Gene Collier: NBA action vs. L.A. Clippers owner better late than never

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By way of disclosure, most of what I know about Donald Sterling I’ve learned in the past few days, and obviously very little of it is flattering except that the old guy can sure get good seats at a basketball game for him and his granddaughter.

Oh…girlfriend, OK.

But Sterling did not have very good seats, apparently, for the march of American history, particularly in the theater of race relations, where all he could get was an obstructed view.

Whether obstructed by ignorance, hatred, fear or some poisoned cocktail of other social malignancies, Sterling could never see the skyline of any post-racial America, let alone the honored foundation that had been laid out all around him.

When he told his girlfriend he would prefer she brought no black people into his aura and didn’t much like the apparency that she enjoyed being seen and photographed with black people, Donald Sterling did more than just join the likes of Cliven (‘Better Off As Slaves”) Bundy in line to be the next slapstick race clown in the public square. Sterling, not some red-necked cattle scofflaw enjoying his 15 minutes but the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers of the NBA, had just betrayed, cheapened and undermined sport as a primary cultural engine of social progress.

No one understood this better than Adam Silver, the still pretty new NBA commissioner, whose official reaction came Tuesday at a Manhattan news conference. ICYMI: Silver’s announcement was the rhetorical equivalent of a flying thunder dunk that, were it not a mere metaphor, would have somebody still sweeping up shards of backboard glass and picking the rest from Sterling’s sorry head.

“The hateful opinions voiced by [Sterling] are deeply offensive and harmful,” said Silver, his voice virtually quaking with passion. “That they came from an NBA owner only heightens the damage and my personal outrage. Sentiments of this kind are contrary to the principles of inclusion and respect that form the foundation of our diverse, multicultural and multiethnic league.

“I am personally distraught that the views expressed by Mr. Sterling came from within an institution that has historically taken such a leadership role in matters of race relations and caused current and former players, coaches, fans and partners of the NBA to question their very association with the league.

“To them, and to pioneers of the game like Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper, Sweetwater Clifton, the great Bill Russell and particularly Magic Johnson, I apologize.”

But Silver understands that he needn’t have stopped there.

To Jesse Owens, to Jackie Robinson, to Branch Rickey, to Roberto Clemente, to Dan Rooney, and to the thousands more figures who, one way or another, helped pull sports from the grip of those who would have kept it the color of the Southeast Conference of about 1959, Donald Sterling’s comments are a grim reminder of why they did what they did and why, as the wicked never rest, there can be no rest for the righteous.

“Accordingly,” Silver said. “I am banning Mr. Sterling for life…”

Of course, this is where it gets sticky.

There is precedent for this kind of ax-swinging, but it took baseball commissioner Bud Selig repeated attempts to rid the game of Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott in the 1990s. Schott, whose hate-filled utterances were so versatile she scalded blacks, Jews and women while complimenting Hitler and — oh yeah — saying she felt “cheated” when the home plate umpire collapsed and died during a Reds home opener, had to be suspended multiple times and leaned on heavily to divest herself of the ballclub.

Baseball might have been blindsided by Schott, who came to ownership through the marginal shareholders’ backdoor in the mid-1980s and became majority owner mostly out of fear the franchise might move. But basketball has no such plausible deniability with Sterling, the league’s longest-tenured owner and a man whose dossier reads remarkably like your standard serial racist slumlord real estate baron who has been sued by the Justice Department resulting in proceedings in which Sterling actually said, “Black tenants smell and attract vermin.”

The NBA has long known about this, which is why Silver was asked why Sterling hadn’t triggered any such outrage before last weekend’s remarks.

“I can’t speak to past actions,” he responded, “other than to say when we had specific evidence, we acted.”

Uh, no, ya didn’t. At least not with any proportionality.

So now Silver says he has 75 percent of the owners behind a move to force Sterling from the league, which is what it takes constitutionally. That’s the NBA constitution, by the way; I don’t want to suggest the Founding Fathers signed off on it.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who said he agrees with the lifetime ban, apparently will not be among those voting for Sterling to divest, calling that “a very, very, very slippery slope.”

Also, Sterling will likely sue, as lawyers will.

But let’s not say to the NBA that this is too little, too late.

It’s about right, punitively, and so much better late than never. Never is the time frame of the Donald Sterlings in America.

Gene Collier:

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