PORTLAND — The long, tense NBA day ended with the Portland Trail Blazers reminding the Los Angeles Clippers that they are not alone. The Blazers dumped their warmup shirts at midcourt, same as the Clippers had done in protest eight hours earlier. They wore black socks, same as the Clippers.
The statement was as powerful as it was silent.
“We needed to show we’re unified,” said Blazers veteran point guard Earl Watson, a former Sonics player.
The day was as dark as those socks. A riveting quartet of Sunday playoff games had been obstructed by an ugly and complex controversy. On Saturday, TMZ released audio of a racist rant that is believed to be the voice of Clippers owner Donald Sterling. The recording includes the man berating a woman for “associating with black people” and telling her “not to bring them to my games.”
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For Sterling, it’s just the latest in a 30-year trail of bigotry.
For the NBA, which has mostly ignored Sterling’s behavior, even when he paid $3 million to settle a nasty rental-housing discrimination lawsuit in 2009, it’s a problem that can’t be shoved under a rug any longer.
If the league can verify Sterling’s voice on the recording, there shouldn’t be a thoughtful soul in America defending him. It’s not radical to demand a crippling suspension and fine, or even banishment from the NBA. It’s quite complicated to strip an owner in this manner, but new NBA commissioner Adam Silver — and the other 29 owners that he represents — must take a strong stand against racism.
It’s not just about appeasing the public. It’s not just about eliminating a longtime blight of the NBA. It’s about respecting the players who make the product so lucrative.
For once, athletes in a team sport are taking a hard line on a social issue. In modern-day America, this is rare. And for many African-Americans, who remember athletes such as Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell and Jim Brown being brave enough to use their celebrity to combat injustice, this is a source of frustration. There aren’t many revolutionary mouths anymore. Athletes are too corporate, too fearful, too seemingly unconcerned.
Not this time, though. Magic Johnson, who was discussed on the alleged Sterling audio, ripped Sterling.
LeBron James, the superstar of all current NBA superstars, a human corporation, said “there is no room for Donald Sterling in the NBA.” Then he explained eloquently why Silver must boot Sterling from the league.
“Obviously, if the reports are true, it’s unacceptable in our league,” James said. “It doesn’t matter, white, black or Hispanic — all across the races it’s unacceptable. As the commissioner of our league, they have to make a stand. They have to be very aggressive with it. I don’t know what it will be, but we can’t have that in our league.
“We’re the model citizen of all sports around the world because we are the most recognizable figures. … It’s very disrespectful, and it’s appalling.”
Seventy-eight percent of NBA players are African-American. They can’t sit silent, not when Sterling is making a mockery of the league. Beyond this incident and the housing discrimination settlement, NBA legend and former Clippers executive Elgin Baylor sued Sterling and others in February 2009 for wrongful termination and discrimination on the basis of age and race. Sterling won that case in March 2011 after Baylor dropped the race accusation.
But in his original lawsuit, Baylor likened the Clippers organization to “a Southern plantation-type structure.” He recalled a negotiation with former NBA star Danny Manning in which Sterling told Manning’s agent, “I’m offering you a lot of money for a poor black kid.” He also cited complaints from players that Sterling would bring women into the locker room and say things like, “Look at those beautiful black bodies.”
It seems Sterling, a terrible and notoriously cheap (by NBA standards) owner, doesn’t like owning an NBA team as much as he likes owning black players. His tenure reeks of covert, high-priced slavery.
On Sunday, the protest stretched from Oakland, where the Clippers lost Game 4 to Golden State, to Portland, where a young team was too concerned to stay out of it.
Silver attended the game in Oakland and then made his way to Portland. He knows his players are disgusted. He met with Kevin Johnson, the former NBA star and current Sacramento mayor, who is advising the players union, and he said the players want both a quick resolution and the harshest penalty possible if the Sterling audio is verified.
Even Michael Jordan, who never met a controversy he couldn’t shy away from, is demanding justice. Jordan has long stayed out of political issues, famously saying once, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” But this time, he is “completely outraged” and demanding that the NBA “must not tolerate discrimination at any level.”.
Before their game, the Clippers reportedly huddled outside of the locker room and shouted, “It’s just us, only us, we’re all we got.”
You can understand why they reacted that way, but it’s not true. They have all of the league’s players on their side. They have the entire, tolerant NBA on their side. And they have a compassionate society on their side.
The warmup shirts are at midcourt. The black socks are on. Competitors are unified.
If Sterling has any sense, he’ll just disappear.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @JerryBrewer