For this week at least, a California judge might be the most powerful man in professional basketball — even more powerful than $2.5-million-fine-dispensing NBA commissioner Adam Silver.
That’s because the fate of the Los Angeles Clippers — and its pending $2 billion sale to former Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer — lies in the hands of Superior Court Judge Michael Levanas, the man who must rule whether Shelly Sterling, the wife of Clippers owner Donald Sterling, had a right to sell the team. Donald is challenging Shelly’s right to act as trustee of the Sterling Family Trust after two doctors determined her husband was “mentally incapacitated” and therefore incapable of managing the trust, which holds the Clippers.
The trial began Monday after a six-hour delay stemming from a motion to move it out of California probate court to federal court. Donald Sterling and his attorneys said the release of his medical records violated his privacy. The federal court judge disagreed and sent the trial back to probate court. Sterling, expecting a venue change, didn’t show up Monday, but finally took the stand Tuesday where he tried his best to browbeat his wife’s attorney, Bert Fields.
“Stand up and be a man,” Sterling told Fields, whom he continued to mock during his 90-minute testimony, alternating between sarcasm — “You’re really terrific” — and condescension. Sterling asked how long Fields had been practicing law and also called him a “smartass,” according to news reports.
“I don’t think you’ve been practicing very long,” Sterling said to Fields — who graduated, magna cum laude, from Harvard Law School.
And was also editor of the Harvard Law Review.
Reports suggest Sterling’s behavior is similar to that exhibited in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. On Tuesday, he teared up when he looked at his wife, but became combative and belligerent when questioned, and accused one of his neurologists of being drunk when she examined him.
Meril Sue Platzer, hired by Shelly, testified that Donald has Alzheimer’s. Platzer testified she and Shelly had dinner at a restaurant across from the Sterling residence after she spent two hours examining Sterling. She said she had half a glass of wine during dinner with Shelly, Donald and one of Donald’s lawyers, Bobby Samini. According to ESPN’s Ramona Shelbourne, Platzer “flatly denied that anything said or done during dinner impacted her evaluation of Donald Sterling.”
James Sparr, a psychiatrist also hired to evaluate Sterling, said he believed Sterling was showing early signs of Alzheimer’s. In a report, he wrote Sterling “is substantially unable to manage his finances and resist fraud and malfeasance and is no longer competent to act as a trustee of his trust,” according to the Associated Press.
“You can call me whatever you like,” Sterling said. “But those two doctors shouldn’t be practicing medicine. I know it and you know it.”
Sterling also maintained he had been duped into the exam as part of a regular medical assessment for his 80th birthday, and that the findings should be thrown out because he was unaware they would be used to determine his competency as a trustee. He also said he could sell the Clippers for up to $5 billion. (The $2 billion Ballmer deal makes the sale the most expensive in NBA history.)
Donald told the courtroom Shelly “can’t run anything” and asserted that his estranged wife was “terrified and frightened of this NBA that threatened to take everything away from her. She’s a good person, but they’re not good people.”
Both Shelbourne and the L.A. Times’s Nathan Fenno are familiar with Sterling’s courtroom and deposition antics — and said his behavior Tuesday falls right in line with the way he’s acted before when challenged by lawyers.
“If you’ve seen any previous Donald Sterling video depositions, this is how he always is: Combative, Lawyerly, Dfficult,” Shelbourne tweeted.
On July 15, the NBA is scheduled to vote on Ballmer’s proposed ownership. That’s also the day his $2 billion bid to buy the team expires — contingent upon Levanas’s ruling. With no bid, no vote and no Ballmer, the NBA could move to take control of the team and auction it at a price it deems fair.
But according to Kevin Vaughan at Fox Sports, this could drag on even longer, even if Levanas rules in Shelly’s favor:
Even if he concludes Shelly Sterling was within her rights to remove Donald Sterling from decision-making authority over the trust, Donald Sterling’s lawyers plan to open a second front in their effort to scuttle the deal. On June 9, Donald Sterling signed a letter revoking the Sterling family trust, effectively dissolving it. So Levanas may bless the process Shelly Sterling used to take control of the trust, but Donald Sterling’s lawyers would then likely argue that the court has no role in determining the fate of the sale since the trust no longer exists.
All that despite the argument that the sale deal was signed May 29 and Donald Sterling didn’t file the revocation of the trust until June 9.
“I think Donald did an excellent job on the stand,” Samini said. “Out of all the lawyers in that room, if I needed a lawyer I would hire him.”