The real Donald Sterling is revealed at trial, and it's not pretty

The real Donald Sterling is revealed at trial, and it's not pretty
Clippers owner Donald Sterling's testimony Tuesday made for an interesting show, but it did little to support his claim that he's capable of managing the sale of the franchise. (Robyn Beck / AFP/Getty Images)

He entered courtroom No. 236 with his hair dyed black and his eyes covered by sunglasses.

Then he took the witness stand and quickly, frighteningly, the world saw the real Donald Sterling.


He was combative. He was confused. He was nonsensical.

"Be a man," he shouted at legendary attorney Bert Fields. "For God's sakes, stand up and be a man!"

He was crude. He was insulting. He was lost.

"Tell me where that's relevant if you're just not trying to be a smart ass," he raged at Fields. "This weird lawyer, I never met a lawyer like this before. . . . What did you say your name was? . . . What did you say your name was?"

In his initial hourlong testimony Tuesday during a hearing that represents possibly his last chance to control the Clippers, Sterling strangely confronted the notion that he was mentally incapacitated by acting like he wanted to prove it.

When asked about Dr. Meril Sue Platzer and the mental competency exam she administered at his home that led to a diagnosis of Alzheimer's, he was slanderous.

"She said she was there because her life was in shambles and her husband left her with $1 milllion in liability and that she's been drinking," he said. "We never got to the point [of a diagnosis]. . . . She said, 'Can I finish the examination of you after we go across the street to the Polo Lounge and have a couple of drinks?'"

When asked about some other things, he said he couldn't hear the question, continuously demanding that Fields repeat it. Then he would often answer with his own question.

"What do you think I'm doing this for, ego? Really?" he said to Fields. "You're wrong, just like you've been wrong on every question you've asked today."

He rambled about conducting Clippers TV and radio negotiations as if the NBA had not banned him for life. He wept about his love for his estranged wife Shelly even though she is the one who scheduled the neurological exams that led to his ouster from the family trust, allowing her to unilaterally sell the Clippers to Steve Ballmer for $2 billion. Sterling is attempting to block that sale for various reasons, among them ego, pride, and his belief that the team can be sold for double that already outrageous price.

"She's a good person," he said of his wife as he began to cry. "But [the NBA] are not good people."

Sterling, a lawyer who made his fortune as a tough-knuckled negotiator, is historically ornery under oath. But Tuesday was different. This was the Sterling Act on steroids. This was his Anderson Cooper interview supersized. This crossed the line from calculating to unbelievable.

About the only thing Sterling didn't do was actually answer one of Fields' questions. But during a performance that elicited peals of uncomfortable laughter from the dozens crowded into the steamy courtroom, he probably answered the only question that matters.

Should Donald Sterling be allowed to arbitrate the sale of the Clippers? The answer in this courtroom, even from impartial observers, would be a resounding no.


"It was actually sad because, at the end of the day, people leaving this courtroom have to be thinking that Donald Sterling is truly mentally incapacitated," said Omar Anorga, a downtown lawyer and Clippers season-ticket holder who watched from the back of the room. "He was moving in and out of coherency. He was playing right into the hands of the lawyers who want to show he is not mentally fit."

Pierce O'Donnell, one of Shelly Sterling's attorneys, shook his head as he walked down a buzzing courthouse hall.

"In 40 years as a lawyer, I've never seen a courtroom meltdown like that," he said.

The lawyers for Sterling, meanwhile, just saw this as Donald being Donald. Far from shocked, they were actually pleased.

"I think Donald did an excellent job on the stand. . . . If I needed a lawyer, I'd hire him," said his attorney Bobby Samini, later adding, "A lot of people talk about things tangentially; I don't see how that makes them incompetent. He has a lot to say, he's got a lot on his chest, and I think he wanted to use this opportunity to get some of it out."

Sterling indeed unloaded whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, with no regard to courtroom rules and in complete ignorance of Superior Court Judge Michael Levanas' attempts to control him.

He claimed that his wife, despite being the love of his life, arranged for the two doctors to find him incompetent so she could sell the team without his approval. He claimed that the two doctors who declared him mentally incapacitated were "hired guns." He claimed that Shelly Sterling's attorneys didn't even believe in their cause, saying, "The only reason you're handling the case is that you want to charge millions in fees." He even made reference to an alleged settlement conference that Shelly Sterling's team vehemently denied.

"You can't help but feel a little sad, sympathy for the man, because he is clearly not working with all his faculties," said Adam Streisand, an attorney for Ballmer.

Perhaps the saddest part of all this is that Donald Sterling didn't just become this way overnight. This is the same man who just four months ago was the toast of the NBA as the lovably eccentric owner of one of its most entertaining basketball teams. As long as the Clippers won and made money, nobody cared that Donald Sterling was declining. It required racist comments on a secret audiotape made by a frequent companion to finally lead to his being banned from the NBA for life. He is now a sadly confused soul who is finally publicly enduring the same humiliation that he long inflicted on others, but not so long ago, he was still king. The message that sends about the state of sports is almost as ugly as Sterling's behavior, which will continue on the witness stand Wednesday in a trial whose result now seems inevitable.

One day very soon, Steve Ballmer will own the Clippers, and Donald Sterling will disappear from the city's sports landscape forever, his final days in the spotlight serving as an appropriate testament to a legacy of awful.

"Are you finished with me, counsel?" Sterling asked Fields as he began shuffling off the witness stand late Tuesday afternoon.

Soon, hopefully soon.

Twitter: @billplaschke