C.J. Paul has seen a lot through the years. As manager for his brother Chris' basketball and business interests, he was there when the Hornets relocated to Oklahoma City for the two years after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. He was there when the NBA took control of the team a few years later, after owner George Shinn could no longer afford it. And he was there when former commissioner David Stern vetoed his brother's trade to the Lakers and "a week later you're going to the Clippers," he remembers with a smile and a shake of his head.
But nothing could have prepared him for what happened last weekend in San Francisco. Like many people close to the Clippers, Paul had heard on Thursday that TMZ was about to run a story that would be very damaging for team owner Donald Sterling. Nobody quite knew what was in the story, or just how bad it would be, but it was dropping soon, playoffs be damned. Had Sterling said something embarrassing or racially insulting again? Was it an affair or some kind of sex scandal? Was it another case of his not paying one of the coaches or general managers he'd fired in the past? Perhaps a hidden debt had surfaced -- one staffer tells a story of the time the Clippers' old practice facility at L.A. Southwest College had been locked up because Sterling hadn't paid rent in so long.
When you play for the Clippers, you learn to live with Sterling and his history. You tell yourself you play for the city of Los Angeles, your teammates and the fans. He's the guy who signs the checks, and hopefully stays out of the way. It doesn't always sit well. Your stomach's never really settled. But over time the queasiness either goes away or you shove it down deep and resolve to deal with it later.
C.J. Paul was in his room at the Four Seasons in San Francisco on April 25 when the Sterling story broke around 10 p.m. Chris Paul was across the hall, in his room, getting ready for bed. The Clippers had an early practice scheduled in the morning. But this couldn't wait. C.J. called his brother and told him he needed to read the story immediately. There, for the world to see and hear, were transcriptions and audio recordings of Sterling articulating an archaic, racist worldview to a woman named V. Stiviano. (She'd once introduced herself to C.J. as Sterling's assistant.)
"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. "You can sleep with them. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not promote it ... and don't bring them to my games."
"When we first came here, we'd heard stories," C.J. Paul said. "But it's one thing to hear stories, and it's another thing to hear them.
"This is by far the worst, of everything that's happened to us in the last nine years. Katrina, living in Oklahoma City for two years, then the team gets taken over by the NBA, then you think we're going to the Lakers and a week later we're going to the Clippers.
"But this... You just never think you have to put up with something like that... For that to happen is just... That is personal."