April 30, 2014

ZAKOUR | NBA Cuts Ties With Sterling

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Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, clinched his title for the worst owner in sports just as his team momentarily lost a chance to clinch a playoff series. Although it’s a title he won’t hold for much longer.

Normally sports serve as a safe haven or way to rise above racism. But after Sterling’s Jim Crowe comments, everything was confusingly entangled. Fans didn’t know whether they should boycott or defiantly support their team but not its owner. On top of that, the Clippers were one loss away from being on the brink of elimination while some fans have been waiting for years for a Clippers team as good as the current version and could potentially see their hopes shattered.

For Clippers fans, who were clad in black at the Staples Center Tuesday night, I want to say it was OK for you to root for your team. Some figureheads and media personalities might guilt trip you for it, but they don’t know anything. It’s easy to be righteous from afar. But as a fan, your impulse is to support your team no matter what. Yes, your owner was a racist and you did indirectly help line his pockets. But so did every other fan who supported the NBA thanks to the magic of revenue sharing. As fans, we can’t decouple our love for a team — and the Clippers aren’t a team that’s always easy to love, taking other factors into account.

Sterling has owned the Clippers for 33 years, making him the longest tenured owner in the NBA. But he didn’t become a racist over night. Sterling has had a history of racial tensions, ranging from NBA legend and ex-Clipper’s GM Elgin Baylor’s lawsuit to heckling Baron Davis from his seat to enacting slumlord policies. The NBA was getting by when the Clippers were losing and Sterling’s mouth was shut. But now neither is happening and Silver has pushed him out for good.

To his credit, Commissioner Silver came down on Sterling as hard as he could. He banned him from the Clippers organization and NBA for life, and imposed the maximum fine possible – 2.5 million dollars. But the most important part of Silver’s punishment is his call to the owners to force Sterling to sell.

Before Tuesday, I had never asked myself what I thought of Adam Silver. He was a lanky guy who’d occasionally announce later draft picks. But he impressed me in his first play as the commissioner. In his baptism by fire — otherwise known as his press conference — the commissioner was short and to the point. Silver seemed both genuine and genuinely upset at Sterling’s words. When asked if he expects resistance from Sterling, he simply replied, “I have no idea.” That was Silver’s way of letting us know that Sterling’s opinion is immaterial in the matter. Or in other words: there’s a new commissioner in town.

I was surprised to see some voice minor dissent over Silver forcing Sterling out of the NBA. I say Sterling did that to himself. After his horribly racist comments, I don’t know how Sterling could still own a team. He’d never be able to sit courtside or show his face at his games. Players and coaches would refuse to work for him. If Sterling wasn’t banned for life, it would be the worst thing to happen to the Clippers organization.

But best of all things Silver did was taking the weight off the Clippers players. If Silver’s punishment was incomplete at all, or at all soft, it would seem temporary. But his statement was complete enough, I think, to give the Clippers a break from the past.

In fact, if the commissioner hadn’t come down so hard, there may not have been a game. It was reported and echoed by NBPA vice president and former Spur Roger Mason Jr. that others teams had committed to boycotting the games on Tuesday night. Can you imagine a night with no playoff basketball games? That would’ve been the worst case scenario for the NBA and an awful start to a commissionership.

But Tuesday night seemed OK again. There was basketball and the Clippers played a game. Visiting Warriors players were introduced and suitably booed. The home Clippers were cheered, like normal, while they actually kept warm ups worn correctly with logos proudly displayed. The Clippers fans were especially happy to rid themselves of their abhorrent owner, and the mood amongst them was celebratory.

The actual game was, well, very normal. It was a welcome change from game four, when a clearly distracted Clippers team lost to a Steph Curry led Warrior’s team to even the series. In game five, the Clippers were energized and the home crowd was pumped early on. The Clips on the back of DeAndre Jordan built a large lead (and benefited from some leeway with the referees) and managed to hold on late. It’s only fitting that the Clippers pulled this one out. The series deserves a conclusion dictated by basketball, not off the court matters, and we actually have a chance at getting that now. And the 57-win Clippers deserve a chance to compete for an NBA title.

So, a night that should’ve been dedicated to the passing of Hall of Fame coach Jack Ramsay will be remembered for the NBA cutting its ties to a known racist. It is 2014, so it’s safe to say it’s long overdue. I’ll cede the final word to a man who knew both LA and race relations pretty well – Tupac. Just remember, “Misplaced hate makes disgrace to races.”