“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.
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.”