Clippers Fan Recalls Dispute With Donald Sterling Over $1,000 Prize

PHOTO: Donald Sterling, a Los Angeles based attorney, speaks with reporters, May 4, 1981.

It's been nearly 33 years, but San Diego real estate attorney Mike Spilger still remembers his first encounter with Donald Sterling, the embattled owner of the Los Angeles Clippers.

"I will never forget this," Spilger told ABC News. "He said, 'I'm so happy to be the owner. I want to get to know all you people. If you are ever at the game, buy me a hot dog. I'd like to get to know you all.'"

It was August 1981 and Spilger was at a promotional event for the Clippers at the San Diego Sports Arena. Guests were promised a chance to meet Sterling, the flamboyant Beverly Hills lawyer who had purchased the team a few months earlier, then plastered his face all over town on billboards with a promise: "I Will Make You Proud of the Clippers."

"He invited all the attorneys in town," Spilger said. "I remember they had some mini-sandwiches and hors d'oeuvres and a $1,000 free-throw contest."

Spilger had been the captain of the San Diego State basketball team in the late 1960s, and he promptly stepped up to the free-throw line to sink 9 out of 10 to win the contest. "In street clothes, I might add," Spilger said.

But when he talked to Sterling later to claim his prize, he was told it was no longer $1,000, but rather 5 days and 4 nights accommodations at a Puerto Rico hotel.

"And I asked Mr. Sterling," Spilger recalled, "'Does that include airfare?’ And he kind of mumbled around, 'Well, I, no, no.' I said, 'Well, Mr. Sterling, I have no desire to go to Puerto Rico, let alone pay my own way to get there. I will just take the $1,000, thank you.'"

Sterling, whose net worth at the time was estimated to be about $700 million, suggested Spilger get in touch with the promotions department to work things out. A few weeks later, Spilger said, he got a letter from the team congratulating him on winning three nights and two days in Las Vegas or Mazatlan, Mexico.

"It kept getting worse," Spilger recalled with a laugh. "First $1,000, then Puerto Rico, then Mazatlan and then Vegas. To me it made no sense."

Spilger, who was a season ticket-holder of the Clippers, spoke to the team's general manager, the assistant general manager, wrote to Sterling and talked to him in person and on the phone. But after a year of trying to loosen the grip on his $1,000 prize, Spilger finally got fed up and filed a lawsuit.

"I got ticked off. I thought, 'This is ridiculous,'" he said. "It just made no sense. Pay me the damn thousand dollars."

A week after filing the lawsuit, he finally got his money, but not before being admonished, he said, by the team's business manager in the lobby of the team's headquarters.

"I’m sitting in the chair and he towers over me and points his finger at me and he says, 'You know, what you did was chicken s***. All you had to do was call me.' So I kind of politely mentioned, you know, I had three or four personal conversations with Sterling. I wrote him two letters. I don’t know how much more I can do to keep something private. But anyway, thank you for the check."

Neither Sterling nor his lawyer responded to requests for comment by ABC News.

The encounter all those years ago gave him a glimpse into Sterling’s hard-driving business dealings, and while he said he harbors no ill will to Sterling over the dispute, he does have an opinion about the team's owner when it comes to the current controversy over Sterling's racially charged remarks. "I think it's time for him to go," he said.

Spilger dropped his lawsuit after cashing the check. He said he ran into Sterling one more time at a party a year or two later. When a friend of Sterling's brought him by to say hello, he saw Spilger and said, "Oh, I know him."

He said Sterling turned to him and, in a whispered tone, said, "You know, what you did is reprehensible."

Spilger lets loose a hearty laugh at the memory. "That kind of made my day," he said.

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