SILVER-STERN-STERLING: BEWARE OF SIMPLE STORY LINESMay 2nd, 2014
I watched the press conference at which Adam Silver threw not just the book but the entire multi-volume Encyclopedia Britannica at Donald Sterling with—wait for it—David Stern. By pure coincidence, we had a prescheduled interview on that day for the more pedestrian purpose of my writing his bio for the program book that accompanies his induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. When the events dovetailed, there I was.
My interest in keeping the date, of course, was that I might chronicle, among other things, the erstwhile commissioner’s reaction to the performance of Silver, whom he mentored in the NBA office for 22 years. Alas, it did not happen. Almost from the moment I walked into his new digs (close to the NBA’s New York offices), Stern made it clear that he was not going to talk about Sterling or Silver.
(Sterling-silver—some cosmic force had to be at work to make that happen.)
Now, a few words about the unwritten rules of journalism here.
–It was Stern’s right to embargo whatever he wanted to. We were talking in his office. He was not standing behind a podium as the commissioner of the NBA, the post he held for 30 years before stepping down in February. The interview had NOT been scheduled to talk about the events of Tuesday, April 29. Stern did not pull a bait-and-switch on me.
–On the other hand, it was my duty as a journalist to be an utter pain in the ass and try to get him to go on the record. Trust me, I did that. We exchanged a few testy words at the end of the afternoon as a result of my pestering.
My argument to Stern that he should go on the record—beyond the fact that, self-interestedly, it would’ve been a richly detailed story, not spectacular but certainly revelatory—was that he was, is and shall continue to be a major part in the evolving narrative surrounding the 80-year-old creep who has owned the Clippers for three decades. To wit:
Why did the NBA not go after Sterling all those years when on at least two previous occasions the owner’s racism had been the subject of legal challenges, not to mention whatever anecdotal evidence might have become available along the way?
But the Commissioner Emeritus (that’s how his new business card reads) wouldn’t talk. It’s not clear whether he wanted April 29 to belong to Silver, or whether he is reckoning that he will one day face questions from a more serious-minded person than myself–i.e. a Sterling lawyer–and didn’t want to risk saying anything that could be later held against him. I’m guessing it was a touch of the former but mostly the latter.
In some quarters, however, the verdict on Stern is in and without nuance: Guilty. He protected Sterling, and now, under Silver, we are entering a new era of tolerance and transparency in the NBA.
That is utterly and absolutely simplistic. In the entirety of Sterling’s career of reprehensible personal behavior—never mind that he was a lousy, skinflint owner—the audio tape is the first time that the NBA has had a smoking gun. (By the way, it is not, as some have written, a “literal smoking gun,” because that would mean that we have a gun that was, you know, smoking.) It doesn’t matter whether Sterling was set up or whether his mask-wearing girlfriend was acting illegally—the NBA now has its evidence, and it came to light on Silver’s watch, not Stern’s.
(Side question: Did Vanessa Stiviano make Sterling wear that solar shield when they were in bed together?)
Stern’s entire career has been fraught with conflicts between personal belief and stewardship of a capitalistic enterprise. After all, he’s a private-life liberal who makes business deals with a Chinese government that restricts its citizens’ freedoms, and he’s a First Amendment believer who has fined players, coaches and referees for expressing Constitutionally-protected speech. I’ve talked with him about both of those issues. He is troubled by the latter not at all, and, by the former, much more. His answer is always some version of this: He has to separate his personal views from the actions necessary to enrich the health and welfare of the NBA, as he sees it.
Plus, Sterling is by no means the only wild card in this deck of NBA owners. In a recent piece in the Newark Star-Ledger, veteran NBA scribe Dave D’Alessandro wrote about it (http://tinyurl.com/l6mckuj), outlining the various enterprises in which NBA owners have made their millions and in some cases billions. They include subprime mortgages that proved damaging to the global economy, fracking, and contributions to groups that support anti-gay marriage initiatives. (Those owners are in order: Cleveland’s Dan Gilbert, Oklahoma City’s Clay Bennett, and Orlando’s Rich DeVos.)
As for D’Alessandro’s take on Mikhail Prokhorov, the owner of the Brooklyn Nets, I’ll let Dave’s words, which have not been minced, speak for themselves:
“He [the NBA commissioner] has a business partner in Brooklyn who is an oligarch, that special kind of patriot who uses political connections to grab billions in state-owned assets for micropennies on the dollar, leaving much of the population to starve in the feudal cesspool left behind.”
What does a commissioner investigate and what does he leave alone? What qualifies as reprehensible in his world? Should Sterling have been kicked to the curb after the salacious details of his private sexual life came to light in a deposition years ago? Or would that have been labeled a witch hunt? Where’s the line?
Building a consensus against industrialists who favor fracking would not happen in the NBA right now, whereas it would be a big deal in an environmental rights organization that was vetting its chief executive. If you had gotten burned with a mortgage that went underwater, you might identify Gilbert, not Sterling, as Enemy No. 1. A few years ago—nay, six months ago—DeVos’s well-known conservative Christian views might’ve been applauded. Now? Not as clear. The needle of tolerance is constantly moving.
But this much is certain: Sterling went to the very essence of reprehensibility in a league that has long prided itself on diversity, and then supplied audio proof to boot. He’s a dope and a dupe.
Regarding Silver’s actions, from this perspective it was not only the correct move it was the only possible move. I can’t prove this but, had Silver stopped anything short of dynamiting Sterling, he would’ve faced an epic crisis sometime over the next couple of weeks. Imagine a Sunday afternoon playoff game set for 3:30 tipoff, and at noon LeBron James informs the commissioner that the Miami Heat are not taking the court.
But, LeBron, you and your teammates are in violation of your contract so you MUST play.
Right …let’s see how that would’ve played out.
Sterling is in some respects a private businessman, but he is also a member of an “association,” a kind of private club, albeit one filled with mismatched toys. And as with any club, what one individual does or says affects the whole. When my friend Ron Czajkowski and I were talking about Sterling, Ron said, “It goes back to that boring seminar we took 45 years ago when we were college seniors. John Milton’s Areopagitica. Remember?”
Uh, actually, I didn’t, so I looked it up. In his spirited defense of free speech, Milton also emphasized that with freedom comes responsibility, the corollary being also true: With a lack of responsibility comes consequences. These questions aren’t new even though they seem to come up every week in our politically-polarized society. Sterling had every legal right to say what he did. But from the NBA’s perspective, it doesn’t matter. An association cannot abide including a member who holds hateful views about 80% of the work force. It just cannot happen.
Bringing Stern back into it: Should Sterling have been allowed to hang around for this long? Clearly, the league would’ve been better off without Sterling. One court case ended in Sterling’s favor and another ended in settlement, always the legal refuge of the filthy rich. (Rarely has that term been put to be better use than with Sterling.) I don’t know if the NBA went beyond the legal findings to investigate Sterling and couldn’t find enough ammo. But even with the audio proof, there are many who believe that Sterling should not have been forced to sell, many who hold the opinion that he is being railroaded. That group includes liberals and African-Americans who personally despise him.
Obviously, I can’t say with absolute certainty that Stern would’ve taken the same maximum measures as Silver did. But I cannot conceive of a scenario under which Stern, presented with this bottom-line damning audio evidence, would not have also blown up this buffoon, collected a quick conseusus from the owners and then handed them the ball to force Sterling to sell.
But the credit belongs to Silver, and, for someone perceived as needing to step out from Stern’s shadow, he made a dramatic move into the sunlight.