As human beings, we derive meanings from patterns, we base our lives and our thoughts and our plans on these patterns. The more reliable the pattern is, the more salient it becomes in the constant formation of our lives. It can be something as large and foundational of belief like religion or the sun coming up. Or it can apply to something simple, like the expectations of the performance of a sports team. Again, the more predictable, the better. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Clipper fan or not (we’re not arguing over something as amorphous and childish as a Clipper Curse), everyone would agree that Donald Sterling is a terrible owner.
There have been some exceptions to his cheapness, Baron Davis’ contract is much too large, Kaman’s probably is as well. Elton Brand was even offered a handsome sum of money. Dunleavy was extended. Their new practice facility in West LA is beautiful. Much of this due to the singular success of the 2006 season. But none of it has led to good play and, once again, the Clippers have the 4th lowest payroll in the league. While the rudiments of a good basketball team exist for this year’s Clippers, everyone knows that Sterling is primarily out to make a profit. Good players leave, he shares the building with the big brother Lakers and he advertises to and fills the building mostly with displaced fans looking not to watch the Clippers but their hometown teams.
So it should come as no surprise that the legal proceedings in both the Dunleavy and Baylor lawsuits focus on Sterling’s reticence for spending. From J.A. Adande’s article:
Dunleavy said that Clippers owner Donald Sterling “always told me to give him a great player and he’d pay for him, but there were several players I wanted to sign and we didn’t because Sterling refused to spend the money. The Clippers’ biggest concern was making a profit.”
I knew this. You knew this. It’s the reason that after this summer ended, so many fans felt duped because that huge allotment of cap space wasn’t spent on big time free agents, it wasn’t even completely spent. While I’m glad we didn’t overspend on Joe Johnson or Rudy Gay, that attempt to “lure” LeBron was, at best, half-assed. It was a terrible example of flash over substance. That honorable meeting with LeBron, was their time to actually show their flair, and yet, they only managed a pathetically “we’re not worthy” pitch. The Clippers weren’t worthy. Donald Sterling isn’t worthy, he doesn’t even know respect.
There is a part of me that understands the financial hardline approach, because the NBA is a business and the economy is mired in the worst funk in most of our lifetimes. You hear it all the time. Carmelo wants a trade, “it’s a business.” LeBron wants to move to Miami, “it’s a business.” Friendly Coach X was fired, “it’s a business.” Jon Scheyer/Stephen Dennis/Marqus Blakely were cut, “it’s a business.” Sometimes it’s just an excuse, but there is a lot of truth to it. Businesses rely upon profit. The luxury of chasing championships can amass quite a debt. No profit, no growth. But the lack of respect and the racist overtones? I can’t abide and neither should David Stern. Although, it’s unlikely that will happen.
Even though he’s spent the last decades selling basketball as an international sport, improving it’s image, testing the markets, look at what David Stern is currently embroiled in: he has to worry about the Collective Bargaining Agreement in June and the potential lockout. Why? Because teams are failing, overspending on middling players. But do you blame the players for taking that money? No, you would, too. Everyone wants to be paid as much as possible. More than simply affording a better lifestyle and support for your family, it is a sign of respect, supremely so in the NBA and the United States. But the ridiculous spending, that’s the owners’ fault, the teams’ managements’ fault. It’s so bad that the owners will try and restructure the agreement to curtail their own spending. If only they could spend wisely.
The good news for Stern is that he doesn’t have to worry about that with the Clippers. Sterling won’t overspend and year after year the turnstiles at the Clippers games whir and spin, more than supporting the team’s presence in Los Angeles. The Clips aren’t going under any time soon. Like all of us, David Stern is human, too, and he gets to base his predictions on that perennial fact: the Clippers will be solidly in the black. He may have to worry about the New Orleans Hornets, or the Grizzlies. Despite longstanding fan adoration, he may “have to” wrench a surviving SuperSonics team out of a city where they weren’t making the same money they could in Oklahoma City. Because when it comes down to it, the NBA is a business where money doesn’t equal respect and respect doesn’t equal money, only money equals money. And the Clippers make plenty of it.
Economic concerns aside, Stern also understands the meaning of perceptions, and how positive perceptions of a company foment public trust and a brighter company fiscal future. Why do you think there have been all those NBA Cares ads? Why do you think that Stern changed the dress code, severely restricted fighting and has been drastically penalizing players for whining? It’s because positive perception is the conduit for that bright and shiny future where the owners have stuffed pockets.
“Because of the Clippers unwillingness to fairly compensate African-American players we lost a lot of good talent, including Danny Manning, Charles Smith, Michael Cage, Ron Harper, Dominique Wilkins, [Corey] Maggette and others,” Baylor said.
Baylor, who describes himself as “an African-American male over the age of 40” in the declaration (the NBA Register lists his date of birth as Sept. 16, 1934), said that Sterling and Clippers president Andy Roeser made references to his age for the last 10 years of his employment and questioned his ability to still do his job.
When Baylor was initially fired, I didn’t flinch. Frankly, I thought it was a long time coming. Failed draft picks, lack of player development, losing season after losing season, Baylor was lucky that he was around as long as he was. Dunleavy said:
“The entire time that I worked for the Clippers, I never saw any change in Elgin’s ability to perform his duties, or that his age had any adverse impact on the performance of his duties and responsibilities as general manager.”
But that doesn’t mean he should have stuck around, he was mediocre to start, and mediocre at the end. He must have had his hands full with free agency, I don’t doubt that Sterling is a major drawback to luring any free agent, but the draft didn’t help Elgin much either. There was Lamar and the dream of Shaun Livingston and his healthy knees, but not much else. Tyson Chandler hasn’t played like a second overall pick, Olowokandi definitely was an abominable first pick. But that doesn’t mean that his claims of racism in the workplace aren’t correct.
Baylor, who worked for the Clippers as an executive from 1986 to 2008, said he received only one raise in his final 16 years. He was most upset that after the team reached the second round of the playoffs in 2006 he did not receive a pay raise, while Dunleavy received a contract extension and Roeser was promoted.
Not many would call Dunleavy a great coach and Roeser has seen just as much losing as Baylor, yet Baylor doesn’t get a raise? Nothing? Beyond the money, it’s a clear lack of respect. But it gets even worse, check out what else Baylor said about Sterling:
“While ignoring my suggestions and isolating me from decisions customarily reserved for general managers, the Clippers attempted to place the blame for the team’s failures on me,” Baylor said in the declaration. “During this same period, players Sam Cassell, Elton Brand and Corey Maggette complained to me that DONALD STERLING would bring women into the locker room after games, while the players were showering, and make comments such as, ‘Look at those beautiful black bodies.’ I brought this to Sterling’s attention, but he continued to bring women into the locker room.”
Having been in a locker room, I can attest that there is a natural racial tension, an awkward undertone to the interaction between the players and the reporters. On the one side of the locker room, you have the tired, sweaty, half-naked players, the majority of which are African-American. On the other side of the room, the reporters, they are well dressed, cleaned up and predominantly white. In the back of the room there is a door to the showers. But because it’s part of the entertainment of basketball, many are respectful, say thanks afterwards, wish them luck. Some quietly leave, and that’s it’s own sort of respect, I guess, but no one revels in it. Except for Donald, apparently.
The blatant disrespect ballasts the argument that Sterling wouldn’t sign African-American players because he saw the salaries as exorbitant. Under this circumstance, what he failed to realize that it wasn’t about the money so much as the recognition amongst the players peers. There is hardly anything more clear about respect than the money an athlete is paid.
That may sound vile to base respect on the type of money pro basketball players earn, particularly to fans who are unemployed in this market or making minimum wage or even if they’re making six figures working their butts off. But think about it in a more localized context. What job do you do? Would it frustrate you if someone in your company was paid more than you even though you did a better job? Would you want to work for an employer that consistently paid poorly, treated you poorly and put out a bad product? Exactly.
Sterling can’t see this though. Or worse, if he does see it then he refuses to give the players the respect, condescending to boss them around because of who he is and what he has done. And that’s awful, worthy of Stern at least forming a public stance. But then again, for those guys, money is money and it talks. As long as it’s earned, money is going to keep them out of trouble. But after a while, antics like Sterling’s will add up and corrode not just the perception of the Clippers (it’s already done that, try to explain to anyone legitimate Clipper fandom, and that’s with Blake Griffin), but the NBA.
Defending Sterling’s cheapness is banal, unworthy of attention, but his racist side, and bringing it to the forefront is downright problematic. The league seems to have taken the stance that ignoring it is best, that it’s outside of the basketball arena, so it doesn’t concern them. But Sterling doesn’t exist in a basketball vacuum, his transgressions in the real world do smear into the life of basketball, even if they won’t admit it publicly.
Stern, by now, is aware of this and he needs to speak out. But what does he choose to chastise Sterling about? Heckling. I’m with Stern in believing that the heckling has to stop, but it’s a single blood stain cleaned at the site of a mass murder. Last weekend’s Daily Dime recounted the actions from the front office:
Clippers owner Donald Sterling faced no formal discipline from the league office in the wake of recent media reports that he heckled some of his own players — most notably guard Baron Davis — from his courtside seat earlier this season.
As one source close to the situation noted: “It’s a team issue, not a league issue. He didn’t break any rules.”
Sterling, though, was forced to promise NBA commissioner David Stern that he would cease with the verbal abuse, since holding his tongue in public apparently required more common sense than the Clips’ much-maligned patriarch could muster. Yet there is bound to be a big cost here for Sterling, whether or not it comes directly from the league office. He’s faced far more serious off-the-court complaints than this over the years, but the heckling stories attached to him now could prove rather damaging to Sterling down the road if the likes of Blake Griffin or Eric Gordon never forget them.
“We’ve been assured that Mr. Sterling will not be engaging in this type of [behavior] going forward,” NBA spokesman Tim Frank said.
Please, Stern, clean up the real mess. It’s flat out comical to hear them warn Sterling for heckling when he has done so much worse. Maybe Stern remembers Sterling countersuing for $100 million in 1984. Maybe Stern is just picking his battles, refraining from heckling might be something that Sterling is capable of, but a complete overhaul on respect and racism is something else. At this point, Sterling won’t change, it’s not going to happen, we will continue to hear racist (don’t forget the sexist) stories every year and it won’t change a thing. And while I hope that Stern will make a greater step in than stopping the heckling, this isn’t the New Orleans Hornets, there is no loss of money, the money just piles up and because of that, the pattern suggests that nothing will change.