The NBA had tried to get rid of Sterling in 1982 when he tried to move the team from San Diego to L.A. without securing league approval. There were also unpaid hotel bills, late payments to players and vendors, and a public admission that the Clippers needed to finish last to draft Virginia's Ralph Sampson at No. 1. A committee of six owners voted to terminate his ownership. A full hearing and a vote from the league's advisory and finance committee was needed to complete the process.
But the vote never happened. Sterling said he was sorry, stalled for a while by saying he would look to sell the team, then did as then-deputy commissioner David Stern suggested and hired well-respected executive Alan Rothenberg to straighten things out.
It was an earlier time," said Rothenberg, who went on to become president of U.S. Soccer and instrumental in the U.S. hosting of the 1994 World Cup. "It was not the fantastically successful league it is now. There were a lot of people who were scrambling then."
Emboldened by his friend Al Davis' victory in an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL that allowed him to leave Oakland for Los Angeles without league approval, Sterling moved the Clippers in 1984. This time, he hired Blecher -- yes, the same Blecher -- and sued the NBA for $100 million for objecting to the move.
It was a mess. The league had neither the stomach nor the means to fight an antitrust case it might well lose. If Sterling won, the entire league might collapse. After a few years in court, the NBA and Sterling settled. There was no getting rid of him. But at least the NBA rarely had to see him.
Many people tell you the same detail about meeting Sterling: He likes to grab the crook of your elbow when he's making a point. He does not let go easily. It's more creepy than endearing. One noted NBA agent recalls Sterling grabbing one of his biceps, saying, "You're so strong." A longtime owner says Sterling once came up to him during a cocktail party at an NBA Board of Governors meeting and stuck his hand inside his shirt to feel his chest muscle. "It's the only time in my life I said to anyone, 'Take your hands off me or I'll punch you in the face,'" the owner says. Sterling backed away. He did not apologize.
He did what he thought he could get away with. In a late, strange public relations grab on June 1, Sterling went to a black church in downtown L.A. with a pack of attractive young women. The congregants prayed for him. The pastor called out to him from the pulpit. News cameras trailed him. Afterward, Sterling took the women out for dinner in Santa Monica. He had the lobster.
Two days later, he told a local NBC reporter, "Everything is just the way it should be, really. It may have worked out differently, but it's good. It's all good." Blecher sent an email saying Sterling would agree to the Ballmer sale and withdraw his suit against the NBA.
And then he didn't.
He never signed the settlement papers. He simply changed his course. He told his lawyers to fight for his claim to ownership and start digging up dirt on the NBA and his fellow owners.
There would be no financial payoff to his lawsuit. Even if he won, Shelly would pay. The league would simply resume termination proceedings if the sale to Ballmer were to fall through. It wasn't clear what his end game was.