Donald Sterling: Who is the Los Angeles Clippers owner, really?

Who is Donald Sterling? A man of contradictions, it would seem, but many say the NBA should have foreseen the troubles it now faces over the racist comments allegedly made by him.

Danny Moloshok/AP/File
Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling sits courtside during an NBA basketball game in 2010.

Now that Donald Sterling has been banned from National Basketball Association games for life, fined $2.5 million, and institutions such as the University of California at Los Angeles are returning his gifts, the question arises about the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers: Who is he, really, and are the racist comments said to be by him on a cellphone recording the true measure of the man?

If the allegations are true, it seems curious that the longest-tenured owner in NBA history should be able to deceive so many for so long. Then again, some note, these are not the first allegations. 

In 2009, he paid $2.7 million to settle a Department of Justice lawsuit charging discrimination against blacks, Hispanics, and families with children. In 2005, he paid some $5 million in attorney's fees – in addition to an undisclosed sum – to settle a suit charging he tried to drive Korean residents out of apartments he owned in L.A.’s Koreatown. And in 2008, Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor sued Mr. Sterling and the Clippers organization, claiming he was forced out of his job as team general manager due to age and race bias.

“There are many people suggesting that the NBA did not act fast enough, because Sterling’s true colors have been known for a long time,” says Warren Packard, CEO of Thuuz, an online sports platform.

Indeed, some say the current outrage over the comments, in which Sterling allegedly berated a mistress for going to events with black people, verges on hypocrisy. Many people in positions of influence were well aware of Sterling's past and did nothing until now, says Timothy Joyce, a contributing columnist for RealClearSports.

“While no one disagrees that Sterling's comments were vile and have no place in sports – or anywhere in society – and were assuredly worthy of significant punishment, the sanctimonious utterances from the league and countless commentators is nearly just as heinous,” he says via e-mail. “While many may think that this is a teachable moment, it's nothing of the sort; the league did nothing before this audiotape was discovered even though they knew of prior discrimination lawsuits and claims of racial bias against Sterling for years.”

Sterling's official biography would point to him being a champion of the underdog. Born Donald Tokowitz to Jewish immigrant parents who fled persecution in Eastern Europe, he adopted the name “Sterling” as an adult while studying at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles.

“You have to name yourself after something that's really good, that people have confidence in. People want to know that you're the best,” he said, according to a 1999 Los Angeles Magazine profile.

Sterling practiced law but eventually expanded into buying real estate, notably apartment buildings in then-developing Beverly Hills and Santa Monica.

After purchasing the then-San Diego Clippers in 1981, he moved them to Los Angeles in 1984, promptly incurring fines from the NBA, which did not want a second franchise in the city. But Sterling threatened to sue, the fine was reduced, and he was able to remain. Forbes ranks him No. 328 on its list of 931 billionaires, with an estimated $1.9 billion fortune.  

Most of that wealth is concentrated in real estate, with thousands of apartments in Los Angeles. He purchased the Clippers for $12 million and today, Forbes values the team at $430 million.

The seeming contradictions during his decades of team ownership are as much a reflection of who he is as the media climate now swirling around him, says Derek Arnold, a communication professor at Villanova University in Philadelphia.

“Is he the man who spent money on big contracts over the past 10 years to players like Elton Brand ($82 million in 2003, highest in franchise history at the time) and Blake Griffin (a $94 million contract this past year), or the one who refused to pay for surgery for prostate cancer of an assistant coach (four players later paid the $70,000 cost),” he asks in an e-mail.

Is Sterling the man who, according to a Department of Justice deposition, said he didn’t like how black people "smell," adding that they’re “not clean”? Or the man who was given a lifetime humanitarian award from the NAACP in 2009?

“Donald Sterling is all of those men,” Professor Arnold says.  

As a successful self-starter, first in law, then in real estate, Sterling has adopted the mentality of gaining success through his own beliefs and then trying to apply them to everything around him, Arnold says. “He grew up in the Depression in East Los Angeles, driving himself to succeed through gaining an education from high school, where he was class president, on through law school."

Sterling made his seed money in law, then proceeded to buy up distressed properties, beginning what Arnold calls his lifelong practice of rarely selling anything. “I never purchase anything that I don’t think I’m going to keep for a lifetime,” Sterling told Los Angeles Magazine.

As a successful businessman, says Arnold, “It probably stood to reason for him that he could extend his beliefs to other parts of his life.”  

For instance, says Arnold, he could act toward women with callousness. In testimony from a lawsuit with a former mistress, he said: “When you pay a woman for sex, you are not together with her … you are paying her for a few moments to use her body for sex.”

Through all of this, Sterling has long understood the power of self-promotion. Indeed, he paid for a large ad in this past Sunday’s Los Angeles Times touting his gift for kidney research to UCLA – the pledge that the university is now declining.

The influence of viral media today is so swift and pervasive that single incidents can amplify a mistake into a career-destroying moment, says Montana Miller, assistant professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. 

Can Sterling come back from these revelations about his private attitudes? Perhaps, says Professor Miller, because we live in a culture of the redemptive comeback even after terrible offenses. She points to radio shock-jock Don Imus, who insulted black female athletes and lost his job.

“The big difference between Imus and Sterling is that Imus had a fan base,” she says. “I’m not sure Sterling does.”

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