Clippers owner Donald Sterling testified Tuesday about his past deep loyalty and trust for former executive Elgin Baylor despite an admission by the owner that he wasn’t completely clear about the NBA legend he appointed vice president of player personnel in 1986.
“You didn’t know about his basketball career?” Baylor attorney Carl Douglas asked Sterling in his first day on the stand as Baylor’s wrongful termination civil lawsuit against the team continued at a Los Angeles courthouse. “His accomplishments? The Hall of Fame?”
“No,” Sterling answered. "... I didn’t know that. I hired him for $3,000 a month. I didn’t really know what his role was.... He was working in a mail-order company back then.”
Baylor, the NBA’s first overall pick in 1958 and a member of the league’s 50th anniversary all-time team, was an 11-time All-Star who once scored 71 points in a game and brought the Lakers to the cusp of a title they would ultimately win the season he retired.
Douglas’ questions revealed the significant distance Sterling kept from the team he moved from San Diego in 1984. The organization has appeared in four postseason series since.
When asked about a Baylor predecessor, Sterling said the name Carl Scheer “sounds familiar.” He added, “I don’t profess to know anything about basketball. I’m a professional lawyer.”
As for what he recalls about Baylor taking over basketball matters, the owner said, "[Baylor] … ultimately made $500,000 a year. Somewhere in between, he assumed that role.”
Sterling, who complained of a fever in court Monday, was coughing on the stand and Judge Kenneth Freeman offered to excuse him for the remainder of Tuesday afternoon, which Sterling declined, repeatedly thanking and smiling at a clerk who would bring him cups of water.
Sterling testified he paid Baylor whatever annual salary he would ask for and said he gave Baylor wide latitude in the team’s handling, including what to pay coaches and whom to sign and draft.
“Elgin Baylor wouldn’t tell me the players he was drafting. He was afraid I’d tell another owner,” Sterling testified.
The owner dismissed the attorney’s suggestion that the Clippers discriminated against Baylor because of his age. Baylor was 74 when he was terminated in 2008.
“He’s 6 feet 7,” Sterling testified. “If somebody wants to harass him, I’d like to see him do it.”
The NBA “is like musical chairs, they constantly remove and change owners, general managers, coaches and agents, but I had a man I protected for 22 years.… He kept telling me it would get better. I kept hoping it would get better. It didn’t get better. It got worse.”
Ultimately, Sterling testified he agreed with the move to designate Baylor a consultant, testifying, “The record speaks for itself. Of course, I was disappointed. I’m spending one-third of a billion dollars to win, and who’s in charge of winning? Elgin Baylor is a good person, but we lost seven out of 10 games with him. How can anyone feel good about that?”
Douglas noted the Clippers finished 19-63 in 2008-09 and asked whether Baylor’s departure has changed the Clippers’ fortunes.
“I think we’re getting better,” Sterling said. “Getting better all the time.”