Don't expect Donald Sterling to depart fast or gracefully

Disgraced Clippers boss' penchant for litigation suggests first test of new NBA commissioner Silver's mettle is still in the early stages

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 April, 2014, 10:59pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 April, 2014, 10:59pm

Donald Sterling will not go quietly. He never has before. So even as praise rolls in for NBA commissioner Adam Silver's forceful decision, the first real test of his leadership may just be beginning.

Barely three months after taking over from David Stern, Silver, a lawyer and longtime league entertainment executive, has to muster a "super-majority" - 24 of the NBA's 30 owners - to carry out his threat to force the disgraced Clippers owner to sell the franchise.

That is on top of the unprecedented US$2.5 million fine and lifetime ban.

Do I believe he has a reasonable chance of succeeding? I do not
Jeffrey Kessler, sports lawyer

But when Silver was asked, more than once during a news conference whether he has the votes, he did not waiver.

"I fully expect to get the support from the other NBA owners I need to remove him," Silver said.

No owners said publicly they would not support the decision, even Mavericks owner Mark Cuban who said he agreed with the commissioner 100 per cent.

A day earlier, however, Cuban - while criticising Sterling's comments as "obviously bigoted, obviously racist" - called it "damn scary" that a precedent could be set.

"Regardless of your background, regardless of the history they have, if we're taking something somebody said in their home and we're trying to turn it into something that leads to you being forced to divest property in any way, shape or form, that's not the United States of America," Cuban said.

"I don't want to be part of that." If Silver has the votes, there is no choice.

Even a cursory glance at Sterling's litigious past suggests that while he is barred from making his case before the league's board of governors, he may drag them into court.

"Anybody can file any claim they want to. But do I believe he has a reasonable chance of succeeding?" said Jeffrey Kessler, probably the savviest sports law attorney in the country. "I do not."

Kessler has represented the players associations for the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB, as well as Latrell Sprewell and Michael Vick. Though the NBA contract is a confidential document, it is a safe bet Kessler has a good grasp on the relevant language.

"I don't think Mr Sterling has any basis for a legal claim, period. The decision by Adam Silver is grounded in the NBA's constitution and its bylaws - which Mr Sterling agreed to and signed - and any challenge would be considered as an arbitration decision and not by the courts," he said.

"And the only grounds to challenge an arbitration decision are very narrow, none of which apply here. All that said," Kessler added.

"I'm sure if he's intent on suing, he could find some lawyer who would assert some claim."

That's never been a problem for Sterling's lawyers.

His wife, Rochelle, is suing the woman purportedly heard on tape at the centre of the scandal to reclaim at least US$1.8 million in cash and gifts Sterling allegedly provided her.

In 2009, he sued a former mistress to reclaim a house he gave her and lost (she kept the house).

The same year, he agreed to a US$2.76 million settlement to end a Department of Justice lawsuit alleging discrimination against African-Americans, Latinos and even children at apartment buildings he owned.

Sterling was sued unsuccessfully by former NBA great Elgin Baylor, who was his general manager for 22 years and alleged the franchise was run at times like "a plantation", as well as a few former coaches over non-payment of their contracts.

Two decades ago, he sued the NBA over a US$25 million fine levied for the unauthorised move of the Clippers from San Diego - then dropped it after the fine was reduced to US$6 million.

Before Silver's announcement, Fox News reported Sterling said he would not sell the franchise. He bought it for US$12.5 million, and just like his real estate investments, the price tag has skyrocketed over the years - valued at around US$600 million.

He has a personal fortune estimated at almost US$2 billion - which buys a lot of high-powered legal talent - and whether the NBA owners are willing to call his bluff could depend largely on Silver's powers of persuasion.

Given his record, exactly how Sterling survived to become the league's longest-tenured owner is a question that only Silver's predecessor can answer. And for the moment, Stern is laying low.

"This league is far bigger than any one owner, any one coach and any one player," Silver said.

Now all he has to do is prove it.

Associated Press