Outside Staples Arena Tuesday night, the capacity crowd was mostly calm, cool, collected – with isolated pockets of agitation and activism.
Holding tickets in hand and filing slowly through a dozen doors past bronze statues of Los Angeles basketball icons Jerry West, Magic Johnson, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, it was a diverse crowd – roughly equal parts white, Hispanic, Black, and Asian – reflecting America’s most racially diverse city.
The fans were there for the first Los Angeles Clippers playoff game since the bombshell announcement that the NBA had hit team owner Donald Sterling with everything it had: banned for life, the maximum fine of $2.5 million, and promises to seek his ouster as owner.
The police presence was low-key – officers on bikes, one helicopter overhead. Conversations were amiable, if competitive.
“You all are gonna lose,” said one Clippers fan to out-of-towners identified by their Golden State Warriors sweatshirts.
“Yeah, but we got a better owner,” came the reply.
No argument there. Signs saying things like “Love basketball, not racism,” “must have new owner … vote for sale,” and “If Sterling stays, boycott Clipper games,” were ubiquitous.
The Los Angeles Chapter of Al Sharpton’s National Action Network led chants: “No justice, no peace.”
Local broadcast TV crews were on the scene, doing stand-ups and interviews and zooming in on signs. A longer one read: “Racism does not have a good track record. It has been tried out for a long time, and you’d think we would want to put an end to it, instead of putting it under new management.”
The holder of that sign was Alberto Castro, a.k.a. “Steak.”
“I don’t think this is just about L.A., but the whole country,” he told his interviewer. “These attitudes are everywhere, and the main thing is to let people know racism needs to stop now. You know it probably will never end, but I’m here to let people know it should.”
A similar sentiment is shared across the street by Nana Letran, a Guatemalan immigrant who runs a customized air-brush printing business, standing with her son, Jesse Lopez.
“People have to understand that this is an everyday thing that goes on in every city in the nation,” she says. “We just have to stand up about it the way we are now, not just today but every single day.”
A positive from the episode, she says, is that it underlines what she has been trying to teach her two sons – one 12, one 15 – since they were born.
“This has opened their eyes. I’ve always had that conversation with them about accepting people for who they are, whatever their color or nationality. This shows how bad it is and how nobody should be able to make comments like Sterling did.”
Jesse, her older son, nods: “How can he make racial comments like that in a league where the vast majority of players is African American? It’s unacceptable.”
Michael Anderson, a stage designer, disagrees, and knows he is in the small minority.
“This has been way overblown,” he says, agreeing with Donald Trump, who has said the episode has a “gotcha” quality and should be overlooked because it was a private conversation. “They are trying to take away what he started just because he made a mistake. He just got caught talking to someone who’s not his wife. No big deal. Just deal with it.”
Standing in the street just feet away is Amber Scott, a paralegal who traveled from Beverly Hills after a full day of work to hold her sign: “Racism is illegal.”
“If we have to be the first city to oust an NBA owner for his racism and bigotry, then so be it. He is in power and he has the power to fire and hire and promote from within and deny employment opportunities – and someone with that racist mentality does not deserve that right,” she says.
Depending on who buys the team, she says, she is prepared to continue the fight.
“If this happens again, we just have to keep saying and doing this over and over until people make this a thing of the past,” she says.
Not far from that conversation, Molly Bell is telling another reporter that she feels betrayed by Donald Sterling’s comments because the black community was vital to the Clippers in its early days.
“You know why the Clippers have been able to play all these years? Black folks,” she says, explaining that the team bused in fans from Watts and Compton for years to keep the seats filled when attendance wasn’t so good. Now she says that hearing Sterling tell his girlfriend not to bring blacks to the games, she says she wants no part of the team.
Fast forward to the end of the game: Clippers won 113-103 to take a three-games-to-two series lead.
The “fans were awesome, as good as I’ve ever seen,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said. “They were unbelievable. You think that it’s just the players going through this. But it was everybody. Almost everyone wanted to exhale tonight.”