Donald Sterling testifies at trial

ByRamona Shelburne ESPN logo
Wednesday, July 9, 2014

LOS ANGELES -- Donald Sterling said Tuesday he believes his wife, Shelly Sterling, is only selling the Los Angeles Clippers because she is "terrified and frightened of this NBA" and that if he were to sell the franchise, he could get $2.5 billion to $5 billion because of a boom in media-rights fees.

"Do you think Microsoft is foolish? Do you think they don't think and wonder where they're going to get the money back?" Sterling asked during a contentious hourlong testimony in a Los Angeles probate court. "There's no ego involved here. There's tremendous opportunity."

At the end of this week's trial, Judge Michael Levanas will decide if Shelly Sterling was authorized to sell the franchise to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer for a record-setting $2 billion on May 29. Her attorneys contend that she followed all of the procedures outlined in the Sterling Family Trust -- which owned the team and the other assets the couple has accumulated in nearly six decades of marriage -- when two neurologists examined her husband and determined he was mentally incapacitated and unfit to conduct his own legal and business affairs.

Donald Sterling and his attorneys dispute that, arguing that the exams were conducted under false pretenses because he was not informed the results could later be used to exclude him as a trustee. His lawyers also argue the doctors violated federal privacy laws by disseminating the results of his exams to attorneys in the case, and that their testimony and findings should not be admissible.

Both doctors testified in the case Monday and Tuesday, but the drama peaked when the 80-year-old owner took the stand.

Sterling failed to appear in court Monday, prompting Shelly Sterling's lead attorney, Pierce O'Donnell, to suggest a bench warrant be issued for him. He arrived Tuesday, wearing a black suit and sunglasses, midway through the testimony of Dr. J. Edward Spar, the man whom he'd left an angry voicemail for on June 9 and threatened to have fired from his job at UCLA for releasing his medical records.

Donald Sterling sat patiently for over an hour in the sweltering courtroom, which was filled to capacity with reporters and curious onlookers. During a recess, Shelly approached him, touched his shoulder and the two exchanged pleasantries.

Donald Sterling was then called to the stand and questioned by legendary entertainment attorney Bert Fields and seemed to relish the opportunity to spar with the man who has a reputation for making even the most powerful men in Hollywood squirm on the witness stand.

Before the questioning began, Judge Levanas permitted the attorneys to take their jackets off and promised there would be fans in the courtroom one day. The 85-year-old Fields removed his jacket. Sterling unbuttoned the top buttons of his shirt. Later he asked for a bottle of water and tissues.

From the beginning, Sterling was combative and defensive. After Fields' first question, Sterling said, "Is that a compound question?"

Levanas intervened.

"I know you're a lawyer and a lawyer likes to control what goes on," the judge told Sterling. "If you don't understand a question, let me know. But don't suggest a question is compound or not compound. It's going to take a long time."

Sterling nodded and said: "I'll observe that, your honor. It's just that he asked me three questions in one, so forgive me, I won't let that happen again."

But at every turn, Sterling sought to spar with Fields, calling him a "smart-ass" and belittling him with responses like, "I'm talking about your questions. I'm sure they'll improve."

While Levanas noted that Sterling's responses were "entertaining" to the raucous courtroom, which laughed amid the chattering of typing on laptops, he continually tried to keep the proceedings moving along. And between the angry rants toward the NBA and the doctors who had examined him, and emotional declarations of love for his wife, Sterling addressed and answered several key issues in the case.

"The only one I trust is my wife," he said. "I love her. She's a good person. If there was a fly in the house, she'd open up 10 windows to let it out."

Sterling said he had initially authorized his wife to negotiate with the NBA to sell the franchise because he believed she would keep a portion of the team. He signed a letter sent to the NBA on May 22 by his lawyer, Douglas Walton, informing them of his decision.

"When I found out what was accurate," Sterling said, regarding Ballmer's pending purchase of 100 percent of the team, "I didn't want to go through with the sale. Why is that so hard for you to understand?"

When the team was sold to Ballmer, Sterling issued a news release through his attorney, Bobby Samini, announcing the apparent transaction. Fields put a copy of that news release on a projector for Sterling to read, then referenced quotes from Sterling in news releases on June 9 and 10 in which he reversed course and would not sell the team, and famously called the NBA "despicable monsters."

Sterling disputed he'd said what was in the news releases, refused to acknowledge that Samini was his lawyer and suggested that the way the statements were represented by the media was distorted. However, he eventually explained that when he consented to the sale, he believed the NBA was dropping its lifetime ban of him and a $2.5 million fine. When he learned that the league was not, he did not want to sell.

Now, Sterling says, he believes Shelly vastly undervalued the franchise when she sold it for $2 billion and will fight in court as long as he has to in order to prove that.

"The reason [I'm fighting] is not because of my dignity or embarrassment," Sterling said. "The reason is that the Lakers signed a deal with [Time Warner Cable] for $3 billion while I'm negotiating with Fox. I believe I can get $3 billion. And because of the team's success, there are several radio stations that want to pay a substantial fee.

"It's an economic reason. I'm trying to generate as much success as I can for the trust. ... My wife, she's beautiful, but she cannot run anything."

Donald Sterling suggested he would win his antitrust lawsuit against the NBA and commissioner Adam Silver and be awarded "$9 billion [in damages] from them for what they did."

"There's no ego involved here. There's tremendous opportunity," he said, referencing the boom in media-rights prices. "All I ask is to be patient for another two years and see what this trust does."

Afterward, attorneys on both sides hailed it as a victory for their client.

"The doctors are absolutely correct in their conclusions. You can't help but feel a little sympathy for the man because he clearly is not working with all of his faculties," Ballmer lawyer Adam Streisand said, saying he was unable to testify today "in any kind of competent way."

"I've seen a lot of people who have had cognitive decline and what they do is textbook. It's a defensive mechanism. He doesn't understand the questions, he can't remember the facts. What he does is he becomes combative. He starts making speeches. Then he can't remember his canned speeches, his outbursts. That's just what happens with people who have this kind of cognitive decline and are suffering from Alzheimer's."

Samini had an entirely different take, saying he "did an excellent job on the stand" and joking, "of all the lawyers that were in the room today, if I needed a lawyer, I'd hire him."

Samini said Sterling's combative nature has always been a part of his personality, and many of his jabs at Fields -- telling him to speak up, insulting his questions and repeatedly asking his name and qualifications -- were because of Fields' reputation.

"He knew that Bert Fields was going to be questioning him and found it somewhat insulting that Mr. Fields made comments to the media suggesting that he was going to make him cry after that," Samini said.

"This is the mistake you guys are making. You think he showed up here and put on a show. That's our client. That's been our client for many, many years. He didn't go to bed last night and say, 'I'm going to show up and be this guy.' He came here, he gave his testimony. I think it was sincere, I think it was truthful. I don't think it can be given any other way.

"Of course it's subject to interpretation. I didn't see it as rambling. I saw it as there were things he wanted to communicate and get out and I think he did them pretty effectively."

Sterling will resume his testimony Wednesday afternoon.

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