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Z_CNHI News Service

May 22, 2014

New NBA commissioner gets impressive first win

This unfolding Donald Sterling saga and his mission to retain ownership of his NBA team has been like watching a horrible movie. You so much want it to end. You also wonder if it would be better to simply get up and walk away.

A few weeks ago, Sterling was mostly unknown outside Los Angeles, where he'd built a real estate empire that made him a wealthy man. He also was the owner of the L.A. Clippers, that other professional basketball franchise in Los Angeles that doesn't field many winning teams and attracts more ridicule than fans.

At one time, in 2000, things got so bad for the Clippers that Sports Illustrated selected them as “the worst franchise in sports history.”

Then things got worse.

That happened April 25 when TMZ, a website that specializes in sensational stories, released a recording in which Sterling can supposedly be heard chastising a close friend, V. Stiviano, for bringing  African-Americans with her to Clippers games. When confirmed that it was, indeed, the voice of the 80-year-old Sterling on the recording, a media firestorm ensued. It hasn’t died down.

This was more than a public relations nightmare for Sterling and his team, one composed mostly of African-American players. It was a potential disaster for the NBA and its fast-paced game, which was  enjoying newfound attention around the world.

The question of what to do fell to Adam Silver, the NBA’s new commissioner. If Sterling’s dim-witted actions allowed himself to be cast in such a destructive way, Silver has ensured the NBA’s image should be spared further damage.

The new commissioner launched a process that, in all likelihood, will lead to Sterling’s termination as owner of the team, which he acquired in 1981.

Silver faced at least two critical questions in responding to the crisis: What were his legal options and limitations? And would the other NBA owners support his decision?

Since he had only taken over as commissioner last summer, he'd yet to build much political capital, although he clearly enjoyed the respect and confidence of the league's owners.

Above all, Silver needed a plan to protect the NBA's business. He further had to demonstrate to the public and the league’s stars that the NBA was not another billionaire boys club. Finally, he had to move quickly to minimize any leverage that Sterling had.

In one way, the timing couldn’t have been worse for Silver. The NBA playoffs were underway, and interest was at its high-water point.

Those who know Silver say he is studious, articulate, direct and, most importantly, fair. And while Sterling has spent the past several weeks stumbling through interviews that only made things worse for him and left no doubt about his racist views, Silver made his case and implemented a course of action that amounted to Sterling’s public firing.

Listen to the force and conviction of Silver’s words - a declaration that he was hired not only to run a league, but to do so in a way that’s just and right:

“I am personally distraught that the views expressed by Mr. Sterling came from within an institution that has historically taken such a leadership role in matters of race relations and caused current and former players, coaches, fans and partners of the NBA to question their very association with the league. To them and pioneers of the game - like Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper, Sweetwater Clifton, the great Bill Russell, and particularly Magic Johnson - I apologize. Accordingly, effective immediately, I am banning Mr. Sterling for life.”

No doubt legal battles will drag out. But Sterling’s  ownership of the Clippers is dead.

This didn’t happen because of a natural disaster or economic calamity. It was the result of one person’s arrogance.

Thankfully, Adam Silver could step in and start a process to correct a terrible wrong. What a way to start a new job.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

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