NEW YORK — NBA Commissioner Adam Silver delivered the swiftest, strongest penalty he could, then called on NBA owners to force Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling to sell the team for making racist comments that hurt the league.
Almost unanimously, owners supported the commissioner Tuesday as he handed down one of the harshest penalties in the history of U.S. sports.
“We stand together in condemning Mr. Sterling’s views. They simply have no place in the NBA,” Silver said at a news conference.
Sterling, 80, is banned for life from any association with the league or the Clippers, and was fined $2.5 million — the maximum allowable under the NBA constitution. If three-fourths of the other 29 owners agree to Silver’s recommendation, Sterling will be forced to sell the team he has owned since 1981.
A message left seeking comment at Sterling’s business office hadn’t been returned Tuesday afternoon. Team spokesman Seth Burton said in an email that the Clippers had no plans to issue a statement from Sterling on Tuesday, but the franchise released a statement “wholeheartedly” supporting Silver’s decision.
After the announcement, the Clippers’ website featured only a simple message: “We are one.” The mantra was repeated by the team’s public-address announcers and chanted by their fans several times during their playoff game Tuesday night, a cathartic 113-103 victory over the Golden State Warriors.
Players and civil rights leaders alike cheered Silver’s quick action. Players’ union officials said that if the league’s punishment hadn’t included a mandate for Sterling to sell the team, players were considering boycotting playoff games, including Tuesday’s matchup with Golden State in the team’s first home game since the scandal erupted.
“We wanted to be a part of this decision, and we wanted Adam Silver to know where we stood. And we were very clear that anything other than Sterling selling his team was not going to be enough for us,” said Roger Mason Jr., the first vice president of the players’ union.
The Clippers received raucous cheers when they took the court for warmups before Game 5. Two days earlier, they dumped their team warmup jerseys in a pile at center court in Oakland in a gesture of defiance against their owner before losing Game 4 of the series.
Chris Paul, the Clippers’ All-Star point guard and the president of the players’ union, issued a brief statement before leading Los Angeles against the Warriors.
“In response to today’s ruling by the NBA and Commissioner Adam Silver, my teammates and I are in agreement with his decision,” Paul said. “We appreciate the strong leadership from Commissioner Silver and he has our full support.”
Paul then had 20 points, seven assists and six rebounds as the Clippers won Game 5 and moved within one victory of just the franchise’s third playoff series victory since Sterling bought the team nearly 33 years ago.
Sterling’s comments — which were recorded by his girlfriend and released by TMZ on Saturday — harmed the league, Silver said. Sponsors were threatening to abandon the NBA, and criticism was coming from fans on social media and even the White House.
Sterling criticized V. Stiviano — purportedly the female voice on the recording — for posting pictures of herself with black athletes Magic Johnson and Matt Kemp.
“It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?” Sterling asks the woman on the recording.
“Sentiments of this kind are contrary to the principles of inclusion and respect that form the foundation of our diverse, multicultural and multiethnic league,” Silver said.
The NBA’s longest-tenured owner keeps his team for now — and Silver said he didn’t know if Sterling would fight to do so permanently.
But he can’t attend games or practices, can’t be involved in any personnel decisions or participate in board of governors meetings.
Just three days after the scandal broke, and hours before the Clippers hosted their biggest game of the season, Silver apologized to some of the league’s black pioneers while meting out a punishment he believed would satisfy outraged players and fans.
Sterling’s Clippers have been one of the most incompetent franchises in pro sports, and nearly all of their previous seasons would have been finished by now. But after the most successful two-year stretch in Clippers history, the current team is a title contender led by Doc Rivers, a black coach whom Sterling brought in from Boston and paid $7 million a year.
“(Silver) made the decision that really was the right one that had to be made,” Rivers said before the Clippers’ game. “I don’t think this is something that we rejoice in or anything like that. I told the players about the decision, and I think they were just happy there was a resolution and that it’s over, at least the start of it. I think we’re all in a better place because of this.”
Silver said the ban applied only to Sterling, and there had been no discussions about whether he could sell to a family member. Sterling’s estranged wife, Rochelle, has been closely involved with the franchise for years.
Many owners supported Silver, and none of them publicly defended Sterling.
“We applaud the firm punishment handed out today by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and appreciate the swiftness with which the NBA conducted its investigation,” Warriors co-owner Joe Lacob said in a statement.
The fine will be donated to organizations dedicated to anti-discrimination and tolerance efforts, Silver said.
Sterling, with an estimated net worth of about $2 billion, did not comment, though Silver said he did not apologize for his remarks. Silver said Sterling confirmed that he was the person on the recording.
Silver hasn’t even been on the job three months and already had to face a crisis that threatened the league not only financially — with several companies ending or suspending their sponsorships of the Clippers. Staples Center carried almost no advertising Tuesday night, with most sponsorship signage either removed or covered.
The scandal affected the NBA even more on a social level. The league survived the Indiana Pacers’ brawl with Detroit Pistons fans, and referee Tim Donaghy betting on games he officiated. But this brought a different level of outrage, particularly because the league could have done something sooner about Sterling, who has faced federal charges of civil rights violations and racial discrimination in his business dealings.
“This has all happened in three days, and so I am hopeful there will be no long-term damage to the league and to the Clippers organization,” Silver said. “But as I said earlier, I’m outraged so I certainly understand other people’s outrage.”
Rivers canceled practice Monday and declined a meeting request from Sterling. He wouldn’t address whether he would return next season if Sterling were still in control, a stance reaffirmed by the coach before Game 5 of the Clippers’ playoff series with Golden State.
That might not be an issue if the owners vote to oust the owner.
Sterling is estranged from his wife and had been dating Stiviano, 31. In court documents, Stiviano describes him as a man “with a big toothy grin brandishing his sexual prowess in the faces of the Paparazzi and caring less what anyone else thought, the least of which, his own wife.”
Silver said when he first heard the audio, he hoped it had been altered or was fake, but thought it was Sterling. And it doesn’t matter if Sterling didn’t realize he was being recorded, Silver said.
“Whether or not these remarks were initially shared in private, they’re now public, and they represent his views.”