LOS ANGELES — National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver banned Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling from the league for life Tuesday, an emphatic and unprecedented response to offensive comments Sterling made to his girlfriend on a recently released recording.
Silver fined Sterling $2.5 million, the maximum he can levy under the NBA constitution and bylaws, and said he would urge the league’s Board of Governors to force Sterling to sell the team.
During a news conference in New York, Silver said the league’s investigation into the recording, which was originally published on the Web site TMZ.com, determined the voice and views expressed to belong to the 80-year-old Clippers owner.
“The views expressed by Mr. Sterling are deeply offensive and harmful,” Silver told the packed room. “That they came from an NBA owner only heightens the damage and my personal outrage. Sentiments of this kind are contrary to the principles of inclusion and respect that form the foundation of our diverse, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic league.
“Accordingly, effective immediately, I am banning Mr. Sterling for life, from any association with the Clippers organization or the NBA. Mr. Sterling may not attend any NBA games or practices; he may not be present at any Clippers facility; and he may not participate in any business or player personnel decisions involving the team.”
There was no immediate reaction from Sterling and no indication of whether he would challenge Silver’s decision. In Los Angeles on Tuesday night, the Clippers prepared to tip-off their playoff game against the Golden State Warriors, knowing the man who signs their paychecks was no longer welcome in his usual courtside seat.
“This last three or four days have been very difficult for everybody involved,” said Clippers Coach Doc Rivers. “No matter what the race is, it’s been difficult. I thought Adam Silver today was just fantastic. Personally, I thought he made a decision that really was the right one that had to be made. I don’t think this is something that we rejoice in or anything like that. I told the players about the decision and you know, I think they were just happy there was a resolution and it’s over.”
The controversy came to overshadow the NBA playoffs in recent days, and Golden State Coach Mark Jackson said players were considering boycotting games Tuesday, as they waited to hear from Silver. “At the end of the day, the commissioner did an incredible job of making them feel like — making us all feel like the situation is under control,” Jackson said.
Clippers players were not made available for comment prior to Tuesday’s game. Chris Paul, the Clippers all-star guard and president of the National Basketball Players Association issued a brief statement saying, “my teammates and I are in agreement with his decision.”
“We appreciate the strong leadership from Commissioner Silver and he has our full support,” he said.
Following the announcement, the league’s reigning most valuable player LeBron James tweeted, “Commissioner Silver thank you for protecting our beautiful and powerful league!! Great leader!!” and several NBA owners, many of whom bit their tongue while Silver explored his options, also issued statements of support Tuesday.
“Our group applauds the swift, strict actions and recommendations set forth today by NBA commissioner Adam Silver,” read a statement signed by Ted Leonsis and the Monumental Sports ownership group, which controls both Washington’s NBA and NHL teams. “Commissioner Silver is taking a strong stance, but all of us need to play a role as we strive to eliminate discrimination and intolerance.”
Estimates of how much the franchise is worth range from $500 million to $700 million.
Shortly after the announcement, the Clippers’ Web site went to an all-black background with the words “We are one” at the center in block white type.
“We wholeheartedly support and embrace the decision by the NBA and Commissioner Adam Silver today,” the team said in a statement. “Now the healing process begins.”
The league said the fine money will be donated to anti-discrimination and tolerance organizations that will be jointly selected by the NBA and the league’s players’ association.
Speculation began immediately about a possible new owner, with Hall of Famer Magic Johnson’s name rising to the top of the list. “Magic Johnson knows he is always welcome as an owner in this league,” Silver said, when asked about that possibility in a question-and-answer session after his announcement.
The decision, the first major crisis Silver has faced since succeeding David Stern in February, came after a four-day investigation sparked by TMZ.com’s publication of the recording. The contents of the recording, in which Sterling asks his girlfriend not to bring African Americans to games and urges her to delete an Instagram photo of herself with Johnson, rocked the NBA, a league in which 76 percent of the players are black.
Sterling, a real estate mogul with an estimated net worth of $1.9 billion, is the NBA’s longest-tenured owner. He has faced allegations of racial and gender discrimination in the past but has sidestepped major repercussions.
In 2003, he was sued by 19 tenants of a building he owned along with the Housing Rights Center; they claimed his employees refused repairs to black tenants and frequently threatened to evict them. He settled the case for an undisclosed sum.
In 2009, Sterling spent $2.73 million to settle another suit, brought by the Justice Department, which alleged he refused to rent his apartments to non-Korean tenants, preferring that black and Hispanic prospective tenants look elsewhere.
The same year, NBA legend Elgin Baylor, the Clippers’ general manager for 22 years, sued Sterling for discrimination and wrongful termination. In the lawsuit, Baylor, who is African American, alleged Sterling built his franchise with the “vision of a Southern plantation-type structure” and accused the team owner of a “pervasive and ongoing racist attitude.” A jury ruled in Sterling’s favor in 2011.
The release of the recording created a firestorm of reaction that overshadowed the ongoing first round of the playoffs. It prompted protests by Clippers players during Game 4 of their series with Golden State on Sunday and by the Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks on Monday night. NBA great Michael Jordan, now the team owner in Charlotte, said he was “appalled that this type of ignorance still exists within our country and at the highest levels of our sport.”
By Monday, the Clippers were losing lucrative sponsorships, with Virgin America, CarMax, Mercedes-Benz and the Chumash Casino Resort in California bailing and other partners, including State Farm, Kia Motors America, Red Bull, Lumber Liquidators, Yokohama Tire, LoanMart, Corona, AQUAhydrate and Sprint, suspending their involvement for now.
On Tuesday, the degree to which the conversation continued to rage was measured by a comment from Oprah Winfrey, who told TMZ: “We’re off the plantation. The plantation days are over.” Spike Lee, the filmmaker and New York Knicks fan, attended Silver’s news conference after saying Monday that Sterling has “the mentality of a slave master.”
The furor has also jeopardized the stability of one of the NBA’s top franchises, with superstars Paul and Blake Griffin on its roster, after decades of being a laughingstock under Sterling. Before Silver’s decision, Rivers would not say whether he could continue to work for the team if Sterling remained as owner. One unidentified Clippers player, the Los Angeles Times reported, wondered whether he could get out of his contract by claiming a “hostile work environment.”