New documentary ‘Blackballed’ gives voice to players side of Donald Sterling debacle

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“Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game?”

Donald Sterling asks that question to V. Stiviano on the infamous recording she leaked to TMZ, the tape of racist comments by Sterling that ultimately led to the end of his ownership of the Los Angeles Clippers.

The Sterling debacle was a big step in changing the answer to that question — this was no longer the Jordan “stay out of politics” era in the NBA. Players took a stand.

“I think it was huge” in changing the culture of player empowerment, Matt Barnes told NBC Sports. “What we did, what LeBron [James] and those guys did in Miami… The world was waiting to see what we did, we kind of did what we did, and everyone followed.”

That included pushing Sterling out the door, with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banning him for life and, eventually, along with Sterling’s wife Shelly, forcing a sale of the team to Steve Ballmer.

Maybe the owners made the game in the past — Sterling had a long history of being a racist slumlord who embarrassed the league, however he’d never lost his ownership of the Clippers — but that changed in large part because the Clippers, and other players around the league, made a stand.

The Clippers players look into the camera and tell their side of this story in the new documentary “Blackballed” released this week on Quibi. There are 12 parts to the documentary, each fewer than 10 minutes long, as fits the Quibi format.

Confronting Racism

The documentary comes at a time when racism is a front-burner issue in the United States, especially in an election year.

“This story is inextricably linked to race in America beyond the game,” director Michael Jacobs said. “So conversations about racism came up naturally throughout the project.”

In one of the compelling parts of Blackballed, players — including Chris Paul and Barnes — shared stories of the intense racism they had encountered long before working for Sterling. In the case of Barnes, his story from his senior of year in a Sacramento high school was harrowing.

“From a very early age I experienced racism, I either wasn’t black enough or I wasn’t white enough, I saw it full-fledged,” said Barnes, who is bi-racial. “Then the culmination of that came in high school when a kid was throwing racial slurs at my sister, and I did what a big brother does… then two-days into my suspension my school was vandalized by the KKK, with ‘die n*****’ and swastika [grafitti], and mannequins with nooses around their neck and my jersey on them. I’d experienced a lifetime of racism by the time I was 18.”

Players tell their story

Sterling’s racism was not a surprise to Barnes and other players, but “Blackballed” puts it on full display — including cringeworthy footage from the “white party” where Sterling was showing off just-drafted Blake Griffin to his friends.

However, the former owner was never interviewed. Blackballed is the players’ story.

“I think it was an important story to be told from our point of view, because even though we were the ones that were basically talked about and affected by it, our story didn’t come out because it just wasn’t right,” Barnes said. “At the time, Doc did a great job of being the shield for the team and trying to make our lives as normal as possible, being able to focus on playoff basketball.”

“This was the first time the players were given the opportunity to speak openly about the scandal,” Jacobs said. “I anticipated some hesitancy, but once we got talking you could feel a sense of relief as they began to share their experiences in an unmediated environment.”

The Clippers were up 2-1 in an intense first-round playoff series against an up-and-coming Warriors team when Sterling’s tape was leaked and the team’s world was thrown upside down. The documentary has Rivers telling the story of how he got in front of the team and said, “My name is Glenn Rivers. I’m from Maywood. I’m black. If any of you think you’re more pissed than me, you gotta be f****** kidding,” but then reminding them they don’t play for Sterling, they play for each other.

“We did feel like we had a championship team,” said Barnes of the 57-win Clippers that season. “We had one of the better teams in the league that year, we had good success against Golden State, and we felt maybe this is it.”

The players seriously considered sitting out a game and refusing to play — DeAndre Jordan led that charge. The team wanted to make a stand, but as a group they also wanted to chase that ring they all worked their entire lives for, and the tug-of-war between those desires is evident in the documentary.

“If we sat out one game, would that count as a loss for us? We played a very good Warriors team that took us to seven games, would that count as an automatic loss for us? How many games do we sit out? Do we sit until Donald’s out?…

“Whatever we do as players, we had to be together on it. So we were bouncing ideas off the wall, everything from not playing to the idea I came up with, which was to take our Clippers’ warmups off and have our other Clipper warmups underneath flipped inside out. This is to let him know we were never playing for him, we were always playing for our teammates, the guys in the locker room, our families, and our fans.

“We wanted the world to know, through that brief stand, that what he did was wrong, and we’re also here trying to accomplish our dream.”

The start of players taking social stands

Sterling was soon after shown the door, but the league was never the same. “Blackballed” shows how what happened with Sterling, as well as player public reaction to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice — all within months of each other — changed the face of player activism in the NBA.

“Racism. Understand is here, and I think we’re seeing it more than ever,” Barnes said of what he hopes players take away from Blackballed. “I think people get mad when minorities or African American in particular bring race into situations, but it’s prevalent. It’s not everyone is racist, obviously, but there are still a handful of people that are. To me, it’s shining a light on it and hopefully waking some people up.

“Hate is a defeatest cause.”

Watch Kawhi Leonard score two clutch buckets, including game-winner, in his return

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Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return for the first 47 minutes Monday night: 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

But that final minute was special.

First, there was a great hustle play from Paul George — also making his return — that got the ball to Leonard to tie it up.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner.

Los Angeles picked up the 119-117 win on the road. Not exactly pretty, but for a team just starting to get healthy and build some chemistry, they showed resilience and got the win. Leonard finished with 16 points on 7-of-15 shooting, and George looked sharp on his way to 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. It was a balanced Clippers attack, which is what Tyronn Lue is trying to build.

Kelly Oubre Jr. scored 28 and P.J. Washington added 26 for the shorthanded Hornets.

James Harden returns to 76ers Monday night, is on minutes restriction

Minnesota Timberwolves v Philadelphia 76ers
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The 76ers were able to keep their heads above water. For 14 games, James Harden was out with a right foot tendon sprain — both Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey missed games in that stretch as well (Maxey remains out) — and Philadelphia went 8-6 with a +2.9 net rating and the best defense in the NBA over that stretch.

Monday night in Houston, Harden returns.

This wasn’t a surprise, nor is the fact Doc Rivers confirmed Harden will be on a minutes restriction at first.

Harden averaged 22 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds a game before his injury, and while his 3-point shooting percentage was down (33.3%) he was still efficient and finding his footing as more of a facilitator than scorer.

The 76ers are 12-11 on the season and sit in a three-way tie for fifth in the East (with the Pacers and Raptors). If Harden can spark the Philadephia offense there is plenty of time for them to climb into the top four, host a first-round playoff game and position themselves for a deep playoff run. But it starts with getting their starting guards healthy again.

Harden is ready to take that on.

Trae Young frustrated ‘private conversations get out to the public’ about missed game

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers
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Rumors and chatter of tension in Atlanta — about how Trae Young was adapting to playing with Dejonte Murray, and his pushback on coach Nate McMillan and his efforts to get the ball moving more — have been all over the league since the start of the season. Over the weekend, a little of that leaked out, with reports Young chose not to come to the arena Friday after McMillan gave him a choice of participating in shootaround or missing the game.

Young addressed the report and seemed more concerned that it got out than the report’s content.

“I mean, it was just a situation. I mean, we’re all grown men here and there’s sometimes we don’t always agree. And it’s unfortunate that private situations and private conversations get out to the public, but I guess that’s the world we live in now. Yeah, I’m just gonna just focus on basketball and focus on helping my team win. And that’s what I got to be focusing on…

“Like I said, it’s a private matter, again, made public, which is unfortunate. And if it was to stay private, it probably wouldn’t have been as big of a deal. But like I said, it’s unfortunate in my job, and my goal is to win championships. And that’s what I focus on.”

Young went through shootaround  Monday and is set to play against the Thunder.

Murray has been professional throughout this situation, saying he didn’t see anything at the shootaround Friday and backing Young and McMillan when asked.

Bringing in Murray was supposed to take some pressure off Young and spread the wealth more on offense, ideally allowing Young to be more efficient. Instead, Young’s usage rate is nearly identical to last season, he is shooting just 30.3% from 3 and his true shooting percentage has fallen below league average. The Hawks as a team make the fewest passes per game of any team in the league (stat via NBA.com). The Hawks’ offense is still a lot of Young, but it’s not as efficient as it has been in years past.

Atlanta is still 13-10 on the season, has a top-10 defense and sits fourth in the East — they are not struggling. But neither have they made the leap to become a team that could threaten Boston or Milwaukee atop the conference, and that’s what the Hawks expected.

There could be personnel moves coming in Atlanta — John Collins is available via trade, again — but if the Hawks can’t smooth out their internal, existing concerns (and get Collins and DeAndre Hunter healthy) other roster moves will be just cosmetic.

Nike, Kyrie Irving part ways, making him a sneaker free agent

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Here’s the positive spin for Kyrie Irving: He will have the chance to remake his situation into something he’s more comfortable with during 2023. As a player, he will be an unrestricted free agent and can choose where he wants to play in coming seasons (how many teams are interested and for how many years will be interesting to see).

Irving also is a sneaker free agent — Nike has cut ties with him, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Irving is happy with this.

The separation is not a surprise. Nike suspended its relationship with Irving after he Tweeted out support for an antisemitic film, did not apologize (at first), and was suspended by the Nets. Here was the company’s statement at that time:

“At Nike, we believe there is no place for hate speech and we condemn any form of antisemitism. To that end, we’ve made the decision to suspend our relationship with Kyrie Irving effective immediately and will no longer launch the Kyrie 8. We are deeply saddened and disappointed by the situation and its impact on everyone.”

Nike founder Phil Knight said it was likely the end of the company’s relationship with Irving.

That’s not a small thing by Nike, Irving has had a signature shoe line since 2014 and is reported to have a deal with Nike worth more than $10 million a season because his shoes are popular. However, his contract with the shoe giant was set to end in October 2023, and there had been reports Nike did not plan to extend that deal before this current controversy started.

Nike is already looking in a new direction, at Ja Morant.

Irving now has the chance to choose his new direction.