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updated: 4/28/2014 8:47 PM

Clippers' Donald Sterling has long history of trouble

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  • Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling attends the NBA basketball game between the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers in Los Angeles on Monday, March 2, 2009.

    Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling attends the NBA basketball game between the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers in Los Angeles on Monday, March 2, 2009.
    Associated Press

Associated Press

LOS ANGELES -- Donald Sterling has been known to heckle his own team from the center-court seat where he has sat for decades, whether with his now-estranged wife or women young enough to be his granddaughters.

Former Los Angeles Clippers say the owner would barge into the locker room to berate players, offer awkward praise or -- according to testimony in a lawsuit filed by his fired general manager -- tell guests to check out his players' "beautiful black bodies."

Outrage over racist comments purportedly made by Sterling hit a crescendo Monday, with corporations pulling their sponsorship deals with the team and coach Doc Rivers saying he believes "a very strong message" is coming from the NBA in response to the scandal.

That message will come today, when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver holds a news conference in New York where he could reveal sanctions the league will impose on Sterling.

A suspension of indefinite length and hefty fine -- Silver can issue one of up to $1 million without approval of owners -- are possible options. However, it remains unclear how far Silver's powers can reach at this point, even though the NBA constitution gives the commissioner's office a lot of latitude to protect the game's best interest.

Nothing new

Sterling, the NBA's longest-tenured owner, is among the least successful in basketball history. He has watched the Clippers became a profitable punch line, compiling the worst record in North American pro sports during his first quarter-century in charge.

He has fired loyal coaches, waged court battles with long-serving executives and publicly seethed when players didn't want to stay with the team.

And that's only what Sterling does when the world can see him.

Opponents say the racially incendiary remarks attributed to Sterling and leaked to TMZ last weekend publicly show a side of the 80-year-old real-estate mogul that has been ignored and rationalized for years.

"It put a smile on my face that finally he would be unable to deny the racist allegations against him," said Carl Douglas, a lawyer who represented former Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor in a lawsuit against Sterling.

"This is a guy who, as the owner, sits courtside at the half-court line," Douglas added. "No other owner sits like that. He has an ego the size of the Grand Canyon."

Sterling has faced extensive federal charges of civil rights violations and racial discrimination in business, making shocking race-related statements in sworn testimony before reaching multimillion-dollar settlements. He has also been sued for sexual harassment by former employees, and the court proceedings detailed an outlandish list of Sterling's personal proclivities.

Baylor, the former NBA great who served as the Clippers' GM for 22 years, left the franchise with rancor and an unsuccessful lawsuit alleging race and age discrimination. Baylor claimed Sterling has a "plantation mentality" about the Clippers, envisioning a team of "poor black boys from the South playing for a white coach."

"When I heard that voice (on the TMZ recordings), there was a visceral reaction," Douglas said. "I recognized the venom in that voice."

Sterling's new embarrassment might lead to his long-term banishment from the NBA.

But amid the national outrage over the Clippers owner's apparent comments last weekend, former NBA star Kevin Johnson asked the question that must be addressed by Commissioner Adam Silver and the owners who control the league.

"We wanted (Silver) to give us a full accounting of the prior accusations of racism made against Mr. Sterling and why those were never sanctioned by the NBA," Johnson said. "It's our responsibility to find out the history of Mr. Sterling, and why sanctions did not occur."

Eccentric from start

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Sterling's history of discrimination charges and outlandish statements wasn't surprised by the latest revelations.

The son of a produce dealer, Sterling grew up in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. Donny Tokowitz eventually changed his last name, earned a law degree and began practicing in divorce and personal injury in 1961. He spent his earnings methodically buying up real estate all across Los Angeles, becoming famous for almost never selling any property.

With encouragement from Lakers owner Jerry Buss, Sterling paid just over $12 million in 1981 for the beleaguered San Diego Clippers, who had moved out from Buffalo three years earlier.

Sterling was eccentric from the start, plastering his face on billboards and publicly hoping for a last-place finish so he could draft Ralph Sampson. During the 1980s, players claimed they would receive their paychecks on Fridays after the banks closed, likely to prevent them from bouncing.

Sterling abruptly moved his franchise to Los Angeles in 1984, receiving a $25 million fine from the NBA before countersuing and getting the penalty sharply reduced. He put the team in the decrepit Los Angeles Sports Arena and turned a tidy profit thanks to a sweetheart lease deal.

Despite their location in a glamorous major media market, the Clippers were a destination of last resort for most free agents and an unfortunate detour in their players' careers. When Ron Harper compared his time with the Clippers to a jail sentence in 1994, Sterling suspended him for a game without pay.

Now what?

Led by Chris Paul and high-flying forward Blake Griffin, Los Angeles has won two straight Pacific Division titles while winning 113 games over the last two regular seasons, easily the two best campaigns in franchise history.

And now that the Clippers are worth watching, Sterling might never be allowed to watch them from courtside again. Fan protests and boycotts are expected at Staples Center tonight when the Clippers resume their playoff series against the Golden State Warriors.

Douglas, who had Clippers season tickets for 10 years, has called for an extensive fan boycott. He hopes a public outcry will force the NBA's other 29 ownership groups to leverage Sterling out of the league.

"They have to be so embarrassed by the spectacle of his ownership that they band together and influence him into selling the team," Douglas said. "I am hopeful that some corporation will buy the team, probably at a premium, and once and for all rid Los Angeles of this man."

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