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Donald Sterling, finished with apology, prepares to fight to keep Clippers

L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling, banned for life from the NBA and fined $2.5 million for racist remarks, is refusing to pay and threatening to sue the league if it votes to force him to sell.

Mark J. Terrill/AP/File
Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling looks on during the first half of their NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Lakers in Los Angeles, Feb. 25, 2011. Mr. Sterling was banned for life from the NBA and fined $2.5 million for making racist remarks to his former mistress.

After apologizing and asking for forgiveness in an interview earlier this week, Donald Sterling appears to be girding for an all-out counterattack on the NBA.

As many observers believed, the embattled owner of the Los Angeles Clippers is now threatening to sue the 30-team league if it votes to force him to sell his billion-dollar team. Mr. Sterling was banned for life from the NBA and fined $2.5 million for making racist remarks to his former mistress. In early May, a 10-member advisory committee of NBA owners voted unanimously to begin the process to force him to sell.

According to reports, Sterling has now hired one of the most renowned antitrust lawyers in the country, Maxwell Blecher, the founding partner of Blecher Collins Pepperman & Joye in Los Angeles. Earlier this week, Mr. Blecher delivered a shot over the bow of the NBA’s owners, not only threatening a long, litigious battle, but rejecting any form of punishment whatsoever.

“We reject your demand for payment,” the letter from Blecher says, according to Sports Illustrated. It also told the NBA that Sterling had done nothing wrong, and that “no punishment is warranted.” The letter closes saying the matter “will be adjudicated.”

The aggressive defiance suggested by the letter is at odds with Sterling’s apology earlier this week in an interview with CNN, however, which included his suggestion that taking the NBA to court wasn’t the answer to this ongoing saga.

“I'm apologizing, and I'm asking for forgiveness," Sterling told Anderson Cooper on Monday. "Am I entitled to one mistake? After 35 years. I mean, I love my league, I love my partners.... It's a terrible mistake, and I'll never do it again.”

“People want me to hire a wall of lawyers and then to have, to hire a wall of lawyers and go to war,” he later continued. “I don’t think that’s the answer.”

But hire a wall of lawyers he has, and having retained one of the top antitrust attorneys in the country, the looming battle could drag on for months, and perhaps even years, before courts adjudicate the matter.

Such a battle could prove to be a legal morass. Complicating the case, too, is the fact that according to California family law, Sterling’s wife, Shelly Sterling, technically owns half the team, and she says she wants to keep it. It’s also possible that a protracted legal battle could force the NBA to divulge information about other owners if Sterling argues he was  singled out while others’ controversial statements were swept under the rug.  

“The claim would be, ‘See these guys are just as bad, so ousting Donald is arbitrary or an antitrust-level conspiracy, and an abuse of discretion of its own rules,’ ” writes Roger Groves, a contributor to Forbes.

According to legal observers, the NBA will base their ouster of Sterling on Article 13 of the NBA constitution and bylaws, which outline 10 circumstances in which league owners have the authority to kick out anyone among their ranks, including players and other owners, with a three-fourths majority vote.

The most relevant passage, say experts, is section (d), for members who “[fail] or refuse to fulfill its contractual obligations to the Association, its Members, Players, or any other third party in such a way as to affect the Association or its Members adversely.”

It’s a loosely worded bylaw, but many legal observers say the NBA should have enough to prove that Sterling’s racist comments, recorded surreptitiously by his mistress, “adversely” affected the NBA. After news of his words were made public, players were outraged, sponsors began to flee, and even President Obama weighed in as the country began to examine the weighty issues of race in the country.

Still, whether a private, intimate conversation, recorded without Sterling’s knowledge, constitutes failing to fulfill contractual obligations, could lead to lengthy legal parsing, some experts say.

And Sterling has successfully teamed with Blecher before in a case remarkably similar to that raging on today. In 1982, an NBA advisory committee unanimously voted to force Sterling to sell the team after he was recorded suggesting that his team should finish last so it could draft a legendary college center, Ralph Sampson. The league was also trying to prevent the owner of the Clippers, which then resided in San Diego, from moving the team to LA.

At the time, Blecher represented the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the same organization that had been wooing the Clippers to occupy its downtown arena. Blecher helped the Raiders football team win a major antitrust lawsuit against the NFL, sending shivers down the spines of NBA owners trying to prevent Sterling’s similar move.

Flouting the NBA, Sterling just upped and moved, drawing a $25 million fine. And when he then hired Blecher, the league’s attempt to oust the Clippers owner fizzled, and Sterling even refused to pay the hefty fine. The league balked again, and the parties agreed to settle for $6 million.

But the antitrust issue shouldn’t come into play this time, legal experts say.

“This is not an antitrust issue. This is not a First Amendment issue," Daniel Lazaroff, director of the Sports Law Institute at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said to the Associated Press. “It's a question limited to the interpretation of the NBA constitution and bylaws, and whether those terms are met."

But Blecher’s letter also raised the issue of due process, according to reports. After a mere four-day investigation, without any formal proceedings, the NBA stripped Sterling of his ability to run his team and banned him for life and fined him, and is now trying to divest him of a billion-dollar property.

So while legal experts expect the NBA to ultimately prevail, the process could only get messier as courts deal with so many overlapping legal issues.

 A prolonged legal battle “is in no one's interest,” said Dick Parsons, the former Time Warner and Citigroup chairman the NBA appointed to oversee the Clippers’ business operations. “I hope we could avoid that.”

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