Inside the Clippers’ final days with Donald Sterling as owner
‘We never played for Sterling anyway. It wasn’t like we were going out representing Sterling. We were representing our families, the city of Los Angeles and our fans.’
It is not uncommon to see Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers and owner Steve Ballmer talk hoops before a game. Ballmer typically peppers Rivers with questions about his beloved Clippers as if he is a member of the media. Rivers shares details and typically throws in a joke that makes the fun-loving Ballmer smile.
It is a way different dynamic from what Rivers had with the team’s previous owner, Donald Sterling. Rivers told The Undefeated he has not spoken to his old boss since TMZ released audio on April 26, 2014, of Sterling making racist comments to his then-girlfriend.
“There is no need to,” Rivers said. “I don’t know why or what he was thinking or whatever. … It doesn’t matter to me. It’s already been done and said. I haven’t heard from him. It’s not like I am mad. But why? We don’t need to talk.”
Five years ago, on April 29, 2014, the controversial owner was banned for life by the NBA for his comments in what was one of the strongest penalties in American sports history. He was later forced to sell the team.
At that time, the Clippers were also pursuing an NBA title. They were the No. 3 seed in the 2014 Western Conference playoffs facing an up-and-coming Golden State Warriors team in the first round. The Clippers took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series with a 98-96 victory in Oakland on April 24. But two days later, their momentum came to a crashing halt after Sterling’s remarks became public.
News traveled fast within the organization. Game 4 was the following day. How would Rivers & Co. respond to their owner being involved in one of the biggest scandals in sports?
The Undefeated looks back at the franchise’s last days under Sterling, five years later, through the recollections of those who endured it.
‘THEY TOLD ME IT WASN’T A BIG DEAL’
Sterling has a long history of racist behavior and had been sued on two occasions for allegedly declining to rent apartments to African Americans and Hispanics. He was also sued in 2009 by former Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor, who accused him of age and racial discrimination. There is also a well-known story of the Clippers owner once going into his team’s locker room after a game while players were dressing and telling his friends, “Look at those beautiful black bodies.”
Rivers said he first caught wind on April 23, 2014, that Sterling had made some controversial comments but was told by a Clippers executive they “weren’t a big deal.” Rivers alerted his players during a team meeting at the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco that the story was expected to come out, but he didn’t have details to offer.
Blake Griffin: “We remember having a meeting and Doc was saying what was happening. When he explained it, I don’t think everyone understood the magnitude of what it was going to be.”
Doc Rivers: “I was misled in that whole thing, and that is a story for the book one day. But I was told there was a story coming out and it wasn’t a big deal beforehand. I had a chance two days before to look at it. But they told me it wasn’t a big deal.”
Ryan Hollins: “Doc said that Sterling said something stupid with racial undertones to a woman, but it was not expected to be that big of a deal as it ended up being.”
Rivers: “I took this job. I knew there was going to be risk. I clearly didn’t know there was going to be that type of risk.”
‘THOSE WORDS HURT, THOSE WORDS PIERCED’
At 10 p.m. PDT on April 24, 2014, TMZ released a recording in which a married Sterling made racial comments to his girlfriend V. Stiviano, criticizing her for putting pictures on social media with well-known African Americans, including former Los Angeles Lakers star Magic Johnson and then-Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp.
TMZ reported that the private taping of Sterling’s racist rant took place on April 9, 2014, after Stiviano posted a picture of her with Johnson on Instagram.
Some of Sterling’s racist audio excerpts released by TMZ included:
“It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?”
“You can sleep with [black men]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that … and not to bring them to my games.”
“I’m just saying, in your lousy f—— Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with, walking with black people.”
“… Don’t put him [Johnson] on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me. And don’t bring him to my games.”
A stunned Rivers finally listened to the audio just before it was released.
“One of our PR guys heard it an hour and a half before it came out and he said, ‘Doc, I think you need to see this video,’ ” Rivers said. “And I went to see it and I was incensed. I was pissed. I didn’t really know what to do.”
Rivers quickly called a late-night team meeting at the hotel to talk about the Sterling report. Wearing a Clippers T-shirt, Rivers entered the meeting room, where incensed players were waiting.
Griffin: “We pretty much found out exactly what it was with everyone else.”
Willie Green: “We all got the news at the same time as the reports were coming out. We were shocked to hear it, and we all heard rumors. To hear the actual words that he said were shocking.”
Hollins: “When it came out, I was blindsided. We didn’t know it was going to be like that. We were told that he made some comments that were racially charged, but we didn’t know what they were. I guess the one that struck us was the Magic Johnson stuff, the black guy in the building. When we heard those words, those words hurt. Those words pierced.”
Rivers: “I let them know I was black too. It was funny. They were pissed at everybody, including me. That is one of the things that broke the ice. I said, ‘By the way, guys, my name is Glenn Rivers. I’m from Maywood, Illinois, and I’m black.’
“The other thing I said is I need you to trust me. I will allow you guys to choose what you want me to say, but I need you to trust me and have one voice. If I have learned one thing about racism, and I’ve been through a lot of things with racism, they never want to go after the guy that says this stuff like Sterling. They want to go after the persecuted. Everyone wants to know how the persecuted will respond rather than focusing on the guy that did something.”
Matt Barnes: “What he said was more of a shake-my-head situation than being mad. I thought he finally got caught up with this bum-a– chick no one liked. As far as the racial comments, I’ve heard much worse and have had worse done to me, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. I thought he wasn’t the only owner that felt that way. He was just the only one dumb enough to get caught saying it.”
Chris Paul: “I remember meeting as a team and Doc asking us how we wanted to handle it. We agreed that we would have just one voice and let that voice with Doc. I absolutely agreed with that.”
Rivers: “I was so concerned that someone from our team would say something crazy and then they were the story. And that is what we talked about. From DJ [DeAndre Jordan] to Blake, they decided what they wanted to do. They let me be the voice, and that was huge for us because we got through that without any other controversy.”
After the Sterling news broke, Rivers said Sterling and then-Clippers president Andy Roeser were not available. Roeser later took a leave of absence on May 6, 2014, and never returned to the position.
Hollins: “I was in the elevator with the man [Sterling] right after it came out. It was awkward. I shook his hand like normal. To me, the news didn’t change anything for me. We knew. Everyone knew his mindset. Man, that elevator ride took a while. He was fighting someone on the elevator. He didn’t understand. He was like, ‘This is business as usual.’ He was saying he was going to be at [Game 4]. ‘See you tomorrow.’
“To this day, he might not see the severity. He doesn’t see it as racism. For Donald’s mindset, it was like, ‘This is for me and this is for you.’ This is not necessarily that I am better than you. It was like, ‘This is what you do and this is what I do.’ ”
Rivers: “I was by myself. … I had no one to run stuff by. And a lot of people don’t know that [NBA commissioner] Adam [Silver] texted me saying, ‘This is my private number. Text me every second that you need something.’ That was huge.”
‘PEOPLE WERE CALLING US TO BOYCOTT’
The Clippers practiced at the University of San Francisco’s War Memorial Gym on the eve of Game 4 on Saturday, April 26, 2014. The venue was the home of former Dons and NBA legend Bill Russell, who faced a lot of racial discrimination while playing for the Boston Celtics.
Rivers told a media horde that Sterling’s racist statements were not going to distract his team. Paul and Griffin also addressed the media. And while Rivers voiced that his players would not be distracted, it was quite the contrary. They were getting so many calls and texts from family and friends that it was impossible for them to block it out.
Paul: “There were a whole lot of people in our ears. Everybody’s phone was going crazy, saying this and saying that. They were telling what you should and shouldn’t do. For us, we were trying to stay together as much as possible. And whatever we did, we wanted to do it together as a team.”
Hollins: “It was so awkward, man. You are trying to focus on the job at hand. Then you have a game to play. There was a lot of energy in different places. It was kind of weird. And honestly, it divided our team. It divided a lot of stuff we were doing. A lot of people got too focused on it. Other people in their mind weren’t too focused on it. And then basketball was there. You’re getting torn in different places, and then your friends and family are saying certain things. But I don’t think we aired it all the right way.”
Griffin: “As far as distractions go, I don’t know if there could have been a bigger thing. Everybody was calling for us to do something. At one point I had to stop answering questions from people I was close to just because it was the playoffs. Doc was always talking to us about keeping your box. You got your family, but everything else goes outside the box. That was crazy because people were calling for us to boycott, and then we had to make a decision.”
There was an uncomfortable buzz in Oracle Arena on April 27, ahead of Game 4. There were rumors that Jordan and Barnes specifically, and perhaps the Clippers as a whole, would boycott the game. Warriors forward Draymond Green also told The Undefeated that he heard the Clippers players considered not playing. The Warriors were in the other locker room awaiting word on what the Clippers were going to do and planned to support them.
Barnes said Rivers left it up to the players to decide whether they wanted to boycott and just asked that they make a uniform decision. Ultimately, the Clippers players determined as a whole that their quest for a title was bigger than Sterling.
Draymond Green: “I remember the awkwardness of the whole time from when it was released to leading to the game. … Everyone seemed antsy. The most important thing was everyone was standing with them. Guys on our team were standing with them. It was a sad situation. Obviously, it didn’t just affect them, although they were playing on the team he owned. It was bigger than that. It was about our culture as a whole. It was crazy.”
Warriors guard Klay Thompson: “I felt bad for those guys. They were in a tough position. … It was definitely a possibility that they boycotted the game, and it would’ve been completely justified.”
Jordan: “I wasn’t going to play. I felt like that was a representation of us. And for me, obviously being a black player, I didn’t want to go out there and represent that. That isn’t what I am about. My teammates, I will keep their names to myself, but they agreed with me on that — and they weren’t all black.
“I wasn’t being negative or anything, but I was standing for something bigger than myself. But ultimately, when you’re a player coming up, you’re not like, ‘Oh, I want to compete for this.’ You want to do it for your teammates. So ultimately, that swayed me to go out there and fight for my guys.”
Griffin: “We never played for Sterling anyway. It wasn’t like we were going out representing Sterling. We were representing our families, the city of Los Angeles and our fans. It all took care of itself in the end. We took the appropriate stand.”
Willie Green: “The best thing for us to do was play. We had a meeting, we decided to come out, play and represent the city of Los Angeles and each other. We stayed together and tried to win.”
Barnes: “Not playing was briefly discussed, but I think we all came to the realization that we’re never playing for Donald in the first place. … Plus, we felt we had a championship-caliber team that year. … I have zero regrets.”
Hollins: “We could’ve not played. But I didn’t join the league for Donald Sterling. There are so many more racist people; he was just the one that got caught. I play for my family. I play for my city. It was weird. That is how I feed my kids, doing this. If you had a racist boss, you’re not going to participate [in your job]? It was just funny. People were telling me to give up on a couple million dollars, a couple hundred thousand, or whatever it might be, in my career for someone who is racist.”
Paul: “It was weird. It was kind of eerie. There is a part of you that is saying don’t play. Then there is a part that says if you don’t, you can be letting each other down. We are not playing for them. We’re playing for each other. It was different.”
The Clippers looked solemn as they ran out for warm-ups to a sold-out crowd before the game started. Yes, they were going to actually play in the nationally televised game on a Sunday despite the Sterling cloud hovering over the team. The Clippers made a statement when they took off their warm-up jackets with “Clippers” on them and tossed them at midcourt. The players then engaged in warm-ups donning long-sleeved red T-shirts turned inside out so the team nickname would not be seen.
The Clippers’ blue jerseys said “Los Angeles” on the front, and the players wore black socks and armbands. The Warriors routed the Clippers, 118-97, in Game 4 to even the series at 2-2.
Griffin: “I just remember the chaos, but with every situation I try to remember something positive. I just remember coming out here taking our warm-ups off and turning them inside out. I remember getting the cheers from the fans here, and at that time that didn’t [usually] happen. It was kind of in the middle of us clashing.”
Hollins: “I don’t know if throwing our shirts off did anything, honestly.”
Paul: “It was easy to say it was hard to play because we got smacked. But I don’t remember too much about that game.”
Hollins: “It was Game 4, and we were better than Golden State then. We were going to come in and take care of business and mess everything up. But they didn’t hold anything back. They let us have it. They had that energy.”
Jordan: “Do I regret playing? No, I don’t regret playing. We got our a– whooped up in Golden State anyway. I am glad I played because those group of guys, they will be connected for life.”
STERLING BANNED BY NBA
Rumors were circulating that Clippers players were considering sitting out of Game 5 on April 29, 2014, in Los Angeles. Players on other teams around the league were considering sitting out as well. NBA sponsors were threatening to leave their partnership with the league. Meanwhile, several current and former NBA players, including former NBA star and then-Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Steve Nash, Tyson Chandler, A.C. Green and Norm Nixon took part in a union rally in L.A., ready to respond to word of Sterling’s punishment expected that day.
The pressure was on Adam Silver, who had replaced longtime NBA commissioner David Stern on Feb. 1, 2014. Silver came down hard on Sterling, announcing the Clippers owner was banned for life from any association with the NBA and the Clippers and was fined an NBA maximum $2.5 million. NBA owners later gave the needed vote to force Sterling to sell the team.
Many of the Clippers players got the news at their practice facility.
Paul: “I remember all those guys going to City Hall and saying something. It was a weird space for us because we were not only the team involved, but we were playing. Doc was trying to not only lock us in on the series and the game but what we were trying to do, and not use that as an out. I remember the first game back. It was unreal. Everybody wore black.”
Griffin: “Adam Silver, through Doc, told us he was going to handle the situation, and he did. We did what we were supposed to do. We were playing for something much bigger than Sterling. It was never our intent.
“We got together and handled it the best way we could have. As a team, you start training camp and go through the pain of the regular season. And you play basketball to get to the playoffs. For us to boycott the playoffs and ultimately lose a playoff series, it wouldn’t have been fair to us. You have to think somewhat selfishly.”
Draymond Green: “I didn’t think anyone was going to play. But once Adam made his announcement, it was so strong that at that point there was no reason for anyone to say anything about the stance.”
Thompson: “Everyone was really happy with how quickly Adam Silver reacted. That was great standing up for all the players on racism, institutionalism and all of that crap. Adam had our back.”
Rivers: “He was the right guy at the right time. My mama always said, ‘You’re right where you are supposed to be.’ That was my mother’s favorite saying. Adam was at the right spot at the right time.”
Hollins: “For Adam Silver, that was his strongest, ‘I’m here.’ Instead of being in the background and shying away from difficult decisions, he made a big decision moving on from Donald.”
The Clippers went on to defeat the Warriors in Game 5 and won the series in seven games. However, their title hopes ended after they lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder in six games in the second round.
On May 29, 2014, former Microsoft chief executive Ballmer won a bidding war for ownership of the Clippers, purchasing the team for a then-NBA record $2 billion.
FIVE YEARS LATER
No current players are left from the 2013-14 Clippers team. Paul was granted a request to be traded to the Houston Rockets on June 29, 2017. Griffin was re-signed by the Clippers to a five-year, $173 million deal that same summer but was traded to the Detroit Pistons on Jan. 29, 2018. Jordan is two teams removed after playing for the Dallas Mavericks and New York Knicks this season. Willie Green is an assistant coach with the Warriors. Barnes is retired. And Hollins is a television sports analyst for the Clippers and NBA.
After losing to the Clippers in that first-round series in 2014, Golden State has been to the NBA Finals every year since and won three championships. Barnes, who was on the Warriors’ title team in 2017, said, “I knew then they were going to be a problem.”
Rivers, meanwhile, is the last man standing on the Clippers and enjoying perhaps his finest coaching performance this season. The Clippers hope to be a major player in free agency this summer with the ability to sign two major free agents.
On Wednesday night, the Clippers are back in Oracle Arena to play the Warriors during Game 5 of their first-round series.
Jordan: “We had our opportunities. We had six years to us three, J.J. [Redick] and Jamal [Crawford]. We had really good teams, but we just couldn’t get over the hump. That happens after a while. Either you keep it going and believe in it or revamp, which ultimately they decided to do.”
Hollins: “Ballmer has gone all in. Before, Blake, DJ and Chris would get the preferential treatment, the massages, whatever that may be. The 15th man gets that now. The 15th man gets a scouting report, access to training. It’s just on another level. He’s really invested into the squad. It’s not surprising the success that he is having. Even the young guys.”
Rivers: “When I came here, no free agent would say they want to play for the Clippers. Now, every free agent says they want to play in L.A. And they don’t mean the other team [the Lakers], they mean both. To me, that is a big measure of success of where the franchise has become. The next step is getting [free agents] and then winning.”
JJ Redick “respectfully declined” participation in this story as he is concentrating on the NBA Playoffs with the Philadelphia 76ers.