’Donald Sterling burned the Clippers’ palace down’
Award-winning essayist and poet Natalie Diaz explores the laws of ownership through the ex-Clippers franchise holder and what we miss when we lose attention to language
“I am personally distraught that the views expressed by Mr. Sterling came from within an institution that has historically taken such a leadership role in matters of race relations.” – NBA commissioner Adam Silver
“It matters what you call a thing.” – Solmaz Sharif, Look
They entered the NBA as an expansion team in 1970, named the Buffalo Braves, a mascot bright with nostalgia for American conquest and the wild, fighting people this nation once tamed or killed. Eight years later, in 1978, the Buffalo Braves NBA franchise migrated west, to San Diego, where the team decided it wanted a more fitting name — although California has one of the largest Native populations in the country.
In 1984, the team, along with its new name, moved to Los Angeles and became the team we know today: the LA Clippers, named for the clipper ships that swiftly cut across the waters of the bay.
Clipper ships were designed to transport commodities, often tea and opium, to perform more efficiently than other ships, to be fast and to make money. Clippers were dexterous and controllable, able to outrun any challenger: pirates, winds, tumultuous seas. After the U.S. passed the Slave Trade Act of 1807, a measure to stop American participation in the slave trade, the clipper ship became a little more sinister. The Act of 1807 gave slave traders nine months to shut down the business we now recognize as one of the worst crimes committed by the terrible Western imagination — reducing black men, women and children to chattel in the dank, cramped hulls of their ships. But the Act of 1807 made only the slave trade illegal, not slavery itself.
To continue that sin, and to continue building out the rotten blueprints of a great nation, Americans still needed their labor force. Some clipper ships were refitted to hold and smuggle slaves, betting their deftness in the water against their new opposition, the Navy, which sought out the now-illegal cargo of humans. If they could land at port and deliver those suffering in their holds, the clipper ships could still help America quell its addiction.
Why spend so much time considering the Clippers’ name, when the name in question is Donald Sterling? Because what we are called and what we answer to are part of the prophecy of who we become and what this country is capable of becoming. From the perspective of language, the Clippers will always harbor this history.
Is there an American institution, including the NBA, that hasn’t been built on the foundations of indigenous genocide and slavery, of the degradation and abuse of immigrants, of the bodies we touch with military might all over the globe, of any person who falls outside of the images of our founding fathers?
We are all, despite our unique and intimate histories, entangled with this land and the violent seeds first sown into this continent. As nature demands, these violent seeds sprout and bear fruit in every facet of our American lives, especially in the games we play. The arena, the court and the field are spaces of play, as well as stand-ins for battle and conquer. George Orwell, during the British war against Hitler, said this about sport: “It is war minus the shooting.” The mentalities of conquest are necessary in these spaces.
Fandom comes from the Latin word fanaticus, which means “inspired by God,” and is also connected to the word fanum, which was a temple, a building where gods were exalted. But in the temples of American sports, who is exalted and who must submit? It is no surprise that fandom reflects some of our most beautiful and horrific human conditions. Fandom joins strangers in bonds of loyalty and love akin to family, and all for a team, for a game. Yet it seems it doesn’t take long for fans to resort to coliseumlike behavior.
At what point in fanatic fervor does the spectator revert to the projections of who they have been taught the players are? Three-quarters of NBA athletes are black. At what point does the fan return to the foundations of American nationhood whose definitions of black and brown people underwrite every aspect of our lives, including our own Declaration of Independence, where indigenous peoples are still referred to as merciless Indian Savages? The fans, too, are looking for victory, and in the atmosphere of the arena they feel capable of conquer. In March, the Utah Jazz permanently banned a white former Utah state trooper from games for telling Russell Westbrook to “get down on his knees like he used to.” How far is a fan ever from imagined entitlements to the athlete’s body and the way it performs?
In 2010, when LeBron James made an autonomous decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat, news media and YouTube videos showed circle after circle of mostly white men burning James’ jersey, a symbol of that man. The historical implications of these actions never seemed to cross their minds. White men’s assumptions of power and property don’t abide by humanistic logic and rarely demand introspection.
Subsequently, Dan Gilbert made an incredible claim of ownership over James in a letter he wrote to “Cleveland, All Of Northeast Ohio and Cleveland Cavaliers Supporters.” In it, he called James’ decision to move to Miami a “shocking act of disloyalty from his home grown chosen one” and called James the opposite of who Gilbert would want his children to become.
In the coliseums of entertainment, an emperor depends on the fanatic to uphold his gestures of capital and power. Donald Sterling was the NBA’s very own Nero. He burned the Clippers’ palace down.
Sterling’s pyre illuminated that the kingdom of the NBA had been on fire from its beginning. In many ways, the NBA continues a founding tradition of diminishing the fullness of black people down to physical labor and exploiting that labor for capital gain. Those earning the bear’s share of the money from these labors are majority white men. Among those men was Sterling.
Ramona Shelburne, in her podcast, speculated that Sterling must have been miserable owning the Clippers because they performed so poorly among NBA teams. However, Sterling’s power didn’t come through winning — unless you count the court cases in which he was charged with discriminating against black people and Latinos in his rentals. His power came through owning. In the case of the Clippers, what he seemed to believe he owned were the physical bodies of the men who played for the franchise. Owning the Clippers perhaps provided him a rush. Especially when he paraded groups of friends, including women, through a locker room of naked or half naked black men and exclaimed, “Look at these beautiful bodies,” like a horse trader in Solomon’s Stables, touching their arms, squeezing their muscles and shoulders, feeling empowered by what he believed he owned.
Sterling is not the anomaly or the aberration. When we talk about Sterling, we are also talking about the structures in place that allowed Sterling to function. The bigger questions might be what happened around Sterling that made him and his behavior possible. Who watched the emperor parade into the locker room like it was his personal stable? Who sat at the emperor’s dinner table, at all his “white parties,” and said nothing as he stood up to make toasts and revealed himself time and again?
During this year’s NBA Finals, another “owner” did his job while sitting courtside, “owning.” Mark Stevens, part owner of the Golden State Warriors, enacted what he must believe ownership entitles him to do. He could have been a character from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. When Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry leaped into the stands for a loose ball, Stevens went out of his way to lean across multiple seats and shove Lowry, as if back into the battle royal, screaming at him, “Go f— yourself.”
Language matters. What condition does the word “owner” create or continue to uphold from its historical implications of power, and what and who can be possible under those conditions? Owner, meaning to be master of, or to possess. What does it mean that Donald Sterling was able to become owner of a team, or what does it mean that the NBA still manages the bodies of its athletes through the position of an owner?
Warriors forward Draymond Green critiqued the league’s continued use of the word “owner” despite being aware of its link to slavery, saying, “Just because someone was taught that 100 years ago doesn’t make that the right thing today.” Mark Cuban, the Dallas Mavericks’ owner, wanted Green to apologize. He said Green was wrong “to try to create some connotation that owning equity in a company that you busted your a– for is the equivalent of ownership in terms of people, that’s just wrong.”
Though we are talking about Sterling, we are also talking about other things: the NBA’s beginnings, its past, its now, and also its future. We cannot ignore the conditions in which the NBA thrives, an extractive relationship reliant on the peak physical, intellectual and emotional labor and performances of black men. And we cannot ignore how when these men exercise their autonomy and intellectual power, the league — the nation, even — resists. As Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics observed, it is common for reporters and fans to say to athletes, “You should be happy you’re making X amount of money playing sport. You should be saluting America instead of critiquing it.”
This is what we miss when we lose attention to language. To have an owner is to be owned. Forcing owner Donald Sterling to sell the Clippers to another owner didn’t solve the league’s problems with regard to race. In many ways, the league’s problems are a mirror of our nation’s problems.
It’s true the NBA is changing, and it’s true the change is coming too slowly. This change is possibly what James was speaking about in an on-court interview with Chris Broussard in April 2014. On the night he and the Heat took a 3-0 series lead over the Charlotte Bobcats, James was asked about Sterling’s comments revealed in the tapes that TMZ released. He replied, “There’s no room for that in our game. We’ve found a way to make this the greatest game in the world.”
In that moment, James might very well have been acknowledging the history of this country, the history of the game, the history of the league. In that moment, way back in 2014, he was stepping into the space he now holds in 2019, a space of autonomy, leadership and power, which is dangerous to NBA owners. It’s our game, James seems to be saying. We have made it what it is, and we will continue to build this game the best way we can, and with our best interests in mind — not to be owned but to be one’s own.