National Columnist

Donald Sterling gets lifetime ban; we should have stopped him sooner

More: Sterling banned for life | More Sterling updates

Adam Silver was shaking. The NBA commissioner didn't seem merely hurt or shocked, though those were two words he used to describe his feelings about the Donald Sterling fiasco that has hijacked the 2014 NBA Playoffs.

He was seething.

Watching online Tuesday afternoon, you could feel his fury and almost hear his heartbeat as Silver spoke in short, clipped tones. One disgusted sound bite at a time, Silver spit out the news that so many wanted to hear: a lifetime ban for Sterling, the racist owner of the Los Angeles Clippers whose bigoted beliefs were outed in a handful of taped conversations leaked to the media. And beyond that, a request to the NBA Board of Governors to force Sterling to sell the Clippers to someone who would better represent the NBA. The bar is low for that, because Sterling was an appalling representative and had been for years.

And for that, there is plenty of blame to go around. Donald Sterling didn't just emerge from under a racist rock this weekend when those tapes started to surface, shocking the world with his beliefs from an era that can't fade fast enough. Those awful statements he made to his girlfriend, the stuff that leaked out in the last few days that made it clear Sterling considers African-American people beneath him? That didn't surprise anybody.

In 2003 the Housing Rights Center and 19 tenants of an apartment complex owned by Sterling filed a federal lawsuit against him for discrimination. The tenants accused Sterling of preferring not to rent to Hispanics because they "smoke, drink and just hang around the building," or to African-Americans because they "smell and attract vermin." Who did Sterling prefer for tenants? He preferred Korean-Americans, according to the lawsuit, because they "will live in whatever conditions he gives them and still pay the rent without complaint."

That was public record. And that was 11 years ago.

Sterling eventually settled that and other lawsuits for more than $7 million in damages and legal fees, but the NBA allowed Sterling to continue owning the Clippers. It's not only the NBA that allowed Donald Sterling to be Donald Sterling, though.

We did it. We allowed Donald Sterling. We accepted him. Hell, we enabled him.

Every ticket you bought to a Clippers game put money in his pocket. Every jersey you paid for. Every game that came and went without a protest outside Staples Center by fans of the NBA, of basketball, of simple human decency. You allowed this.

Every column we never wrote, begging the NBA to rid itself of the canker sore that owns the other franchise in Los Angeles. I accepted this.

Every contract an NBA player and coach signed with Sterling. The $107 million Chris Paul got to stay with the Clippers. The $95 million Blake Griffin accepted from Sterling. The $21 million Doc Rivers grabbed to avoid having to rebuild in Boston. They enabled this.

Adam Silver said he was "shocked" when he first heard the tape, saying he hoped they were doctored to make Sterling look like something he wasn't, when Sterling has long been true to what he is.

Six years after that 2003 discrimination lawsuit, former Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor, an all-time great player, sued Sterling for age and racial discrimination. Although Baylor later dropped the race charges, and Sterling beat the rest of the case in a jury trial, we heard from Baylor in 2009 that Sterling imagined "a Southern plantation-type structure" for the team, which he wanted "composed of 'poor black boys from the South' and a white head coach."

These weren't hints or suggestions. These were outright accusations filed in various courtrooms, and still Donald Sterling sat courtside as owner of the Clippers, allowed and enabled by all of us. Three years after the Elgin Baylor lawsuit, Griffin signed his monster contract before the 2012-13 season. Paul and Rivers signed their latest deals before this past season.

Fans went to games, and not to protest. Media wrote columns, and not to demand Sterling's removal from a league whose diversity didn't align with his personal preferences. Players cashed his checks.

Together, we allowed Donald Sterling to enjoy himself as owner of an NBA franchise for far too long.

No fixing that. But we can look ahead to an NBA that will be without Sterling in spirit and, surely, without him in ownership. The world has spoken, and it has spoken in disgust for Donald Sterling. The NBA Board of Governors would be deaf not to hear that, and not to hear its commissioner, Adam Silver, who said Tuesday he fully expected the owners to do as he asks.

And Silver isn't asking. He's demanding the removal of this owner, and he's going to get what he wants. That's what we learned Tuesday, on a day we said hello to the NBA's formidable new commissioner: Better late than never, the NBA is saying goodbye to Donald Sterling.

 
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