The Truth Is, Magic Johnson's Making All the Right Moves to Be Clippers Owner

Dan Levy@danlevythinksNational Lead WriterMay 14, 2014

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, left, shakes hands with Magic Johnson as they watch the Los Angeles Clippers play the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first half of Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinal NBA basketball playoff series, Sunday, May 11, 2014, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Anderson Cooper of CNN had separate sit-down interviews with embattled Clippers owner Donald Sterling and NBA legend Magic Johnson this week, and while each version of the same incredibly sordid story were as different as they could possibly be, Cooper did uncover a few undeniable truths.

Truth: Sterling has lost his mind. Or he is losing it. Or any version of that statement we can legally say without being a doctor who clinically studies people who have lost or are losing their minds.

Truth: Johnson totally wants to buy the Clippers.

Combine the video excerpt above about becoming an owner with the transcript excerpt below provided by CNN below, and the end game seems clear. Magic sounds like an owner:

(Sterling is) reaching. He's trying to find something that he can grab on to help him save his team. And it's not going to happen. It's not going to happen. The board of governors now have to do their job.

Adam Silver, our Commissioner of the NBA, did a wonderful job of banning him for life. Now the board of governors have got to do their job. And again, I'm going to pray for the man because even if I see him today, I'm going to say hello to Donald and his wife as well. I'm not a guy who holds grudges and all that. Yes, am I upset? Of course! But at the same time, I'm a God fearing man and I'm going to pray for him and hope things work out for him.

Johnson stands firm in line with the commissioner and publicly calls out the board to do the right thing with Sterling, but he is clear that this isn't personal, at least for him, and that he can be a forgiving man. 

Truth: Sterling going on national television and saying what he did about Johnson and AIDS is super villain-quality stuff.

It's one thing to tell a woman in the privacy of your own home that you don't want her to post photos with Johnson on Instagram because of some misguided notion that the use of casual racism will get her to sleep with you.

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It's entirely another to go on Anderson Cooper 360 and say things like this, via CNN:

STERLING: Can you tell me?  Big Magic Johnson, what has he done? He's got AIDS.  Did he do any business?  I would like -- did he help anybody in South L.A.?

COOPER: Well, I think he has HIV.  He doesn't actually have full- blown AIDS, but...

STERLING: Well, what kind of a guy goes to every city, he has sex with every girl, then he catches HIV and -- is that someone we want to respect and tell our kids about?  I think he should be ashamed of himself. I think he should go into the background.

Here is a man who is -- I don't know if I say should this. He acts so holy. I mean, he made love to every girl in every city in America. And he had AIDS. And when he had those AIDS, I went to my synagogue and I prayed for him. I hoped he could live and be well. I didn't criticize him. I could have. Is he an example for children? 

Truth: Even if Sterling believes all of that, now is probably not the time to say it. The NBA's defense can rest after those comments. It's over. Sterling has done this to himself.

And if that is the truth, in NBA circles it has been from the moment NBA commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling for life, the only thing left is figuring out who will get the team next.

Truth: Nothing Magic Johnson could do or say would be better PR for his prospect of becoming an NBA owner than what Sterling has done and said about him.

Johnson is a slick businessman and a genius marketer, and if Sterling weren't doing so much to make himself look like he's unfit to cut his own meat, let alone run a professional basketball franchise, this whole thing could even feel a bit like a setup.

Truth: Who has benefited more from Sterling's original rant than Johnson? Adam Silver sure has, and Johnson and Silver have found a way to collectively spin this horrible Sterling mess into a golden thread that has begun to seamlessly bind them together.

Johnson referenced Silver seven times in his conversation with Cooper—that's just in the parts CNN chose to air—and on five occasions he made sure to say "our commissioner," two of which he referred to Silver as "our great commissioner."

While Johnson made it clear to Cooper that all he wanted from Sterling was an apology he has yet to receive, Silver has publicly apologized to Johnson on several occasions, going so far as to sit in the stands with him at one of the recent Clippers home playoff games in an effort to defuse the situation and mend a fractured league.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Now, a lot of that may be nothing more than PR spin, with the NBA—and specifically Silver—doing what he can to distance himself from Sterling by associating himself with the man who has continually, and rather inexplicably, caught the ire of the estranged Clippers owner.

Spin or not, Johnson has been playing this all perfectly. That's the truth.

Johnson told Cooper during their CNN interview that the first thing he did after Sterling called him was to reach out to the Silver. From the CNN transcript of Tuesday's Anderson Cooper 360°:

JOHNSON: And then I called Adam Silver, our great commissioner, and told him what had happened. 

COOPER: You told Adam Silver that Donald Sterling had called you? 

JOHNSON: Had just called. And so I wanted him to know that it happened, so he wouldn't be blindsided either. 

COOPER: Right. 

JOHNSON: And so I -- and then I called all my people to let them know Donald Sterling had just called me. 

Johnson was clear to state that he called Silver right away, before he even called his own representatives, so as not to blindside the commissioner.

Truth: Silver and Johnson are in this together. Whatever happens with the future of the Clippers, Johnson will certainly be involved in that process.

That does not mean, of course, that Johnson orchestrated this takedown. Still, whether this was his plan or not, Johnson has positioned himself perfectly to come out as the face of a billion-dollar brand.

At a time when his Lakers are on the decline and the Clippers, despite losing in Game 5 to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night—oh, right, the Clippers are still playing meaningful basketball through all of this—Johnson is first in line to take over an NBA franchise on the rise.

There may be no better team to buy right now than the Clippers, and there is no better city for Johnson to be in charge of a team. This is all working out perfectly, in a rather macabre way.

All the while, Johnson is sitting back and handling this horrible public affront from Sterling with class and dignity.

Johnson told Cooper on five occasions, per the CNN transcript, that he was going to pray for Sterling. He told Cooper they were friends (it's worth nothing that minutes later Johnson said, "I don't know the young lady, barely know Donald…" when referencing Sterling's claim that Johnson knew V. Stiviano) and Johnson has done everything in his power to come out of this situation looking composed, professional and proud of his record as a successful business owner in Los Angeles.

Truth: No matter how he got involved in this situation, Johnson certainly looks like he has the temperament and savvy to be a good NBA owner.

Truth: Donald Sterling still thinks he is a good NBA owner. He does not think he is a racist, and he believes his players love him, but have not come forward because, "well, you see, people are intimidated by even the thought of racism."

Did you hear that sound? A cuckoo clock just went off, which is weird because none of us own a cuckoo clock.

Sterling either has the worst advisors in the world or has lost all of his advisors entirely, because everything he has said or done since that tape was leaked to TMZ has made things worse for him…and oddly better for Johnson.

Ironically, Sterling told Cooper this week that it was Johnson who gave him the advice to stay quiet and let things play out, and part of the reason for Sterling's insane rant about AIDS and Johnson's lack of involvement in the Los Angeles community was because he was hurt after he felt Johnson gave him bad counsel.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Johnson, for what it's worth, has denied all of that, telling Cooper he advised Sterling to talk to his lawyers while refusing to join Sterling for an interview with Barbara Walters. Johnson also refuted Sterling's claim that he knew V. Stiviano, or that he would talk to her on Sterling's behalf.

Truth: We don't know when this will end. The owners have not finalized a vote to oust Sterling, and there is still the issue of legal wrangling with the rest of the Sterling family.

But after the events of this week, it seems clear that ending will come with Johnson as the face of the new Clippers ownership group. 

Johnson can wait, surely. He has proved to be every bit as good at playing this side of the game as he was on the court. In the coming weeks, that may be the only truth that matters for the Clippers, or the NBA.