Why did the NBA allow Donald Sterling to remain Clippers owner through many years of racism and sexism?
A big reason: He didn’t bother other NBA owners.
For one, NBA owners were nearly all white men, not directly affected by Sterling’s abhorrent behavior. The Clippers were also harmless, a perpetually lousy team that didn’t threaten anyone.
And that might be too generous of an assessment.
Entering the final day of the 1993-94 season, Magic center Shaquille O’Neal led Spurs center David Robinson in a tight race for the scoring title. Robinson had to outscore O’Neal by five points that day to claim the crown.
Robinson scored 71 points in a win over the Clippers in Los Angeles. O’Neal scored 32 points against the Nets. That meant Robinson took the scoring title, 29.8 pointers per game to 29.3 points per game.
Two members of that 27-55 Clippers team – Dominique Wilkins and Ron Harper – revisited the game during “NBA Inside Stuff ’90s Reunion” (warning: profanity in video). After struggling to remember who coached them that season – it was Bob Weiss – Wilkins and Harper took us inside the locker room.
He said, “Look, men. Just so y’all know, I’ve been told to take the starting five out after the first four minutes in the first quarter. And I’m like, “Why the hell for?” He said, “Sterling wants to see David Robinson keep the scoring title in the West.”
I swear to god. Am I lying?
I took my uniform. I cut off my ankle tape and walked out that motherf—er.
What we did was so f—ing embarrassing.
I left the arena and went back to Atlanta.
At minimum, this story is embellished. Playing time for the Clippers’ starters:
- Mark Jackson: 16 minutes
- Ron Harper: 20 minutes
- Dominique Wilkins: 21 minutes
- Loy Vaught: 25 minutes
- Elmore Spencer: 5 minutes
Maybe the Clippers pulled only their starting center, Spencer. He played just five minutes, and I didn’t see him in any second-half game highlights. But it’s not as if the lumbering Spencer were suited to defend Robinson, anyway.
Whatever happened, the Clippers didn’t hide their displeasure in an article by Chris Baker of the Los Angeles Times at the time.
“Disappointing is an understatement for this season,” Wilkins said. “There’s no pride here. If you can look at yourself in the mirror after a game like that and be happy with yourself, something’s wrong. Nothing against David, he’s a great player, but how can you let a guy get 71 points?
“I think it’s ridiculous. We helped him get 71 points. If they want to play him the whole game that’s fine, but the way we played him, it’s like we helped him.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my career, let me tell you the truth, never.
“If you are not committed to winning, I don’t want to be here. And I think tonight shows no commitment toward winning.”
Harper on the season:
“I’m just glad its over.
Weiss on the season:
“It was a horrible season for all of us, the worst that anyone in the locker room could has ever seen, except for the CBA guys.
This wouldn’t be the first time someone compared the Clippers to a minor-league outfit. This wouldn’t be the first time an owner directed his coach to sabotage their own team in a game. This wouldn’t be the first time Sterling cared more about the spectacle of an NBA game than whether the Clippers won.
So did Sterling actually tell Weiss to pull the starters so early to help Robinson?
The supporting evidence is weak. We’re hearing from Wilkins who said he heard from Weiss who supposedly heard from Sterling. That’s a long game of telephone. Importantly, the starters – including Wilkins and Harper – played more than their story suggested. However, all five starters also played far fewer minutes than usual.
At the very minimum, it’s believable Sterling said this. Which is troubling enough.