Donald Sterling sues NBA over forced Clippers sale: Buzzer shot?

The drama over the Los Angeles Clippers and deposed owner Donald Sterling continues with an eye-popping $2 billion offer to buy the team and Sterling’s $1 billion lawsuit against the NBA.

Mark J. Terrill/AP
Los Angeles Clippers players talk during Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinal NBA basketball playoff series against the Oklahoma City Thunder May 15 in Los Angeles.

Recalcitrant and angry, deposed Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling made good on his promise to fight the $2 billion sale of his beloved franchise in the wake of racist comments he made about a girlfriend bringing black men to basketball games.

After being fined and banished from the league for the secretly recorded comments, Mr. Sterling on Friday sued the National Basketball Association for $1 billion, alleging that the NBA violated his constitutional rights by taking action based on an “illegal” recording, breaking a contract when it fined him $2.5 million, and violating anti-trust violations by forcing the sale.

NBA counsel Rich Buchanan called the lawsuit “baseless” because it complains about a “set of facts that [don’t] even exist.” The NBA counsel noted in an Associated Press interview that it was the Sterling family trust, not the NBA, which initiated the sale. In its announcement, the NBA said it had cancelled a hearing set for next week to discuss whether the league should force Sterling to sell.

The suit, filed in US District Court in Los Angeles, came after the Sterling family trust, led by his estranged wife Shelly Sterling, removed him from power after declaring him mentally incapacitated, held a quick auction, and made a deal on Thursday to sell the Clippers to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer for $2 billion, four times more than most analysts expected. (Regarding Sterling’s mental capacity, his attorney says Sterling is simply “slowing down.”)

The league – and just about everybody else – has struggled to keep up with the rapid sequence of events, which have jarred America’s $90 billion professional sports industry. 

“There’s a lot of stuff happening in a very compact period of time,” Max Blecher, Sterling’s attorney, told, moments after the lawsuit was filed and the NBA announced the Ballmer deal.

The Monitor’s Harry Bruinus noted Friday that lawsuits could hamper momentum around the sale, leading to a situation where “a legal battle could drag on for months or longer.”

Aside from the drama of the taped audio recording and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s quick banishment of Donald Sterling from a league that has a long, proud history of racial integration, the situation has given new insights into the state of America’s sports teams.

For one, Mr. Silver’s blunt action to in essence lock Sterling out of his own arena stood in stark contrast to the usually careful deliberations between league commissioners and owners.

For another, the surprisingly high sale price suggests that wealthy Americans are ready and willing to pay top dollar to have “team owner” next to their name. The fact that the once-woeful Clippers, who play in the shadow of the Los Angeles Lakers, could fetch such a price also suggests that analysts now see growing potential, especially in big media markets like Los Angeles.

Mike Ozanian, a Forbes sports industry analyst, concluded that “sports teams are worth a lot more today than before Adam Silver said he would use that tape recording to force Sterling to sell. Big winners? Any team in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Boston.”

The events that unfolded Friday also hinted at behind-the-scenes machinations intended to hurry the sale.

In fact, the NBA in its announcement noted that “[Shelly] Sterling and the Trust also agreed not to sue the NBA and to indemnify the NBA against lawsuits … including from Donald Sterling.”

That indemnification, by extension of logic, means that Sterling is, in essence, suing himself. But that doesn’t mean that the lawsuit is toothless, since it could lead to depositions of league officials and other owners, Michael McCann, director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute, at the University of New Hampshire, notes in a tweet.

“So, the question comes down to this: Is Donald Sterling enough of a [scoundrel] to sue the NBA on principle and if so, will a judge allow him to play his games in the courtroom?” writes Tom Ziller, for SB Nation.

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