The sad last chapter of Sterling's life

When the Clippers were eliminated by Oklahoma City in the second round of the playoffs, their emotions burst through. "The locker room was not very good after the game, in a very sad way," Rivers said at the time. They had ended their season short of where they'd hoped to finish. Still, in the chaos Rivers saw opportunity -- and the initial stirrings of a comeback. "A lot of stuff went wrong for us, and we just kept going. Early in the year, I heard 'Clipper Basketball,' I was like, 'What the hell is that?!' [Now] we're trying to figure out what that is."

It was understood from the beginning that a buyer for the Clippers needed to be liquid enough to write one big check. With a net worth of over $20 billion, Ballmer fit the bill. The former tech titan was used to making huge moves on startups in a short period of time. Because of the exploding values of television and digital rights fees, the NBA finds itself at the beginning of a new bubble. Nobody quite knows what's beyond the horizon, but it feels massive. All the bidders could sense the untapped value. Ballmer seized on it. He met Shelly Sterling on a Sunday and had bought the team by Thursday.

Sterling always moved at a different pace. He spent his weekends sunning himself in the cabanas at the Beverly Hills Hotel or his beach house, reading the print edition of the Los Angeles Times. There weren't many ways to reach him, even if the business were urgent. An executive tells stories from over the years about walking the strand of beach in front of Sterling's Malibu place, waiting until he came outside on the deck in the afternoon. If you were lucky, he came out wearing clothes. "Donald is an anachronism," one longtime Clippers staffer says. "He was kind of a victim of his own insulation."

When the tidal wave came after the TMZ story, he never saw it coming.

Men like Sterling and former Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss, who both made their fortunes buying up property around Los Angeles when it was cheap, were owners in an era that is coming to a close. They bought sports franchises to entertain themselves. They held court at games. As self-made men, they answered to no one. For many years, there were no corporate boards to censure them or to disapprove of their eccentricities.

Buss, whom Sterling had always seen as a rival until Buss' death last year, spent lavishly, won 10 NBA titles in his 34 years as owner of the Lakers and became one of the most popular owners of all time.

Sterling, meanwhile, pinched pennies, made the playoffs just seven times and became one of the most reviled owners in sports. Buss glittered, Sterling never did.

For three decades, Sterling's teams had been generally awful and easily ignored. He took the quiet as acceptance of his boorish behavior, and he took the profits as validation of his approach. "People say, 'How come you guys didn't do anything about him before?'" one longtime NBA owner says. "Honestly, he was kind of like the class clown. Nobody took him seriously." But now -- finally -- the league was taking Sterling seriously. There would be no bend on its lifetime ban, no path for him to save face or come back. Sterling was cornered. But getting him to accept that was not going to be easy.

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