NBA spent years looking other way


Give credit where it's due. In throwing Donald Sterling out of the NBA for life, commissioner Adam Silver is exercising his powers as broadly as his job description will allow, and appropriately so.

But what took so long?

The most shocking thing about NBA Nation's reaction to the recordings of Sterling's racist rants is how many owners, players, media analysts and fans claimed they were shocked by his words. Evidence of Sterling's reprehensible behavior has been public for years, and the fact that he survived long enough to become the league's longest-tenured owner shows just how many people willed themselves into ignorance of his deeds.

Sterling, who made his fortune in Los Angeles-area real estate, was sued by a group of tenants who said that he wanted no blacks, no Mexican-Americans, no children and no recipients of subsidized housing in his buildings. And that to drive away such undesirables, Sterling's employees harassed them with surprise inspections and threatened them with eviction, stopped doing repairs, even refused rent checks and then claimed that tenants hadn't paid. Sterling settled their lawsuit with a payment that a U.S. District Court judge called "one of the largest ever obtained in this type of case." That was in 2005. Sterling also made the largest payment ever to the Justice Department in a separate federal housing discrimination case -- in 2009.

When ESPN The Magazine obtained depositions in lawsuits against Sterling, the details were horrifying. "That's because of all the blacks in this building, they smell, they're not clean," he said about the odor in one of his new acquisitions, according to the testimony of Sumner Davenport, one of his property supervisors. He told the head of security at another building, "I don't like Mexican men because they smoke, drink and just hang around the house," according to that man's testimony. Multiple employees noted his preference for Korean-born employees and tenants; he jovially asserted, "they will take whatever conditions I give them and still pay the rent," according to Davenport. (Davenport also sued Sterling for sexual harassment, and lost that case in 2005.) We first printed these quotes in June 2009.

Around that time, Elgin Baylor, who worked as a Clippers executive from 1986 to 2008, filed an employment discrimination lawsuit against the team. Baylor, the NBA Executive of the Year in 2006, alleged that Sterling wanted a white coach for the Clippers, and that he repeatedly said he was "giving these poor black kids an opportunity to make a lot of money." In 2011, a jury rejected Baylor's suit, but although you can blame his loss on taking Sterling's money for more than two decades, it's hard to see him as less credible than Sterling, who claimed on the witness stand that he hadn't even known Baylor was a Hall of Famer when he hired the 11-time All-Star.

Who supported Baylor against Sterling? Not the National Basketball Players Association, who had no comment about the owner who tried to emasculate one of its most legendary members. And not the local chapter of the NAACP, which actually gave Sterling a lifetime achievement award in 2009 and planned to give him another one this year, until scandal struck. (Sterling is a donor.)

Are there legitimate reasons it took the NBA until now to summon a strong reaction to Sterling? Sure. The recent recordings pack a visceral punch when you listen to them, and delivered cut-and-dried evidence to the league that not even the notoriously litigious Sterling could dispute. Social media intensifies public demand for a response to scandal in a way that didn't exist just a few years ago. There's a new commissioner in town, and clearly, Silver is not the guy who delivered Chris Paul to the Clippers and the 2011 All-Star Game to Staples Center.

But come on. As long as Sterling's victims were primarily lower-income black and Hispanic apartment tenants, it was easy for basketball's power players to see him as a harmless eccentric or fun renegade. "I like Donald," Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told The Mag in 2009. "He plays by his own rules." Or to identify with him as a success story with some inevitable skeletons in the closet. "I heard about the housing case -- what can I do about that?" Mark Jackson said five years ago. "That's his business, and it's in the courts. A lot of players, owners, people at ESPN have been charged or sued over something." That's the same Jackson who said Monday that fans should boycott Tuesday night's game in Los Angeles.

Only when Sterling was caught on tape saying that it's OK to associate with blacks privately but not publicly, and when along the way he insulted the transcendentally popular Magic Johnson, did he trigger an avalanche of criticism. For decades, Sterling has exploited black men for labor and  women of various races for sex, paying off players and executives with high wages and anyone else who complains with confidential legal settlements. But today, you can't tell Magic or Michael Jordan or LeBron James, or a growing number of NBA free agents, or the corporate sponsors who want to appeal to their fans, that they're good enough for your money but not a place at your table. Sterling inadvertently undermined his plantation worldview by exposing it too thoroughly.

In the end, Donald Sterling was his own worst enemy. Good thing for the NBA, because before now, hardly anybody else was willing to take him down.