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.”

Report: NBA group stage could include 24 teams

Wizards guard Bradley Beal and Bulls guard Zach LaVine
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The initial report on the NBA resuming with a group stage presented a 20-team scenario. There’d be four groups with five teams each – one from each tier of the current standings:

  • Tier 1: Bucks, Lakers, Raptors, Clippers
  • Tier 2: Celtics, Nuggets, Jazz, Heat
  • Tier 3: Thunder, Rockets, Pacers, 76ers
  • Tier 4: Mavericks, Grizzlies, Nets, Magic
  • Tier 5: Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Kings, Spurs

Teams would play each other team in its group, and the top two finishers in each group would advance to an eight-team tournament (effectively the second round of the playoffs, though without conference splits).

But that format could apparently include four more teams.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

In brief, per several sources who have seen the league’s proposal: The NBA could take 20 (or 24) teams and divide them into groups

The simplest way to expand to 24 teams would be adding a sixth tier then forming four groups of six. That’d mean adding:

  • Tier 6: Suns, Wizards, Hornets, Bulls

Bleh.

The more games the NBA holds, the more money the league will make. But the more people involved, the more risk of someone contracting and spreading coronavirus. It’s a fine line, and the league has sought a middle ground.

Phoenix, Washington, Charlotte and Chicago strike me as too lousy to include. Those teams are well outside the normal playoff race, and there’s no good reason to believe they would’ve made a late push.

In this environment, they might have shot, though. Coronavirus increases variability. Players have had differing access to resources and differing motivation to train during the hiatus. Once play resumes, positive tests could be scattered randomly. Would anyone view the Suns, Wizards, Hornets or Bulls as deserving of a berth in the eight-team tournament? If one of those four teams qualified, that’d probably just show the setup was flawed.

The fairest way to set the playoffs is with 20 teams, depending on structure. Resuming with just 16 teams wouldn’t be that far behind. The highest financial upside comes with all 30 teams, but that seems infeasible.

Setting the line at 24 teams seems like the worst of most worlds – including four bad teams that wouldn’t generate much interest but would threaten to disrupt everything else.

Michael Porter Jr.: Pray for both George Floyd’s family and police officers involved in ‘this evil’

Nuggets rookie Michael Porter Jr. and Knicks forward Maurice Harkless
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Several NBA players posted about George Floyd, a black man who died after being pinned to the ground by a Minneapolis police officer for about eight minutes.

Nuggets rookie Michael Porter Jr. struck a different tone than most.

Porter:

Knicks forward Maurice Harkless:

Harkless, whose dismay was shared by many, is a seasoned veteran. Porter has made made rookie gaffes.

But I’m uncomfortable criticizing someone for calling for prayer for anyone. For some, prayer can be effective way to cope amid tragedy. Many believe prayer can change the world.

Porter didn’t say prayer alone should be the solution. In fact, he called the situation “evil” and “murder,” seemingly suggesting the need for criminal justice, too.

Basketball Hall of Fame delays enshrining Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett

Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and Spurs forward Tim Duncan
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The Basketball Hall of Fame originally planned to induct Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett in August.

But coronavirus interfered.

Jackie MacMullan of ESPN:

Jerry Colangelo, the chairman of the board of the governors for the Hall, told ESPN Wednesday that enshrinement ceremonies for the Class of 2020, one of the most star-studded lineups ever which includes Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and the late Kobe Bryant, will be moved to spring of 2021.

Colangelo stressed there will be separate ceremonies for the Class of 2020 and the Class of 2021, even though both events will now be held in the calendar year 2021. “We won’t be combining them,” he said. “The Class of 2020 is a very special class and deserves its own celebration.”

I’m so glad each class will be honored separately. Bryant, Duncan, Garnett and the rest of this class – Tamika Catchings, Rudy Tomjanovich, Kim Mulkey, Barbara Stevens, Eddie Sutton and Patrick Baumann – deserve their own night.

So does Paul Pierce and whoever gets selected in the next class.

Life can end at any moment. Bryant’s death was a tragic reminder of that. But there’s no specific urgency here. The Hall of Fame should wait until it’s safe to hold a proper celebration of this class… then the next one.

NBA being sued for missed rent payments amid coronavirus shutdown

NBA Store
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The NBA has been sued by the owners of the building that houses the NBA Store, who say the league owes more than $1.2 million after not paying rent in April or May.

The league responded by saying it doesn’t believe the suit has merit, because it was forced to close the New York store due to the coronavirus pandemic.

NBA Media Ventures, LLC is required to pay $625,000 of its $7.5 million annual fee on the first day of each month under teams of its lease with 535-545 FEE LLC, according to the suit filed Tuesday in New York.

The NBA entered into the lease agreement for the property at 545 Fifth Ave. in November 2014.

Counting other fees such as water, the owners of the building are seeking more than $1.25 million.

“Like other retail stores on Fifth Avenue in New York City, the NBA Store was required to close as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Under those circumstances, we don’t believe these claims have any merit,” NBA spokesman Mike Bass said. “We have attempted, and will continue to attempt, to work directly with our landlord to resolve this matter in a manner that is fair to all parties.”

The NBA suspended play on March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic and faces hundreds of millions of dollars in losses this season, even as it works toward trying to resume play in July.