The comments seem to have been recorded surreptitiously, relate to events in Los Angeles, and were broadcast on TMZ, but they reverberated around the world of basketball at lightning speed.
On Saturday afternoon in Manhattan the Toronto Raptors were preparing for Game 4 of their best-of-seven first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets, but for many their thoughts were on events in California and a firestorm that has the potential to engulf the NBA.
In an alleged recording of a conversation with his girlfriend Donald Sterling — who has owned the Los Angeles Clippers since 1981 and is the longest-tenured owner in the NBA — is heard arguing about a picture she posted on her Instagram account of her with Magic Johnson at a Clippers game.
“Why are you taking pictures with minorities, why?” the voice is heard in one part of the roughly 10 minute conversation.
And: “Don’t put him on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me. … And don’t bring [Johnson] to my games, OK?”
And: “Yeah, it bothers me a lot that you want to promo, broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?”
The recording was posted on TMZ’s website late Friday night and by the time the Raptors were on their way to practice at Pace University Saturday it was a hot-button issue.
“I think the NBPA has to do something,” said Raptors veteran Chuck Hayes. “I think Adam Silver as new commissioner of the league has to make a statement. The Clippers organization, Doc Rivers, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul – they’ve been put in a tough situation. The people with power, the people with a voice in the situation, they have to speak up.”
Steve Novak, who played for the Clippers in 2008-09 and 2009-10, agreed.
“There’s definitely not a place for it in the NBA,” said Novak, one of the Raptors union representatives. “Guys on the bus [going to practice] were saying, something has to be addressed. Something has to be said.”
Said Landry Fields: “It’s a big message if they don’t do something about it … it’s not something that can be swept under the rug, in my opinion.”
This is only the most recent time Sterling has been exposed as an alleged racist.
In 2005, Sterling who is one of the largest land owners in Los Angeles, agreed to pay an undisclosed amount in a lawsuit that alleged Sterling tried to force Koreans out of apartments in Koreatown.
In 2009, Sterling paid a then-record $2.73-million Justice Department penalty for rental housing discrimination.
“I played for him for two years and his feelings on those kinds of issues were well known,” said Novak. “For guys who have played for him, it doesn’t come as a huge surprise. I don’t think guys like Chris Paul or Blake [Griffin] or DeAndre [Jordan] will be shocked. They might act shocked but this is not something they don’t know.”
The bigger question facing the NBA is what action they can take to distance themselves from the ramblings of a long-time business partner or sanction him for them.
It will fall to new NBA commissioner Silver to chart a path. The league’s first step was to start an investigation to make sure it was Sterling on the recording.
Sterling’s tenure in the NBA overlapped almost directly with former commissioner David Stern, who never held the rogue owner accountable even as players were routinely suspended and fined for various transgressions.
Similarly it’s believed the comments by Miami Heat owner Mickey Arison on Saturday afternoon marked the first time a fellow NBA owner had spoken up publicly about Sterling.
There were calls for a boycott by the Clippers players but they were dismissed by head coach Doc Rivers, who angled his way out of Boston to accept a three-year, $21-million contract with Los Angeles.
“It was brought up because 20,000 people have suggested it but honestly I’m completely against that and they were too,” he told reporters in Los Angeles.
Rivers is in an awkward position, some feel. He played for Sterling early in his career and actively sought to take the vacant Clippers job and take a run at a championship rather that stay in Boston, but as one of the most respected coaches in the NBA he would have had his choice of jobs.
“I’ve heard small snippets of stories [about Sterling],” said Hayes. “But Doc actually played for the gentleman, and he takes the job; he should know the situation more than anybody. That’s why whatever he says next, it can’t be: ‘I’m not going to speak about that or ‘no comment.’”
The Clippers play the Golden State Warriors in Game 4 in Los Angeles on Sunday. It’s expected Silver will be there and the eyes of the basketball world will be watching.
Whatever happens, one truth will remain: “Sometimes there are very successful people who are not very good people,” said Novak. “If this is true that these are the things he said, this is one of those cases … your character comes through sometimes.”