On April 29, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made an enormous public statement by banning Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life and calling on the other 29 team owners to vote him out of their elite group.
Two weeks later, the real fight is just beginning.
The biggest test for Silver will not come in public, standing at a podium in front of a packed house in a New York City banquet hall. The true fight for the future of the Clippers franchise will take place in the NBA boardrooms and, more likely by the day, a few courtrooms as well.
Both Donald Sterling and his estranged wife Shelly plan to fight in every way possible to keep hold of the Clippers organization. So while Silver made his claim that he will do everything in his power to make the Sterlings sell the team, there is a growing concern that he might not have as much power as he thinks.
The Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday that Shelly Sterling believes she has the legal authority to take controlling ownership of the Clippers in the event the league is able to officially oust her spouse. From the Times (h/t The Washington Post):
Sterling described her long tenure as a "die-hard" fan of the Clippers and said she believes that the sanctions against Donald Sterling — which included a lifetime ban and $2.5-million fine — do not apply to "me or my family."
Silver stated during his now famous "banned for life" presser that the punishment doled out to Donald Sterling did not apply to anyone else in the Sterling family. The prevailing thought was that Shelly Sterling, who had long taken a back seat in the controlling interest of the franchise, would not stand in the way of the NBA excommunicating her husband. What the league failed to factor, it seems, is just how much interest she would have in taking over a team worth nearly $1 billion once he was gone.
Per the story in the L.A. Times, the Clippers are held in a family trust, giving Shelly equal ownership of the team as Donald, with one taking full ownership if the other were to die.
Did the commissioner not know this when he made the decision to indefinitely suspend Sterling or did he just assume Shelly would go along with the plan? And now that she has seized an opportunity to become more visible in the family business—after talking with Doc Rivers to seek his approval (as if he had a choice), she has continued to attend games during the playoffs despite her husband's ban— Shelly Sterling is angling for even more control.
Who didn't see this coming? Other than the NBA, it seems, per the Times:
The NBA has sent signals that it is uncomfortable with Shelly Sterling's continued presence in the organization. The league let her know that it would prefer that she not attend playoff games Friday and Sunday at Staples Center against the Oklahoma City Thunder, said the NBA source. But league officials privately acknowledge that they do not know how they can prevent her from attending.
Silver clearly stated neither the ban nor fine pertained to Shelly Sterling, so how will the league force her to sell her interest in the team if she isn't the one being sanctioned?
In the event the league can get Donald Sterling out of Clippertown, there will be some tough legal sledding to get his wife out, too. Now, granted, it could be that she just wants to make some noise and really has no intention of trying to stay with the team. Or maybe this news is a power business move.
Could Shelly Sterling's recent comments be her way of sticking it to her husband by taking the toy he loves so dearly, or is this nothing more than a way to drive up the sale price? When asked about Shelly potentially taking over full ownership, Rivers didn't seem convinced it could happen, per ESPN's Arash Markazi:
When Doc was asked if Shelly could own the team last week he said, "It doesn't sound like it, to be honest and I think she knows that."— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) May 8, 2014
While the Clippers circus dominates the headlines, the business side of the team's future will surely be decided by stealthier legal wrangling.
There have already been questions posed as to whether or not Shelly Sterling would be approved as majority owner of the franchise by the other 29 owners, given her connection to the housing lawsuits filed against the Sterlings that were reintroduced in the wake of this whole racism story breaking in the first place.
If the league couldn't remove Donald for those legal issues, any lawyer worth his retainer will surely fight as hard as possible to make sure those past issues would not preclude Shelly from taking control of the team.
And that's if the NBA can actually get Donald Sterling out in the first place.
Another Sterling recording has come out this week, with Radar Online posting audio of the embattled owner supposedly attempting to debunk these latest racism charges, while seemingly trying to do damage control on the entire situation while talking to an old friend. (If this tape wasn't recorded with the expressed interest of leaking it to make Sterling look better, then someone's publicist just got the best gift in the world.)
The real takeaway from the "leaked" recording is not Sterling claiming if he was racist he would only want white players—logic that makes absolutely no sense if you have any general understanding of the time in our country when rich white people used strong black men to do hard manual labor—nor is it a lament for a lost relationship with Magic Johnson—yep, that's in there too. The real takeaway is the statement he made about being forced to sell the team.
"You can't force someone to sell property in America," Sterling says on the recording, via RadarOnline.com. "Well, I'm a lawyer. That's my opinion."
While everyone in the NBA family hopes the Sterling family gives up its fight—read: fights—to retain ownership of the team and sell the darn thing to Oprah or Magic or Frankie Muniz or whoever will give them a billion dollars to go away, the sad truth is that the real fight for Silver and the NBA lawyers may just be starting.
And the clock is ticking. The Clippers' staff and players have trusted Silver to get this done, deciding not to boycott the playoffs while the league and union work together to come up with a sensible transition strategy for the franchise.
There is too much at stake for the team to quit now, but as soon as the season is over for the Clippers, which could be as early as next week if they do not advance past the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference semifinals, the team will have nothing to worry about but the future of the team.
It's hard to believe Rivers will be back in Los Angeles next season if Donald Sterling manages to tie things up in legal proceedings beyond this offseason. There's little chance the NBPA, of which Chris Paul is president, will stand by and let the Clippers' players continue to work for a franchise that is headed by an absentee owner like Sterling.
Silver won a lot of people over for the way he publicly handled the Sterling scandal in the early going. How he finishes the cleanup—and what's left of the Clippers when this saga is finally over—will say more about his job as NBA commissioner than a press conference ever could.