The NBA saga about Donald Sterling and the racist rant recorded by his apparent mistress may be reaching its final chapters.
According to sources, the embattled Los Angeles Clippers owner will sign his full stake in the team over to his estranged wife, Shelly Sterling, who by California law owns half the team. She will handle negotiations for its sale, sources say, expected to be about $1 billion.
The NBA had filed charges this week to divest Mr. Sterling, the league’s longest-tenured owner, of his 33-year ownership of the Clippers. It scheduled a June 3 hearing to begin the process, in which a three-fourths majority vote of fellow NBA owners would be needed to force him to sell the team.
Last month, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling for life from the league and fined him $2.5 million for telling his girlfriend, V. Stiviano – who denies that the two were lovers – not to bring black people to Clippers games, including NBA hall-of-famer Magic Johnson.
News that Sterling had agreed to sell the team came as a surprise to many observers given that his attorney, accomplished antitrust litigator Max Blecher, told the NBA that his client had done nothing wrong and that he would fight to keep the team – and refuse to pay the $2.5 million fine.
But Sterling has since rethought this position, sources say, agreeing to hand over control to his wife, who has said she wants to keep her half of the team. The NBA rejected her position.
Mrs. Sterling's half-ownership could complicate matters. According to the Los Angeles Times, a source told the paper that Mrs. Sterling is seeking a settlement that would allow her to retain at least some stake in the team. “My sense is that it’s not a done deal,” the source said. “The issue is whether she gets to keep an interest” for the purposes of the sale.
Mrs. Sterling has been secretly meeting with Commissioner Silver to “resolve the dispute amicably,” according to TMZ, which broke the story.
The sale of the estimated $1 billion team would incur an enormous financial liability on the Sterlings, who could be hit with a tax bill of more than $300 million in state and federal taxes. Mr. Sterling bought the team in 1981 for $13.5 million.
A number of high-profile buyers have expressed interest in purchasing the Clippers, including Oprah Winfrey, media mogul David Geffen, and Silicon Valley tycoon Larry Ellison.
NBA spokesman Mike Bass said in a statement Friday afternoon: “We continue to follow the process set forth in the NBA Constitution regarding termination of the current ownership interests in the Los Angeles Clippers and are proceeding toward a hearing on this matter on June 3."
According to this week’s charges, the NBA planned to argue that Sterling’s racist statements harmed the league’s efforts to promote diversity and impaired its relationship with sponsors. Several companies withdrew their sponsorship of the Clippers after news of the Sterling audio recording broke last month.
Silver expressed a willingness to forgo the June 3 hearing at a Tuesday press conference, saying it could be avoided if the Sterlings agree to sell the team.
"It is their team to sell ... and so I'm sure if he wanted to sell the team on some reasonable timetable, I'd prefer he sell it than we go through this process,” the NBA commissioner said. “I'm open to that."