Sterling saga reveals players' power

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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.

Yet several days after the trouble began, Rivers has made his inner conflict clear through the crumbling of his usually sturdy facade. At first, he appeared as a basketball coach, talking of the Sterling controversy as he would of any other: as an obstacle to the goal of winning a championship. He used the word "clutter," as though Sterling's reference to associating with black people as "like dealing with an enemy" (in a conversation with his black girlfriend) was simply another news cycle to overcome before Bill Russell handed him the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

As the days progressed, Rivers became less basketball coach and more African-American man born in 1961, the year of Anniston, when the Ku Klux Klan bombed a bus of Freedom Riders. The man whose house was burned to the ground by racists in 1997, who was again reduced by whites no matter how much he accomplished. On the tape, Sterling referred to African-Americans in his most paternalistic voice. "I give them clothes. I give them houses. Who else gives them that?" Rivers, in 2014, was W.E.B. Du Bois writing "How does it feel to be a problem?" in 1903. He had been accomplished, an elite player, a championship coach, and yet in the eyes of the man for whom he had chosen to work, the man who signed his check, he was still just a boy, someone to be fed and clothed and taken care of. Suddenly, after all of Rivers' respect and accomplishment, Sterling had reminded him that he and his people were just property to be maintained.

David West, an  Indiana Pacers power forward, cut to the core of America, of its latent conflicts, the ones in remission until these eruptions, and of Sterling's pathologies with a tweet: "Sterling basically articulated Plantation Politics...Make money off the Bucks/Lay with the women/No Association in Public good or bad."

And it was here that it became impossible to dismiss Donald Sterling or Cliven Bundy. Here it became impossible not to recognize the connective tissue that for the past week has been running through America at surface level instead of the usual, simmering undercurrent. As Rivers discovered and rediscovered, as Earvin Johnson discovered and rediscovered, it never goes away; there is no escaping what they really think of you. Sterling and Bundy could not be dismissed as yesterday's old cranks because here they are today, still powerful and worth millions, with sympathetic, powerful, like-minded friends who did not suffer the misfortune of being caught on tape.


Silver was decisive, but during a brief window on Saturday morning, the NBA players possessed an opportunity to untether themselves from the league, from the paternalism, from being property, to take for themselves a full seat at the table and begin to reconstruct the mechanism without permission. The players could have shut the NBA down for the entire weekend. They could have gathered Saturday, all 16 teams, and chosen not to play. Rivers said Monday that the Clippers' players had discussed the option.

There would have been no forfeits had the players decided not to play, especially not after the suits began pulling sponsorships and treating Sterling like kryptonite. Silver would have suffered even worse optics for trying to suspend players for protesting the indefensible Sterling when the Clippers' own corporate partners had run for cover. The money was no longer a cover because there was Sterling on tape awash in his superiority, reminding them all -- LeBron, Kevin Durant, Michael Jordan, Magic and Chris Paul -- that they were property. They were millionaires but  still not part of the club. The players would have forced the respect they were demanding. The star players could have led, providing protection for the less talented players more vulnerable to retribution. They could have sat in the locker room for an hour. The NBA would have had to listen. They have the money, and they would have had real power. Silver would have had to listen to them and respect them as one body.

It looked as if Sterling being shown up by his girlfriend just might be the issue around which players were willing to rally. Maybe this was the issue serious enough to mobilize a group of players so enormously wealthy that they have been able to insulate themselves from the knuckles the rest of us must dodge.

Instead, the Clippers turned their warm-up jerseys inside-out and tossed them at half court and kept on playing. The players showed outrage, but they showed outrage and kept on playing. Remember that all the players initially asked for was for Sterling to be suspended for the rest of the playoffs. Some players -- like West -- spoke strongly, but collectively, they went back to their place in the field. Even an outraged James fell into line, saying that Silver would handle it, as if he ever represented their interests. The players forgot or refused to believe deeply enough that they are the NBA. James and Miami, in solidarity with his friend Chris Paul and the Clippers, also turned their jerseys inside-out before sweeping Charlotte, and at that moment the threat of what was possible appeared once more. But the moment was over. Maybe there would be no revolution.

Roger Mason Jr., vice president of the players' association, said a leaguewide boycott of players for Tuesday's playoff games -- not just Clippers-Warriors -- was imminent and depended on Silver's performance. Such a collective action would have reverberated throughout the league, at every future bargaining session, at every league function, every time the owners acted. The owners would have thought twice. They would have remembered the time the players shut down the game during the playoffs, the time they showed that they were bigger and more resolute than the short-term self-interest of winning a trophy.

Yet the players won anyway. The victory was not total: As Sterling grew more isolated, he never could have survived. And the truth is that the players still decided to trust Silver, to remain tethered, to work inside of the system instead of trusting their power to tear it down.

Still, they won. Whether they truly would have walked or not, the threat of power was enough, as was the recognition that on this issue, turning jerseys inside-out just wouldn't do. During the days of heightened racial tension in a league that is 78 percent black, the end result was not task forces and committees but a revolutionary step: the end of Sterling's 33-year reign, the first owner banned for life from an American professional team sport. Silver is being praised, and he should be, for there was a time when the owners might have fought for Sterling simply because he was an owner. But real power is never given. It must always be taken. Jerseys turned inside-out became James, KD, John Wall and Paul texting and organizing a mass boycott of the playoffs. The threat of power made a wildcat strike unnecessary. This time.

Instead of revolution, the players believed in the notion of the NBA family and in Silver, even though the day will come when a collective bargaining agreement will expire and he will be their adversary. They believed in Silver even though they had no input in his hiring and have no input in his successor, proof that their power is not yet realized. They believed in relationships. Magic Johnson has called Rivers every day since Saturday. Silver confirmed the power of Rivers, Paul and Kevin Johnson at the podium. The players believed Silver would make it right, and he understood the consequences of coming up small. Maybe the end of Donald Sterling was an example of what America does best: isolating the bad apple while keeping the mechanism in place, and now the players can return to cashing the checks and calling owners "Mister." Or maybe the players finally saw the possibilities of their muscle, and what the playing field might look like if they actually used it.

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