(CNN) – The NBA’s commissioner came down hard Tuesday on Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, ordering him out of his team’s business and pushing to force him to sell over racist remarks that caused a firestorm since becoming public days ago.
Adam Silver detailed Sterling’s punishment of a lifetime ban and $2.5 million fine — the “maximum amount” allowed per league guidelines — at a press conference eight hours before Sterling’s Clippers were to tip off in the fifth game of a tightly contested first-round playoff series with the Golden State Warriors.
Silver’s decision was met with immediate support from NBA owners, players and ot
hers connected to the league who have been calling for swift, firm punishment ever since TMZ posted audio featuring the incendiary comments.
“I hope that every bigot in this country sees what happened to Mr. Sterling and recognizes that if he can fall, so can you,” Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former NBA All-Star who was tasked with leading the NBA players union’s efforts on this matter.
Under the lifetime ban, Sterling is prohibited from attending NBA games or practices, stepping foot inside any Clippers’s facility, taking part in business or personnel decisions, or having a role in league activities such as attending NBA Board of Governors meetings.
Silver — who succeeded longtime NBA leader David Stern in February — also insisted he will do “everything in my power” to compel the NBA Board of Governors to “force a sale” of the Clippers. The commissioner said “I fully expect” to get the needed three-quarters of the league’s owners — meaning at least 23 — to back the move, though Sterling could fight any such move in court.
If Sterling does sell the team, he stands to profit considerably: He bought the Clippers for $12 million in 1981, and the team is now worth $575 million, according to Forbes magazine. And he’d likely have plenty of suitors: Among them is Hollywood mogul David Geffen, who spokeswoman Priscila Giraldo says is “interested” in buying the team.
Rather than water cooler discussions of exciting NBA playoff action, people are talking about racist remarks by a team owner, said Gabe Feldman, head of Tulane University’s sports law program.
Estimating the team may be worth closer to $1 billion, Feldman added, “He may get a lot of money from the sale, but I think it will allow the NBA to shift their focus.”
That’s what Clippers coach Doc Rivers said Tuesday night, commending Silver as “fantastic” for making “a decision that really was the right one.” While the players aren’t rejoicing, they are breathing easier knowing what happened earlier in the day, he said.
“They were just happy that it was a resolution,” Rivers said, expressing hope that playing the game will be a “safe haven” for all involved. “… We’re all in a better place because of this.”
Clippers: ‘Now the healing process begins’
The inflammatory sentiments Silver referred to came packaged in a 10-minute recording that TMZ said occurred during an April 9 conversation between Sterling and girlfriend V. Stiviano.
On the recording, a man and woman argue about photos posted to Instagram in which she appears with African-Americans. The man says he doesn’t want the woman bringing any black people to games with her.
The sports website Deadspin on Sunday posted five additional minutes of what it said was part of the same audio recording.
Neither website has said how it obtained the recordings; Stiviano’s lawyer’s office said Sunday that she didn’t release them to TMZ, while stating they are legitimate.
On Saturday, Clippers President Andy Roeser suggested the audio was aimed at “getting even” with Sterling over a lawsuit.
Rochelle Sterling filed a lawsuit last month against Stiviano, who she said was having an affair with her husband and accusing Stiviano of going after extremely wealthy older men.
Roeser said that the offensive comments are “not consistent with, nor does it reflect (Sterling’s) views, beliefs or feelings.” Moreover, he cast doubt as to whether Sterling had made them, stating: “We do not know if it is legitimate or it has been altered.”
Silver expressed no such doubts Tuesday, saying the Clippers owner “acknowledged it was his voice on the tape.” Asked whether the owner expressed any remorse, the commissioner said, “Mr. Sterling has not expressed those views directly to me.”
Moments after Silver’s press conference concluded, the Clippers struck a different tone.
“We wholeheartedly support and embrace the decision by the NBA and Commissioner Adam Silver today,” the team said. “Now the healing process begins.”
Silver says he shares sponsors’ “outrage”
There is no question that Sterling rightfully owns the Clippers. Some observers question how comments, made privately, could serve as grounds for such punishment, including possibly forcing him to sell the team.
Yet while there’s no precedent in the NBA, there is in other sports. In the 1990s, Major League Baseball repeatedly suspended Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott over racist and other controversial comments, and she ultimately sold the franchise.
Silver said Tuesday he’d “let the lawyers” address specifics, while stating flatly, “We have the authority to act as I’ve recommended.”
Feldman said some owners might be wary of setting a precedent in which anyone can be voted out “just based on something they don’t like, whether it was said privately or just said publicly.” That view notwithstanding, NBA owners universally backed Silver’s judgment in statements Tuesday.
If the owners follow through on the commissioner’s recommendation to force him to sell, Sterling could fight back in the courts. But should he file a lawsuit, CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin says his chances of success seem “basically zero.”
Sterling so far hasn’t had found support in the court of public opinion, especially among past and present players.
Members of his own team, the Clippers, debated boycotting their playoff game Saturday with the Warriors, according to coach Rivers. They decided against it, instead opting to stage a silent protest by removing their warmup shirts bearing team logos to reveal red T-shirts worn inside out, with the logos hidden.
Silver said he talked to Rivers, Clippers star point guard Chris Paul (who is also the players union president) and other players prior to reaching his decision Tuesday morning.
Dollars talked, too, to ramp up the pressure for Silver to act.
Over a dozen companies — including State Farm, Virgin America, CarMax and Red Bull — halted their sponsorships with the Clippers over the remarks, CNN Money reported.
Speaking Tuesday, the commissioner said he shares these companies “outrage,” adding “it will take some time” to get things right.
“I can understand how upset they are, and I’ll do my best to bring them back into the NBA family,” Silver said.
For some, his decision to ban Sterling was enough. Both Adidas and Samsung announced later Tuesday that they had renewed their “partnerships” in the wake of the owner’s public punishment.
Warriors coach Mark Jackson, who a day earlier urged fans to boycott Tuesday’s game and said there was “a real discussion among the players” to do the same so long as Sterling remained in charge, thinks Silver gave everyone enough reason now to come out to a game.
“I thought he was absolutely incredible … with the way that he took control of the moment,” Jackson said of the commissioner before his team’s playoff showdown in Los Angeles. “… It was exactly what the doctor ordered.”
Magic Johnson: Players are ‘very happy and satisfied’
One man thrust into the controversy — seemingly out of the blue — was NBA great Magic Johnson. In the TMZ recording, the man seems mad about a photo the woman posted to Instagram with Johnson.
“In your lousy f**ing Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with — walking with black people,” the man says.
“If it’s white people, it’s OK?” she responds. “If it was Larry Bird, would it make a difference?”
Bird was Johnson’s chief rival when Bird’s Boston Celtics and Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers ruled the NBA.
“I’ve known (Magic Johnson) well, and he should be admired. … I’m just saying that it’s too bad you can’t admire him privately,” the man on the recording says. “Admire him, bring him here, feed him, f**k him, but don’t put (Magic) on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me. And don’t bring him to my games.”
After the audio went public, Johnson — who, since retiring from basketball, has become a successful businessman and part owner of baseball’s Los Angeles Dodgers — expressed dismay and insisted he’d never attend a Clippers game so long as Sterling was the owner.
Johnson offered a very different tune Tuesday, commending Silver for exhibiting “great leadership” in saying he and others “are very happy and satisfied.”
“I wish I was in LA, I would be at the Clipper game tonight!” he tweeted.
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