LOS ANGELES — Andre Miller entered the NBA in 1999. He’s 38 years old and has played for six franchises. In short, he’s seen just about everything. So was he disappointed Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was secretly caught on tape making racist comments?
“That’s how a lot of people feel about athletes, it’s just they don’t say it,” said Miller, who played one season for Sterling’s Clippers in 2002-03. “That’s all.”
Even as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and the 29 other team owners enter into a detailed process to oust Sterling from their ranks, the league won’t likely be free from the residual effects of the controversy that came to overshadow the playoffs — and most everything else in the sports world — this week. It has prompted walking-on-eggshells discussions about the culture of the NBA and the power dynamics between owners and players, loaded language and all.
Jermaine O’Neal of the Golden State Warriors was asked about Sterling’s comments by Bay Area reporters this week. He was not the only one to liken Sterling’s attitudes to “slave mentality.”
“Where you can go out and do all the work — you’re good enough to do all the work, make all the money for you — but just not good enough to sit at the table that you eat at,” O’Neal, in his 18th NBA season, told the San Jose Mercury News.
Silver has been roundly praised for banning Sterling from the NBA and setting in motion a plan to strip him of his ownership. But not everyone thinks the league’s swift action this week addressed the larger issues presented by the controversy. It's not exactly a struggle between the haves and have-nots — more like the haves and have-mores — but race, money and class disparity have long inspired an underlying tension in professional sports, said Earl Smith, a longtime sports sociologist at Wake Forest who now teaches at George Mason.
“I don’t think anything has changed. Some guy gets caught talking to his girlfriend, and it becomes convenient to throw him to the wolves and hope like hell that none of the other owners have to come front and center and actually talk about this stuff,” he said.
“Unless we start having real discussions about the culture, nothing is changed. That’s where the real action is.”
Players throughout the league watched with bated breath to see how Silver would respond to Sterling’s caustic and offensive remarks. His actions would have an impact on the players’ relationship with the first-year commissioner and the 30 NBA owners to whom Silver reports. Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, the former NBA star who assisted the players’ union during the controversy, said the punishment Silver meted out was more severe than the union had hoped.
“It’s not about us versus them,” said Clippers guard Chris Paul, the union president. “I think we have an opportunity to be partners in everything we do moving forward.”
Other owners have lined up to praise Silver and there’s no evidence Sterling’s attitudes are shared by anyone else in a position of authority in the NBA. They're all different. There's no single blueprint or instruction manual for ownership and each runs his team and interacts with players, staff and fans in entirely unique ways.
Team ownership is an exclusive club featuring wildly different personalities. Robert Pollin, whose father, Abe, owned an NBA franchise for more than 45 years , said Sterling was always known as an outlier.
“My father had a lot of respect for a good half of the other owners and the others he thought were jerks,” he said. “And who knows, they might have thought he was a jerk.”
The circle of NBA owners is ever-changing, particularly in recent years as franchise values have skyrocketed. (Forbes estimates the average NBA team is worth $634 million.) If Silver is successful in stripping Sterling of his ownership, the Clippers would become the 11th team to change hands in the past four years.
Today’s NBA owner is wealthier and more likely to have amassed his fortune in technology or hedge funds.
“I think when I first came in the league, the owners were more like 65 to 80 years old, so it’s hard to really relate to those guys,” said Wizards veteran Al Harrington, who was 18 years old when the Indiana Pacers drafted him in 1998. “But now that we’re starting to get owners in their 40s and 50s, I think a lot of players and owners are starting to become friendly.”
He cites Wizards owner Ted Leonsis as an example and says the two regularly exchange text messages and frequently have face-to-face conversations. “He’s one of the owners that are pretty cool,” Harrington said.
Silver is paid to represent the owners’ interests. And at least as far as the players are concerned, Silver apparently passed the first big test he’s faced. After hearing of the punishment handed down to Sterling, Paul, the Clippers’ seven-time all-star, called Silver the “right man for the job.”
“It’s amazing the unity that our league has shown through this tough time,” he said.
Michael Lee and Brandon Parker contributed to this report from Washington.