Silver's Swift Verdict on Sterling a Defining Moment for Commissioner, NBA

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Silver's Swift Verdict on Sterling a Defining Moment for Commissioner, NBA
USA Today

NEW YORK — Minutes after NBA commissioner Adam Silver banished Donald Sterling for life, the emails and tweets began to fly, conveying appreciation, relief, admiration, even glee. One statement stood out from the rest.

"We wholeheartedly support and embrace the decision by the NBA and Commissioner Adam Silver today. Now the healing process begins."

The message was attributed simply to "the Los Angeles Clippers." As if the Clippers and Sterling were two separate entities.

Let the cognitive dissonance subside, and appreciate that statement for what it is: a truly historic moment.

Donald T. Sterling, who ran his team like a ramshackle novelty store, who refused to honor coaches' contracts, who balked at paying for an employee's cancer treatment, who paraded friends through the locker room to gawk at his players, who discriminated against blacks and Latinos in his apartment buildings and who has been a blight on the NBA for three decades, is effectively gone.

Danny Moloshok

Under the terms of Silver's edict, Sterling can never set foot again in the Clippers' offices, or slouch in his courtside seat at Staples Center. He is barred from their practice court. He is expelled from the NBA's Board of Governors.

The actual separation of Sterling and the Clippers franchise will not come for some time, until the other NBA owners can vote to force a sale. The process could take a while. Sterling could challenge the decision. He could sue.

But in their message, the Clippers—the players, the coaches, the trainers, the mortified staffers and the demoralized executives—just declared their independence, with a hefty assist from Silver, who just secured his legacy after only three months on the job.

The Clippers could take the court Tuesday night, for a critical playoff game against the Golden State Warriors, with clear minds, knowing that justice had been served, that their league would not tolerate a racist owner.

"On this day, Adam Silver is not only the owners' commissioner, he is the players' commissioner, and we're proud to call him our commissioner," said Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, the former NBA star who is working with the players association.

A commissioner, like a president, does not get to choose the issues or the moments that define him. This crisis, which began when TMZ released an audiotape of Sterling making racist comments, threatened to tarnish Silver's tenure before it had really begun.

Silver happily spent his first three months on the job campaigning for a higher age requirement, flirting with new ideas about the draft lottery and the playoffs, and pushing for greater transparency in officiating. In a time of labor peace and generally strong TV ratings, Silver was free to indulge in visionary thinking.

Then came the audiotapes—first nine minutes and then 15 minutes of rambling bigotry, paranoia, self-delusion and latent misogyny. It hit the NBA like an anvil, disrupting a riveting first round of playoffs, dealing Silver his first great test.

"When I first heard it, I was shocked," Silver said in his news conference. "I was hoping somehow that it was fraudulent or that it had been doctored, that possibly it wasn't indeed Donald Sterling."

The league's investigation was brief, the conclusions unambiguous: Yes, that was Sterling's voice. No, the tape had not been doctored. Sterling admitted to all of it, though without expressing any sense of remorse or regret, Silver said.

Credit Silver with acting swiftly and boldly. The lifetime ban and the $2.5 million fine represent the maximum penalties the NBA commissioner can levy under league bylaws. The rest is up to the owners, with a three-fourths majority vote required to force Sterling to sell.

But Silver spoke with absolute clarity: He wants Sterling gone, whatever it takes, and whatever the legal risks might be. It was an aggressive stand, delivered with a righteous fury rarely seen from the lawyerly Silver.

"The views expressed by Mr. Sterling are deeply offensive and harmful," Silver said. "That they came from an NBA owner only heightens the damage and my personal outrage."

As he continued, Silver's tone grew edgier, angrier.

"I am personally distraught that the views expressed by Mr. Sterling came from within an institution that has historically taken such a leadership role in matters of race relations, and caused current and former players, coaches, fans and partners of the NBA to question their very association with the league," he said.

Silver invoked Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper, Sweetwater Clifton, Bill Russell—pioneers in basketball and race relations—and finally, Magic Johnson, who was dragged into this ugly affair when Sterling, on the audiotape, was heard ordering his girlfriend, "Don't bring him to my games."

To all of them, Silver said, looking straight into the camera, "I apologize."

Based on the flood of strongly worded statements being issued by team owners Tuesday, it's likely that Silver already has the votes to oust Sterling. He indicated as much, saying, "I fully expect to get the support I need from the other NBA owners to remove him."

From the moment this crisis began, this was the only acceptable conclusion. Any penalty short of expulsion would have seemed weak and ineffectual. Fining a billionaire comes across as laughable. Suspending an owner only removes him from public view; it does not stop him from making a profit.

Make no mistake, Silver has chosen a righteous, but legally risky path. Nothing like this has been attempted in the NBA's modern era, and the league's constitution provides no clear guidelines in this area.

Article 13 indicates an owner can be stripped of his team for failing to meet financial obligations, for gambling on or fixing NBA games or for willfully violating league bylaws. But there is no provision that appears to cover racism, discrimination or abhorrent behavior that might damage the league.

Could Sterling sue the league and extend this crisis indefinitely? It's possible.

But the league faced a much greater risk: to its credibility. With players, with coaches, with referees, with fans, with corporate partners.

Donald Sterling had to go. If Silver had settled for a fine and a short-term suspension, if he had chosen anything less than the nuclear option, the fallout could have been crippling—certainly to the Clippers, possibly the league at large.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

What if coach Doc Rivers resigned? What if Chris Paul and Blake Griffin demanded to be traded? What if agents steered their clients away from the Clippers in July?

Sponsors were already fleeing. If Sterling were left in place, how long would it have been before those sponsors began turning their backs on the rest of the league?

The Miami Heat staged a silent protest to show solidarity with the Clippers. If this were the regular season, every other team might have eventually followed suit.

Nothing, not even a $300 million rollback in salaries, has united the players like Sterling just did.

Everyone from LeBron James to Kobe Bryant to President Obama had weighed in by the time Silver took the podium Tuesday.

Through clenched teeth and a taut jaw, Silver delivered the only verdict that could possibly be deemed acceptable. He drove a wedge between the Los Angeles Clippers and Donald T. Sterling.

The greatest crisis of Silver's short tenure just became his defining moment.

 

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

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