This is going to get uglier before it ends. A lot uglier.
Donald Sterling has sued the NBA and has a team of investigators digging up whatever they can on the NBA owners — and it’s safe to imagine that there is some ugly stuff that can be dug up. The league’s reaction has essentially been to shrug. The league’s position is that Shelly Sterling is the sole trustee of the Sterling Family Trust (which owns the Clippers) after she had Donald declared mentally incapacitated and in that role she can sell the team. She also gave the league indemnity against Donald’s lawsuit — even if he wins $1 billion in court, he gets paid out of the Sterling Trust.
At least the league has shrugged up to now, but they may well choose to countersue reports Michael McCann at Sports Illustrated.
The league will answer Sterling’s complaint by August 11, and sources tell SI.com there is a good chance the league will countersue Sterling. The NBA could raise a tortious interference with contractual relations claim, and contend that Sterling has interfered in the business relations of the NBA and one of its franchises by interfering with the sale of the team.
Of course, that just adds to the legal mess. It would be more about leverage — “we’ll drop our lawsuit if you drop yours” — than actually expecting to get anything out of Sterling.
All of that is really the sideshow. An ugly, loud, potentially embarrassing sideshow, but a sideshow nonetheless.
The only thing that really matters is the July 7 probate court hearing on Sterling’s mental competency and with that control of the Sterling Family Trust. Shelly Sterling got Donald to take neurological tests after his CNN interview (about the leaked tapes of his prejudiced statements that started this entire situation) and with the results of those had him declared mentally incapacitated under the rules laid out in the Trust. That left her as the sole trustees and she set up the $2 billion sale of the Clippers to Steve Ballmer (in which she still gets perks and basically an “owner emeritus” status).
If the probate judge sides with Shelly Sterling, the sale to Ballmer goes through and Donald’s lawsuit is simply a nuisance (in which he has to pay himself any money he wins).
If the judge sides with Donald Sterling and re-instates him as a trustee, blocking the sale to Ballmer, the NBA will go back to Plan A and have the other owners vote on whether to strip him of his franchise. Sterling sent out a long, crazy rant basically calling that unAmerican but the fact is this is more like being part of a country club — if you do something to violate the club bylaws (and Sterling has done that by being bad for business) the other club members can vote you out. Whether or not that was a private recording leaked to the public, it certainly has damaged the Clipper brand and the NBA brand (sponsors have pulled out of the team and players have discussed a boycott) and the other owners have the right to vote who they do business with.
What Sterling can do is sue the league, dig up dirt and make it an ugly mess.
None of that is going to help him keep his team. Rather, the opposite.