NBA people polled in the last week expect Donald Sterling will fight his fellow owners over his forced ouster and pending sale of the Clippers for two reasons. One: Sterling doesn't sell anything in his business life. Two: He's an eccentric 81-year-old with nothing to lose.
Really, his public image and reputation, even before the voice recordings that shook the NBA, was battered, so there's nothing to protect or salvage. Everytime he opens his mouth, he just digs himself deeper, as his recent interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper revealed. He's already barred for life by commissioner Adam Silver, no matter what, so he'll no longer enjoy the perks of ownership. Why run a sports team when you can't mingle with the beautiful people or strut around the arena or be asked to speak at civic functions? Ordinarily in this situation, a reasonable person would simply cut his losses, cash in and move on. Repeat: A reasonable person. That has never applied to Sterling, who spends his time discussing upcoming strategy with attorneys.
Those who've dealt with him say he's hopelessly detached from the norms of society, lives inside his own luxurious and strange bubble, often surrounds himself with questionable characters (sugar daddy motivated young women who prey on his wealth) and still believes, to this day, that the B-list Hollywood crowd that sits courtside and often shows up at his Malibu parties adores him. Not only that, but Sterling seems to believe that his fellow owners and even the NBA commissioner secretly love him, which is why the decision to ban him for life must have been "hard." Seriously:
When you're worth almost $2 billion and own a team that could fetch another $1 billion on the open market in a bidding war, you can afford to live with these delusions and behave the way you want, for the most part, because money can do that for you.
But Sterling's money can't bail him out any longer when it comes to controlling what happens to the Clippers. Silver and the other NBA owners thought out this entire process thoroughly before taking action against him. NBA bylaws, which he agreed to in writing, state the league can seize control of the club provided three-fourths of NBA owners vote approvingly, and no court of law or judge will reverse that. All Sterling can do is delay the process through anti-trust lawsuits that ultimately will be tossed. That's his only recourse: Stretch this out for weeks if not months, become a pain in the ass to the league and therefore put the Clippers' sale on hold.
The sale is coming, though. The NBA appointed Richard Parsons, the former Time Warner honcho, to bring order to the day-to-day business of the Clippers and ousted Andy Roeser, Sterling's long-time right hand man and apologist. Coach Doc Rivers is handling all basketball-related matters. The imagery is telling; it's not a total coincidence the most powerful people now in the organization are two very respected and accomplished black men, the type Sterling didn't want his "lady friend" bringing to the game. The league knows the rules of the PR game and is playing it flawlessly.
When the sale comes, Shelley Sterling won't be a part of it. The NBA is being careful and courteous and sympathetic to a degree with regard to Sterling's estranged wife, but there are no plans to shift control of the Clippers to her. While she's listed as a co-owner, she never had a seat at the Board of Governors, the voting body of the league. She has the same internal clout as Jay-Z when he owned a fraction of the Nets, which is to say, zero. Anyway, she would need two-thirds approval of NBA owners to gain control of the Clippers and there's no chance of that happening. The league wants to wash its hands of the Sterlings completely to erase any appearance of Donald Sterling somehow lurking as a shadow in the background or profiting indirectly.
So, if the Clippers aren't staying within the family, then to whom are they going?
That's the billion-dollar question. The auction of the franchise will be the most-watched in NBA history. The Clippers are financially healthy and they're championship contenders with marketable stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, both in their prime, locked into long-term deals. They also play in Los Angeles, which is one thing Sterling got right in 33 years of ownership; he sued when the league tried to force him to keep the team in San Diego, where the Clippers were originally based. Finally, the NBA will negotiate a national TV deal in two years that will break league records for revenue. Those reasons are why the Clippers, once a slapstick franchise, could top $1 billion if enough billionaires bring their money and egos to the table.
Feel free to tune out any trendy buyers you hear about, the Floyd Mayweathers of the world looking to cash in, so to speak, on the attention. Any potential buyer of the Clippers better be high enough on the Forbes list to spell "Bill Gates" without an eye chart. There's always the chance a mystery fat-cat could swoop and create room at the bargaining table. Until then, here are the five most logical and anticipated prospective buyers:
Magic Johnson and the Guggenheim Group
Magic is clearly the leader in the clubhouse for so many logical reasons. He's tight with Silver, the owners feel indebted to him because as a player he helped franchise values soar, he's a successful businessman who'd give the NBA another black owner, and he's of course a legend in Los Angeles. It just makes so much sense. It would also be quite a coincidence to see the Clippers fall into the hands of the man who was slighted by Sterling in the very incident that caused all of this to happen. It would be the league's last and final poke into the eye of Sterling, who spewed bile directed at Johnson in the CNN interview that aired on Monday, saying, "Well, what kind of a guy goes to every city, has sex with every girl, then he catches HIV? Is that someone we want to respect and tell our kids about? I think he should be ashamed of himself."
Obviously, Magic would be more of a front man than a full financial backer, as he is with the Dodgers; his wallet isn't that swollen. The Guggenheim Group is flush with cash, though. Not only did the group pay a record price for the Dodgers, it spent another fortune to keep key players such as Clayton Kershaw. No doubt, that impressed NBA owners. Money always does.
Even if another buyer offers more for the Clippers, NBA owners have final say, and price won't necessarily be the end-all. Case in point: Billionaire Larry Ellison offered more for the Warriors and was turned down in favor of Peter Guber and Joe Lacob because Lacob was a part-owner of the Celtics and had political clout within the league. So that's also in Magic's favor, and the perception is the Clippers is Guggenheim's to lose.
Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong
The soft-spoken 61-year-old who's worth $7 billion -- reportedly the richest man in Los Angeles -- is a die-hard basketball fan and occasional player in weekend pickup games. He purchased Magic's five percent share of the Lakers two years ago and is one of the few individuals in the country who's both willing and able to own a team outright. He made his fortune by being on the front line of cancer treatments and multiplied that fortune through business deals.
He'd also satisfy the league's desire to bring diversity to ownership. He was born to Chinese immigrants in apartheid South Africa, and his wealth is self-made. With the NBA doing plenty of business in China and throughout Asia, he'd be a major addition in that regard. Shy with the media, Soon-Shiong hasn't thrown his wallet into the ring, like others. But the chance to own a basketball team in L.A. -- he has no shot at owning the Lakers anytime soon, if ever -- could prove irresistible. And if the Guggenheim Group decides to wait for the NFL, Soon-Shiong could team with an old friend to make it happen: Magic.
The music mogul tried to buy the Clippers at least once before and was rejected by Sterling (no surprise). He has again publicly stated his desire to own the club and could team up with any number of Hollywood heavyweights: Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, etc., etc. The combined worth of the team Geffen could assemble would outweigh most if not all others.
Owning the Clippers would allow Geffen to link sports with his extensive entertainment portfolio and would make him a bigger player in an industry town. His biggest problem? He has no direct connection to the NBA. And with so many rich people wanting to buy in, connections could be the difference maker.
He'd be in charge of an NBA team right now if the Kings had moved to Seattle. The league already checked him out and approves of him, so Ballmer has that going for him. The former Microsoft exec wants to own a sports team, not necessarily to follow the footsteps of his mentor, Blazers owner Paul Allen.
But of course, the Clippers aren't moving to Seattle. At least not in the foreseeable future. That's not to say Ballmer wouldn't agree to keep the team in L.A., but he could tug at the sympathetic heartstrings of NBA owners who might feel a tinge of guilt in torpedoing the "Seattle Kings." He's a major player with the financial clout and NBA thumbs-up.
The software king is one of the world's wealthiest men ($35 billion, give or take) and with the stroke of a pen could force the NBA's hand. By offering top dollar or overpaying for the Clippers, Ellison could inflate the value of every NBA franchise, even those on the bottom of the ladder. How much do you suppose the Bobcats, for example, would go for if Michael Jordan, who bought them for $275 million, ever decided to sell? Half as much as the Clippers, at the very least? No doubt.
An interesting hoops story circulated last week about Ellison: He has a basketball court on one of his yachts, and whenever a stray shot falls into the ocean, Ellison has employed someone in a speed boat to retrieve the balls. Ellison could afford to buy the entire Western Conference. But even though his company's name (Oracle) is on the building where the Warriors play, the NBA turned down Ellison before. Some owners are leery because Ellison is somewhat of an eccentric, though not, to anyone's knowledge, in Sterling's category.
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Silver and a committee of owners will move quickly on this. If the commissioner had his way, the Clippers would change hands in mid-summer, after the NBA Finals (the league doesn't want that disruption) and well before next season tips off. Approving a new owner is usually done at the annual Board of Governors meeting in the spring but, as always, the league can call an emergency meeting at any time.
The NBA's goal is to settle this before any damage can be inflicted upon the league by players, who threatened to stage a boycott had Silver not brought the hammer down on Sterling (as if Silver had another option). Once Sterling is finally eradicated and a new owner is in place, the league can move beyond the PR damage caused by its longest tenured and most ridiculed owner.
If Sterling's next move is to make his lawyers rich, then the NBA can only hope the price of humiliation from a drawn-out process doesn't approach the price of the Clippers.