Everyone around the Clippers knew that Donald Sterling was still Donald Sterling. He had been steered away from serious involvement in the basketball operations side for several years, he had been kept out of the limelight as much as possible. But everyone around the Clippers knew the man, knew the history, and knew that someday Mount Sterling could erupt in controversy and there would be a lot of damage and cleanup.
Blake Griffin knew it.
Speaking with GQ’s Zach Baron on a variety of topics (including comedy, dating in Los Angeles, the Lakers, LeBron in Cleveland, you should read the entire thing), Griffin said he knew about Sterling’s racism from right before he got drafted but that he and the owner had little interaction.
“When the draft lottery came out and the Clippers said they were gonna draft me, I went to Google to find out more about the Clippers, because I didn’t know a lot. And I was like, “Okay, team owned by Donald Sterling.” So then I typed in “Donald Sterling” in Google, and the first thing that pops up is “Donald Sterling racist.” And I was like, “Whoa!” So obviously I explored that, read a whole bunch of articles, read the deposition at one of his court cases. Which was awesome, if you ever have time to read some of the depositions. [laughs]….
“The second time I met him… He throws a white party in Malibu every single year, so everyone has to wear white or you can’t come. I get there, and this dude is wearing all black. The only person at this party. He throws a white party, he wears all black. And as soon as I get there, he comes to the front, we talk for a second, and he’s like, “Come on, I want to introduce you to everyone.” Grabs my hand and starts walking me through the party while we’re holding hands, and just introduces me to everybody.
“I mean, for me, like I said, the first thing I ever Googled about the man, the first thing that popped up was “racist.” So I was aware. I hate to say this, and it might sound ignorant, but I wasn’t surprised that all this came up. Not necessarily the manner in which it was said, or the exact things, but like I said: This was my first impression of him.”
Griffin is honest in the article. He said he felt like he had no real recourse to do anything when he was drafted and that, outside a few awkward moments, he really had almost no interaction with the man. Yes, Sterling brought his female friends into the locker room (once allegedly saying “look at those beautiful black bodies” to a lady) and there was a long, sordid history with Sterlings’ past (as Griffin notes, google “Donald Sterling deposition” sometime), but the owner was largely out of sight, out of mind for the players.
Until the TMZ tape came out right in the middle of the playoffs. Mount Sterling had erupted and even Griffin admitted he was surprised by how big the story got.
The Clippers came out for the first game after this in Golden State with their warmups inside-out, hiding the logo, but that was the only step taken. Griffin talks about a divide in the locker room during this and that he was on the side not wanting to make a big gesture.
“I was one of the guys—and I don’t know, I might catch flak for this—I was one of the guys who didn’t want to do anything. I didn’t want to give this one incident the power that it doesn’t deserve. You know what I mean? And coincidentally, I had just, for the first time, watched the Jackie Robinson movie and watched how he dealt with it, even though obviously it’s a movie. And I’ve actually read Hank Aaron books and a lot of things. I just felt like the best way to respond to something like that is just to go out and do what we do and not let it affect us. Because we’re the ones that get affected, not anybody else. So that’s why I took that position. But I completely understood why guys did want to do something. I was just kind of one of the ones that was like, ‘Let’s just play basketball.’”
I don’t think Griffin should catch flak for this, because there is no right or good answer here. The Clippers players could have boycotted a game to make their displeasure felt, but it wouldn’t have changed how things went down. The league (with the help of a crafty legal move by Donald’s wife Shelly Sterling) pretty quickly got him out as owner and Steve Ballmer in.
I do believe this: The core of the Clippers is closer because of this. Not having this weight on their shoulders in the playoffs, a second year in Doc Rivers’ system and some good off-season moves (Spencer Hawes is an underrated pickup) make the Clippers legitimate title contenders.
And Griffin’s growth as a player is at the heart of all that.