Donald Sterling: Proceedings a sham

ByRamona Shelburne ESPN logo
Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling responded forcefully Tuesday to the NBA's charges to terminate his ownership, while his estranged wife, Shelly Sterling, continued to move quickly to sell the team by the end of the week.

Donald Sterling's lawyer, Max Blecher, told ESPN on Tuesday that his client "is going to fight to the bloody end" and has effectively "disavowed" the agreement he reached with his wife last week that would allow her to negotiate a sale of the team.

"I don't know what agreement she has with him, but I'm saying to you today, he disavows anything she's doing to sell the team," Blecher said. "He says, 'It's my team, and I'll sell it when and if I get around to it.'"

Asked why Sterling seems to have had a change of heart, Blecher said, "He was in a state of shock at first. Now he's recovering and he's much more feisty."

Shelly Sterling and her advisers were undeterred by Donald Sterling's position and continued to move swiftly to sell the team, setting a deadline of Wednesday morning for the first round of bidding on the franchise, sources told ESPN.

Pierce O'Donnell, an attorney for Shelly Sterling, issued a statement Tuesday stating that his client had a written agreement with her husband to sell the team and she "and the NBA are working cooperatively on the transaction."

ESPN, meanwhile, has obtained a letter, dated May 22, that was sent from Donald Sterling's lawyer to the NBA, in which he tells the league he has authorized Shelly "to negotiate with the National Basketball Association regarding all issues in connection with the sale of the Los Angeles Clippers team, owned by LAC Basketball Club, Inc."

Blecher was copied on the letter, which was sent by one of Sterling's personal lawyers.

Shelly Sterling has retained Bank of America to help sell the franchise. ESPN reported Sunday that at least six serious groups have approached Sterling and her advisers about purchasing the team. Four of those groups are known: former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer; a group including music mogul David Geffen, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison and Oprah Winfrey; billionaire surgeon and entrepreneur Patrick Soon-Shiong; and a group including former NBA star Grant Hill and Southern California businessmen Tony Ressler and Bruce Karsh.

One source with knowledge of the process estimated that most of the initial bids will start at $1 billion.

Bank of America made bid books with financial information on the team available to potential buyers Tuesday. The Clippers' television rights are up in two years, a key reason the franchise could sell for more than $1 billion. However, the Clippers still have nine years remaining on their lease with Staples Center, according to sources.

The dispute between the Sterlings comes as the NBA continues to press for a June 3 hearing of its board of governors, which will end with a vote on whether to terminate the Sterlings' ownership.

It has been made clear to the Sterlings that the NBA would not accept any situation in which either of them retains an interest in the team after it is sold, according to a source with knowledge of the discussions.

Donald Sterling responded Tuesday evening to the NBA's charges and attempt to terminate his ownership by calling the league's penalties "draconian" and the proceedings a "sham."

"I believe what they've done is illegal and it will not hold up in court," Blecher told ESPN. "I believe what they're doing is a blatant invasion of his constitutional rights because they're using a tape recording that he did not consent to, and under California law, that recording cannot be used for any purpose, for any proceeding.

"So if the basis of their case is illegal evidence, they don't have much of a case. ... The whole thing is a pile of garbage."

In the documents sent to the NBA offices Tuesday, Sterling denies every allegation and charge made by the NBA and asks that the proceedings to terminate him at the June 3 hearing be dismissed.

Both Sterlings had until midnight ET to respond to the NBA's charges that Donald Sterling damaged the league and its business partners, including the players, with his racist comments. Shelly Sterling also filed a response to the league's termination charges, reasserting her 50 percent ownership interest in the team and contending that she is being unfairly punished for her husband's actions.

In a statement from vice president of communications Mike Bass, the NBA said the responses from the lawyers representing Donald and Shelly Sterling will be distributed -- together with the charge -- to the board of governors before the hearing next Tuesday.

"Should the board vote to sustain the charge, the Sterlings' interests in the Clippers will be terminated and the team will be sold," the league said.

In his written response, Donald Sterling also threatens future legal action against the NBA under state or federal law, questions his ability to get a fair hearing from the board of governors (many of whom issued statements condemning his words and praising the actions of commissioner Adam Silver) and states that he never intended to harm the NBA with his comments.

"This was an argument by a jealous man and the woman he loved that never should have left the privacy of the living room," the response reads. "And while Mr. Sterling said some terrible words in the passion of the argument -- as he had already publicly admitted and for which he has apologized -- he has not taken a 'position' or an 'action.'"

Sterling also argues that he is being unfairly punished commensurate with other offenses, such as the $100,000 fine Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant received in 2011 for directing a gay slur at a referee.

While his "opinions may be unpopular and false, they remain opinions," Sterling's response reads. He also questions whether the NBA is "willing to set a standard that an individual can be punished for voicing a negative opinion.

"If so, such a standard will make short shrift of many players and coaches. It will also needlessly suppress free speech."

Sterling specifically references Orlando Magic owner Richard DeVos, who, in his words, "has made highly controversial comments against individuals with HIV/AIDS and generously supports anti-homosexual causes with impunity."

Sterling contends that while his statements were regrettable, they did not have a materially adverse effect on the NBA and that because he is locked out from his offices at Staples Center, he is not able to adequately respond to those charges.

"Among other things," Sterling's response reads, "he cannot verify how many season-ticket holders have demanded refunds, how many individuals purchased season tickets after the illegal recording was released, and how merchandise and concession sales were impacted after the illegal recording."

Sterling's response also claims it would cost him $300 million to $500 million in capital gains taxes if he is forced to sell now rather than pass the team on to his heirs.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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