Sterling saga reveals players' power


In the end, Adam Silver knew the NBA was a players' league, perhaps even more than did the players. In a fantasy world of myths, of so many myths, the truth that the players make the league grew irrefutable. Donald Sterling's indefensible racism, his mistress and her recordings -- during one segment he referred to the league as belonging to the owners and not the players -- were not worth the risk of challenging that truth. The owners isolated Sterling, maintained a fragile order with the players and negotiated his sacrifice -- as it became clear that only total sacrifice would do.

Over the coming days and weeks, key details will emerge about how the NBA commissioner built a swift but certain coalition of owners that empowered him to bury one of their own. On Monday, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban called removal of an owner a "slippery slope," naturally -- because if one owner can be removed, so, too, someday, might Cuban. On Tuesday, however, while Silver was taking questions during his news conference, Cuban tweeted that he was "100 percent" in agreement with Silver's decision to ban Sterling.

There will be details of the furious, precarious negotiations that occurred over the 96 hours leading up to the announcement: the threat of playoffwide boycott, the emotional tailspins and betrayals of Doc Rivers, Earvin Johnson, Chris Paul and so many others, and reassurances by Silver through daily conversations with each, as well as with former NBA guard Kevin Johnson, working for the National Basketball Players Association, that he would make this right.

There will be rightful pride in the collective outrage -- from all races and all classes -- at Sterling's comments and his beliefs and pride in the comprehensive resolution, during a time of significant racial tension in the country. Less than a week ago, a controversial Supreme Court decision upheld a ban on using racial preferences in admissions at public universities in Michigan, while Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy wondered last week whether African-Americans were better off as slaves.

There also will be much to say regarding the reconfirmation of Earvin Johnson -- who spent $50 million of his own money to buy into the Los Angeles Dodgers' ownership group -- as the dominant black power broker in sports and potential next owner of the Clippers.

But in the end, concluding an extraordinary week of race, revolution and a revolution that never was, the lasting imprint for the remaining life of the league is the enormous power of the players -- if they choose to unite and use it, and believe in it. Baseball, hockey, football and soccer players should be listening, too.

During the past several decades of increasing branding and affluence and progress of America, the social conscience of the professional athlete has diminished. Maybe that's by necessity, and maybe our desire for it has been overinflated by nostalgia for Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Sandy Koufax.

Maybe nothing, no singular issue, could be sufficiently galvanizing to bring players out from behind the tinted glass of their Escalades. Certainly, a lover's quarrel between an 80-year-old man and his 20-something girlfriend would not on its face qualify as a seminal moment.

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