Adam Silver was seething.
It’s not often you can feel such an emotion through a television, especially without the help of an actor and director, but the NBA commissioner’s emotions were that raw Tuesday. He was that angry. As he stood at a podium in New York and detailed the unprecedented punishment for Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, his words were strong and restrained. He was stern. Not David Stern, his predecessor, who was too soft on Sterling and mostly ignored the owner’s racist antics for three decades. Silver was true stern, the epitome of stern, right down to the intimidating pauses between each authoritative word.
Effective immediately, I am banning Mr. Sterling for life from any association with the Clippers or the NBA.
I am also fining Mr. Sterling $2.5 million, the maximum amount allowed under the NBA constitution.
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As for Mr. Sterling’s ownership interest in the Clippers, I will urge the Board of Governors to exercise its authority to force a sale of the team and will do everything in my power to ensure that that happens.
Sterling is now what he deserves to be — an NBA pariah.
On just his 88th day on the job, Silver made history and announced himself as a leader to admire, fear and respect.
The respect is even greater when you consider that Silver’s punishment might lead to a litigious scuffle between Sterling and the league. Sterling should walk away with his head down and take the $600 million-plus he’ll get for selling the Clippers, but that has never been his style. He’s a fungus that likely will be difficult to kill. This could be the first counterpunch in a major fight. But Silver ignored the unknown and did the right thing anyway.
He couldn’t just take on Sterling. He had to take him down. After TMZ released a disgusting private recording of Sterling spewing racist remarks during an argument with a woman, Silver had to make a complicated matter simple. After the audio merely brought back into focus that the NBA had allowed Sterling’s racist and sexist behavior for years, Silver couldn’t come across as soft. He had to protect a diverse league, and he had to respect the African-Americans who make up 78 percent of the NBA.
While a scornful nation waited to pounce on any perception of cowardice, the commissioner exhibited leadership that can heal a fractured and ailing league.
“We stand together in condemning Mr. Sterling’s views,” Silver said. “They simply have no place in the NBA.”
Eldridge Recasner cried while watching the news conference. The former University of Washington star, a Pac-12 Hall of Honor member who played in the NBA from 1994-2002, played for the Clippers in his final NBA season.
African-Americans are conditioned to be cynical about racial justice. Sometimes, it’s paranoia. Most times, we’re protecting ourselves from a history of disappointment and dismay. We expect the worst. And we expect powerful white men such as Sterling to receive leniency.
Recasner cried because he was happy, and he cried because, for a change, the skeptic in him was wrong.
“For the first time, the league came to its senses and realized the product — the game that such a high percentage of African-Americans are playing at a high level — is driving all these profits. The league listened to us and recognized that we’re not just a bunch of dumb jocks.”
Recasner is on the board of directors of the National Basketball Retired Players Association. The retired veterans joined the current players in making sure Silver heard their voices. Former star Kevin Johnson, now the Sacramento mayor, assisted NBA players in this situation and met with Silver, applying pressure to give Sterling the maximum allowable punishment.
Silver listened. He saw the Clippers players protest by dumping their warm-up tops at midcourt Sunday, turning their red shooting shirts inside-out and wearing black accessories during the game. He saw players from other teams support them. And then he proved how much he cares more about the league’s integrity. A pro sports commissioner’s job is strange in that way. He works for the owners, but he’s responsible for the entire league.
Too often, when loyalty is tested, a commissioner shows himself to be nothing more than an owners’ puppet. So the statement Silver made Tuesday had multiple layers.
“I’ve never felt this proud about being a part of the NBA family,” Recasner said. “This was an historic day. Adam Silver couldn’t ignore it. Donald Sterling didn’t just make racist comments. He completely singled out one of the most beloved guys in NBA history, Magic Johnson. Silver had to come with a swift and powerful action.
“Pro athletes, we start thinking, ‘They pay you millions, make you famous, and the hell with anything else you need. That’s enough.’ This was a different outcome. We went against a big, bad billionaire and, we’re winning.”
Notice he didn’t say “won.” The fight isn’t over until the NBA officially yanks the Clippers out of Sterling’s hands. And that’s a complex chore with repercussions and potential precedents far greater than just booting a racist. But when faced with a defining task less than three months into his tenure, Silver became the NBA’s undisputed leader.
He cut through the red tape of legalese and owners’ rights and potential ligitation, and he took a stand against bigotry.
The door is going to slam shut, Donald Sterling.
And the NBA, Silver’s NBA, doesn’t care whether your face is in the way.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277
On Twitter @JerryBrewer