On a karmic level, the best punishment the NBA could administer to Donald Sterling would be to make him keep owning the Los Angeles Clippers for the next decade. Imagine how that would be. What player not currently under contract would agree to play for him? What coach — Doc Rivers, in Year 1 on the job, has said he’s not sure if he wants to continue– would want to work for him? How many games would they win then? And, given that Sterling is on record as preferring that African-Americans not come to his team’s games, how many sellouts would the Clippers ever see?
The trouble, alas, is that as delicious as it would be to see Sterling forced to stew in his own juices, it would be disastrous for the NBA. They’re one of 30 NBA franchisees. If they fall to pieces, the entire Association is diminished. For that reason, the NBA has no choice but to give Sterling the boot — to force him to sell the team for the greater good of the game.
It’s not as if Sterling just turned into a cretin when talking to his girlfriend with the tape running. He has been an imbecile for decades. The wonder isn’t that he was caught saying something so outrageous that the NBA is being forced to decide whether it can continue to countenance having him as an owner; the wonder is that it took this long.
Back when the Atlanta Spirit was suing each other, it was fashionable to say that the Atlanta Hawks had descended to the level of the Clippers. That was an overstatement. No teams ever sink that far. Sterling has long since retired the trophy as the league’s worst owner. Remember when general manager Elgin Baylor had what seemed a permanent seat at the NBA draft lottery because the Clips never got any better? Remember that even the long-suffering Baylor was moved to sue Sterling for being wrongfully fired on grounds of racial and age discrimination? (Baylor would later drop the racial claim; a jury ultimately sided with Sterling.)
On Sunday, the Clippers took the floor in Oakland leading a playoff series 2-1. The Clippers, as we know, have never done much of anything in postseason, but this spring has — what with San Antonio and Houston trailing in their series and Oklahoma City tied with Memphis — breakthrough potential. Or at least it had. The Clippers warmed up wearing shirts that didn’t feature the team logo, having dropped their warmup jackets at center court. Then they lost by 21 points.
It wasn’t fair to them to have to play a game while working for a man who stands revealed as the sort of man for whom nobody wants to work. But that’s the Sterling Effect: Even when he somehow builds a good team, he manages to wreck it. He needs to be gone from the NBA, gone this minute, gone for good.