The National Basketball Association Board of Governors filed a suit today in U.S. District Court for Southern California for declaratory relief that delays the San Diego Clippers' proposed move to Los Angeles, setting into motion the legal machinery for the NBA's version of the Oakland Raiders-NFL antitrust case.
In filing a suit that asks $10 million in damages from the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission and requests the court to enjoin Clippers owner Donald Sterling permanently from moving without NBA approval, the league stops just short of formally blocking the move by the governors' vote, a stand that would have resulted in an immediate suit brought by the Los Angeles commission. Conversely, had the league approved the franchise transfer, it was subject to immediate legal action from both the San Diego Sports Arena and two season ticket holders who yesterday amended a class action suit against Sterling to include the board.
Simultaneously, the league approved the formation of a committee to investigate Sterling's conduct over the last year, a precedent-setting decision that serves to underscore the league's impatience with the once flamboyant, now silent, Beverly Hills real estate man.
"They don't like the guy," one owner said. "That's obvious. Otherwise, they wouldn't have sued him."
"Any damage that happens as a result of this has to be centered on Mr. Sterling," said another. "We didn't initiate this problem."
The practical effect of the suit is to put Sterling between a rock and a hard place. Should litigation delay action, the Clippers likely would play in San Diego next season.
The committee will be commissioned to determine whether Los Angeles, with the champion Lakers based in suburban Inglewood, is an appropriate market for a second NBA team, and if so, whether that second team should be the Clippers, some other NBA team or an expansion team, Commissioner Larry O'Brien said.
"I have grave doubts (that they could move)," Seattle owner Sam Schulman said.
"That's not an unreasonable inference," said Max Blecher, attorney for the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission. "It's an open question as to whether it's possible for the Clippers to be playing in Los Angeles next season. Time is getting short, obviously. But people ought not to take a short-sighted view. We stuck by the Raiders for two years. Things will come to pass eventually when you know it's right."
Meanwhile, Sterling's credibility in San Diego obviously has been damaged. The prospect of his franchise remaining in the city after his attempt to flee creates an interesting situation.
"This is no indication on the part of the board to make anyone's life difficult," said David Stern, the NBA's executive vice president for business and legal affairs. "The board was facing a business decision. There would be a suit against us on one side or the other no matter what decision it took. It was in our best interest to create a committee to study the subject and get a declaration from the court that what (the league) did was not going to affect its liability."
The suit, 36 pages long, details the NBA's contention that the Clippers' indebtedness and refusal to honor contractual obligations damaged the "goodwill" of the league and "substantially adversely affected the NBA and its members."
The defendants in the suit, including the Clippers, the Los Angeles commission, the San Diego Sports Association, the City of San Diego, a number of "John Does" interested in putting an NBA franchise in greater Los Angeles, and the plaintiffs in the season ticket holders' class action, have 20 days to respond to the complaint.
The league closed out its meetings late today with the announcement that the board had adopted the recommendations of its labor relations committee. Officials refused to elaborate on that committee's stance, except to say, "The league will present a broad list of demands (in upcoming negotiations with the players association) including a salary moderation incentive plan and procedures for addressing drug abuse."