Donald Sterling's reign of error with the San Diego Clippers is over.
Advised by the National Basketball Association to go to his room -- the league has asked him not to return media phone calls -- the once-flamboyant Beverly Hills real estate mogul has, in the immortal words of B.B. King, done like a mole and moved underground.
In the space of four months, the Clippers owner has gone from high profile to low profile to no profile. But there are enough memories to last the life of the franchise.
There were late payments to creditors. An eight-man roster. The sprint across court, wine in hand and leap into Paul Silas' arms following the first of 17 1981-82 victories. The former Playboy bunny, Patricia Simmons, who rose through the sparse administrative ranks to move into Silas' office as vice president and assistant general manager while the coach was out of town. The eventual flight of half of the 1981-82 staff--voluntary and otherwise. The '82-83 budget that did not allow for a trainer. And everywhere on the avenues of this sunwashed city: the billboards and the bus placards: "I'll Make You Proud of the Clippers."
This is a small town -- swollen with people, but a small town nonetheless -- with an inherent distrust of men who wear chains and come from places such as Malibu and Beverly Hills. So Sterling became the emblem for everything gone wrong. Everything he touched went out of bounds. Everything he offered hit nothing but air.
Now, in Sterling's place at the head of the franchise are two new figures. Alan Rothenberg, a veteran NBA troubleshooter who once represented the Lakers on the NBA Board of Governors, was retained by Sterling after strong encouragement from NBA Executive Vice President David Stern, as well as a number of owners. He is empowered to run the team and seek new ownership, but has no official title.
General Manager Paul Phipps, hired from the Dallas Mavericks to replace Ted Podleski, has a keen mind and the uniform respect of the league for fulfilling his promises.
These two have teamed to round out the roster with recognizeable names, wade through the red ink ("There's a skeleton in every drawer," Phipps said) and try to restore some credibility to the Edsel of professional sports.
As far as the league -- as well as some of the team's creditors -- are concerned, the team is out of the doghouse. Five months ago, Sterling was trying simultaneously to sell the franchise and move it to Los Angeles. Seven weeks ago, in an unprecedented show of ire, a special committee empowered by the league to investigate Sterling's conduct voted unanimously to deprive him of the franchise.
But one month ago, the league's advisory/finance committee decided to table the recommendation and give him time to sell the club.
Now, after overtures from a number of buying groups, the sale is neither imminent nor imperative. According to league sources, the NBA will leave well enough alone. The franchise is being run to its satisfaction and the sale is the farthest thing from the NBA's mind.
"I don't think the league would do anything to Don if he didn't sell soon," said Rothenberg, once a finalist for the commissioner's job that went to Walter Kennedy. "There is no compulsion from the NBA to sell. To the extent that there was early inference to that effect, there isn't now. Donald's doing as an owner what he should have been doing all along. Let's just say that the league wanted his attention, and they got it."
Sterling is now signing the checks. Terry Cummings, Lionel Hollins and Randy Smith have joined Bill Walton and Tom Chambers on a roster that no longer resembles the broken appliances at a garage sale.
Had Sterling been willing to spend as freely last season -- in fact, to spend at all -- he could have had Alex English for Freeman Williams, and Kelvin Ransey for Jerome Whitehead. And if the salaries of Hollins, Cummings and Smith represent less than what Sterling was paying Phil Smith before he was traded last year, it is still obvious that Sterling has emerged from his financial phobia. According to Rothenberg, he's eager to acquire more talent.
Sterling has even satisfied the Bank of California, whose large loan last year allowed him to purchase the team. Rothenberg's law firm -- Manatt, Phelps, Rothenberg and Tunney -- also represents the bank, which led to some speculation that the bank was now calling the shots. That was vehemently denied on all sides.
"I told him before he retained me," Rothenberg said, "that he had to satisfy the bank first. He did. Now he is as good as gold for them."
As well as other formerly dissatisfied business associates. The team is booked into the Oakland Hyatt this year after the hotel refused to take reservations last year, and a recent lawsuit brought by the publishers of NBA programs -- Professional Sports Publications -- has lost its bite.
"Now that Phipps is in there," said Andy Goodman, PSP's president, "I'm sure we'll work something out."
"I don't know about the old stories," Rothenberg says of Sterling, "but in the two months I've known him he's been great. Everything Paul and I have suggested, he's agreed to. He remains firm in still wanting to sell, but I said at the beginning, 'Do you want the first plausible offer, or do you want top value?' He said the latter, and I told him he'd have to put money into it. The sale could take months, even years."
The latter now looms likely. Ernie Vandeweghe, the Walton confidant and adviser for Bruce McNall, considered the likeliest buyer, now says the rare coin dealer with the sterling silver connections no longer is interested.
"It's been a financial disaster all the way," said Vandeweghe. "Neither Bruce nor I are interested. I talked to Sterling and Rothenberg and they're pushing the $13, $14, $15 million range. It's not worth that. The Rockets went for $9 million and the Nuggets for $10. Who's going to buy the Clippers for more than that?"
More important to Rothenberg and Phipps is, what fan will buy the Clippers at the gate?
"I think that we're just starting to get the horse moving," said Phipps. "You know, people ask me why I did it (took this job), 'You can't do the impossible.' Well, I've always liked to be a person in the middle of a mess and try and straighten it out.
"Things will work out, day by day, week by week, so that at the end of the season, we'll be able to look back and say, 'How did we do the impossible?' "
That question is still far from answered.