters. He now was fielding calls from news outlets around the world.

Clippers coach Doc Rivers reacts during a game after against the Utah Jazz in November 2017.
Clippers coach Doc Rivers reacts during a game after against the Utah Jazz in November 2017. (Kelvin Kuo / Associated Press)

“I remember coming home after Game 4 and sitting on my couch, almost in tears,” Burton said. “I was like, ‘What the hell have I gotten myself into?’ I remember someone posting a picture of me talking to Chris [Paul] and Blake [Griffin] after practice in San Francisco before they talked to the media, and people were commenting on it saying I was this white, racist Clippers employee telling our black players what to do and say. It was terrible.”

Sterling was banned for life from the NBA before Game 5 in Los Angeles, but Burton still wasn’t done putting out fires and trying to provide a buffer between the team and its ownership.

“Donald was banned by the NBA in the morning but that afternoon I found out that [Sterling’s wife] Shelly was planning on coming to Game 5,” Burton said. “I got on the phone again with Andy and said this cannot happen. We cannot have her sitting courtside. Shelly liked Doc so I asked Andy if it would make a difference if Doc talked to her, so I ran to the locker room and I said, ‘Doc, you have to talk to Shelly.’ He actually did talk to Shelly, unlike Donald, and he convinced her to sit in the suite if she had to come to the game.”

Burton will be watching Wednesday’s Clippers-Warriors game from the comfort of his home in Los Angeles; pulling for Rivers but thankful that worrying about the Sterlings is in his rearview mirror.

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“I still have PTSD whenever I see that Four Seasons in San Francisco,” Burton said. “It was a crazy time. Doc was the right person at the right time in history for that moment. I don’t know if there’s another coach who could have handled it better than he did.”

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