Last night the San Antonio Spurs scored a mindblowing 71 points in the first half of game 3 of the NBA Finals against the fearsome Miami Heat. At the intermission the Spurs had not missed a shot in ten minutes of play. It was an astonishing performance, one that would ordinarily have been dissected and celebrated by the in-studio team of analysts for the duration of the halftime break — but it wasn’t. Instead, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver took more questions on a topic we all thought was closed: Donald Sterling.
Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, had agreed to sell the team after his skeevy girlfriend secretly taped him on the phone saying a lot of horrifyingly racist things and the NBA swiftly banned him for life from the league and the other owners voted to strip him of ownership. Microsoft executive Steve Ballmer had an agreement to buy the team from Sterling for 2 billion (with a B) dollars, but this week Sterling abruptly changed his mind, announced he would not sell, and sued the NBA for a billion dollars.
I don’t expect Sterling’s lawsuit or his effort to keep the Clippers to succeed, and I am unclear on the legalities of owning an NBA franchise, but I wish they wouldn’t force him to sell.
Although Sterling is an obvious, irredeemable shithead, there are some aspects to how this whole thing came about that are a little troubling. Firstly, he didn’t announce his racist views at a Klan rally, or in an Op-Ed. He didn’t fire anyone, or fail to hire anyone, on the basis of their race. He was secretly taped by his girlfriend, to whom he believed he was speaking in confidence. And as appalling as his views are, they amount to a thought crime. The thoughts in this case are appalling, but stripping someone of their property because of something they think (as opposed to something they actually did) sets a precedent that I’m not completely comfortable with. What if he said a bunch of super sexist shit? What if he was way to the right on immigration? I wouldn’t agree with him in any of those cases, but I don’t think they’d be grounds to take away something he bought with his own money.
This is not to say I think he shouldn’t be punished; quite the contrary. I think he should be made as miserable as possible. It’s just that I don’t think handing him a check for TWO BILLION DOLLARS is the best way to do that.
It seems to me there has to be a way to run down the value of the team so dramatically that Sterling will want to get out while the getting’s good and have to settle for pennies on the dollar of the team’s current valuation, while still protecting the integrity of the players. If we all agree that Donald Sterling is an asshole, and I think we do, we could easily band together as a society and fuck him over completely without violating any basic principles of free speech or capitalism.
You’ll recall that when Sterling’s comments first hit the media, the Clippers were in the playoffs and the players protested by turning their gear inside-out for warmups, so no logos were visible. This was an unprecedented player revolt against an owner, but I think we can agree that it was pretty toothless. Turning them inside out during the game would have been more meaningful, but still little more than symbolic.
The best thing would be for all the players on the Los Angeles Clippers go on strike. But they can’t really do that, for a variety of reasons. So they should do the next best thing and and agree to forget how to make free throws for the rest of Sterling’s tenure as owner.
For the near term, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, and the rest of the Clippers are stuck playing for this team until they are either traded or become eligible for free agency. Those contracts go both ways, though — Sterling has to keep paying them until they expire. It would be career suicide for these players to tank games, or give anything less than their best effort, because other teams would have no interest in acquiring them when they get free of the Clippers. By just agreeing to miss all their free throws, players would still be able to show their best stuff on the floor and get the contracts they deserve when they are able to move on, while also destroying Donald Sterling’s chief asset.
And as anyone who ever watched the Shaq-era Lakers knows, you can completely dominate every other aspect of the game and still lose once in a while if one of your key players can’t make free throws. When it’s ALL of your players missing them, even if they’re giving All-Star performances otherwise, you’re going to lose and lose often. You’re not going to make the playoffs. When you don’t make the playoffs, people stop coming. NBA TV and the other networks could stop carrying Clippers games so you can’t even watch them on TV. As receipts plummet and seats stay empty, Sterling won’t even be able to pay the light bill; the Staples Center can cancel their lease, so they are forced to play at an old high school gym, and even it will fall into a state of disrepair, until raccoons are eating discarded hot dogs out of the aisles during games and homeless dudes are wandering onto the court like Dennis Hopper in Hoosiers.
If the NBA really wants to punish Sterling with a sanction, they should let the Clippers continue to participate in the draft lottery — as all the teams that don’t make the playoffs do — but defer the actual picks until after Sterling’s sells, ensuring that they never get another high draft pick and are forced to just bleed out as the talent they already have gets rescued, one player at a time, by the other teams.
When Sterling decides to cut his losses and sells the team for a song to a billionaire from a particularly deserving city — ladies and gentlemen, your 2016 Seattle Supersonics! — the players left over get to continue their careers in a better environment, and the Team Formerly Known As The Clippers gets to collect on all those deferred draft picks and stock up on new talent.
See? Sterling loses his team and at least a billion (with a B) dollars, the players (and the fans) get to play a direct role in sticking it to him, Seattle gets their team back at a price that partially rights the wrong of losing their old one, and nobody suffers. EXCEPT DONALD STERLING, because FUCK THAT GUY.