‘Like a larger-than-life movie’: the shocking true story of the Donald Sterling scandal | US television

It was every public relations executive’s worst nightmare.

Seth Burton was vice-president of communications at the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team when, in 2014, news broke that team owner Donald Sterling had been caught on tape making racist comments in a scandal that shook American sport.

“It was a tough situation and one that couldn’t necessarily be cleaned up,” Burton recalls. “It was remarkable how quickly it took on a life of its own and became a real media firestorm. It was wild how many messages and emails there were – I was staying until two or three in the morning just responding.”

The story of the bombshell tape, and the controversial man behind it, is told in the FX drama series Clipped: The Scandalous Story of LA’s Other Basketball Team, starring Laurence Fishburne, Ed O’Neill, Cleopatra Coleman and Jacki Weaver, streaming on Hulu from Tuesday. It comes two years after HBO’s series Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty about the Clippers’ more illustrious city rivals.

O’Neill plays Sterling, a billionaire lawyer and businessman once described as having a “plantation mentality”. He was born Donald Tokowitz to Russian immigrants in Chicago in 1934. When he was a young child the family moved to Boyle Heights, then a predominantly Jewish low-income neighbourhood east of downtown Los Angeles.

Tokowitz eventually changed his last name, earned a law degree and began practicing divorce and personal injury in 1961. He spent his earnings methodically buying up properties all across Los Angeles, becoming famous for almost never selling any of them.

He became the biggest residential landlord in Los Angeles and, like Donald Trump in New York, Sterling loved to put his name on buildings. In 1989 California magazine profiled him with the headline: “The Man Who Would Be Trump.”

A profile in the Los Angeles Times newspaper noted: “Sterling, the son of a vegetable peddler, was not shy about trumpeting his transformation. In his penthouse office in Beverly Hills, Sterling often showed visitors a Louis XIV desk, paintings by Rembrandt and Renoir and centuries-old Chinese antiques. He eagerly dropped celebrity names, bragging that he bought properties from Elizabeth Taylor and John Wayne, and once boasted of plans to buy an NFL franchise.”

With encouragement from his friend and contemporary the Lakers owner Jerry Buss, Sterling paid just over $12m in 1981 for the beleaguered San Diego Clippers. He abruptly moved the franchise to Los Angeles in 1984, putting them in the decrepit Los Angeles Sports Arena and turned a tidy profit thanks to a sweetheart lease deal.

The team consistently underperformed on court, living in the shadow of the mighty Lakers. Sterling, who was known to heckle his own team from his centre court seat, gained a reputation as a notoriously erratic and frugal owner, often refusing to spend money on player salaries or facilities.

Ramona Shelburne, who reported and hosted The Sterling Affairs, an ESPN 30 for 30 podcast on which Clipped is based, explains: “If you want to be the cool guy in town and you want to be up there with the Lakers and Jerry Buss you’ve got to spend money, treat people right, throw parties that people want to go to.

“Donald tries to do a lot of the things that Jerry Buss does, that the Lakers do, but he’s just not able to do it. He pays people to come to his parties and forces them to come to his parties. He doesn’t treat the players well. It informs the way they run the team. It’s critical to understand how that insecurity plays into who Donald Sterling becomes over the course of 20 or 30 years.”

But that started to change. Suddenly winning became a priority. Under Doc Rivers (Fishburne), a Black coach whom Sterling brought in from Boston and paid $7m a year, the team was enjoying the most successful two-year stretch in its history and was finally a title contender. Then disaster struck.

In April 2014 a recording of Sterling made by his personal assistant and mistress, V Stiviano, was leaked to the TMZ website. In the nine-minute, 27-second audio, Sterling could be heard chiding Stiviano for posting a photo on her Instagram account of herself with Black athletes Magic Johnson and Matt Kemp.

Sterling: In your lousy fucking Instagram, you don’t have to have yourself walking with Black people …
Stiviano: And it bothers you?
Sterling: Yeah, it bothers me a lot that you want to promote, broadcast that you’re associating with Black people, do you have to?
Stiviano: You associate with Black people!
Sterling: I’m not you and you’re not me. You’re supposed to be a delicate white or delicate Latina girl
Stiviano: I’m a mixed girl.

There was more:

Sterling: Why are you taking pictures with minorities, why?
Stiviano: What’s wrong with minorities? What’s wrong with Black people?
Sterling: Nothing. How about your whole life, every day, you could do whatever you want? You could sleep with them, you could bring them in, you could do whatever you want! The little I ask you is not to promote it on, and not to bring them to my games.

The clip went viral, which was no mean feat in 2014, and the outcry was huge. At their next game Clippers players wore black wristbands or armbands and went through their pregame routine with their red shirts on inside-out to hide the team’s logo as a silent protest. Criticism poured in from players such as LeBron James (“There’s no room for Donald Sterling in the NBA”), fans on social media and even the White House.

Ed O’Neill and Cleopatra Coleman in Clipped. Photograph: Kelsey McNeal

Burton, who did not defend Sterling and was grateful to Rivers for speaking out, says: “The moment when President Obama commented on it was the first time it hit home to me just how massive it had become. He was actually at the time on a tour of Asia and was getting asked about this in Asia.

“I remember seeing it on the news and being like, wow, this has now taken on a whole another level. It’s not just something that’s in sports and the NBA. It’s become a little bit of a worldwide situation and then the NBA realised at that point, of course, they had to do something quick, which they did.”

With sponsors threatening to abandon the NBA, its commissioner, Adam Silver, did indeed respond swiftly, banning Sterling for life from all league activities and fining him $2.5m, the maximum amount allowed under league rules. (Sterling had an estimated net worth of about $2bn.)

Sterling gave an interview to Anderson Cooper of CNN and repeatedly apologised and denied accusations that he was racist, claiming he had been “baited” into making “terrible” remarks. But he also launched another bizarre rant against Johnson.

A decade later his wife, Shelly, continues to defend him and blame the crisis on Stiviano. “It’s totally ridiculous,” she says in a phone interview with the Guardian. “She had drugged him for quite a while and what he said was not what he meant. He sponsors and donates to many African American churches and they were even going to give him a plaque and everything, so it’s totally ludicrous. She did it for money.”

Sterling showered Stiviano with gifts such as money, cars and a $1.8m duplex. Yet Shelly, who married Sterling in 1956, refuses to believe that they were having an affair. “I don’t think it was an affair because they never had a sexual relationship and I knew pretty well.

“Didn’t the world forgive [President Bill] Clinton for having his girlfriend underneath the desk? Every one of the presidents – I guess they have affairs. But I don’t think this was an affair because I knew her too. I never saw them kiss or hold hands or anything. She was basically working for him and she just did what she wanted to.”

Donald and Shelly Sterling did separate for a while, however. She says: “I felt it was better for me. I was a little afraid with all the paparazzi and everything so I moved to our other house and it was quite a ways. I just had to get away from all this craziness and the people stalking us. I was a little afraid.”

In the aftermath of the tape furore, Shelly decided to sell the Clippers, a move that Sterling tried to block. Shelly went to court and had her estranged husband removed as a trustee on grounds of mental incapacitation. The Clippers were bought by the former Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer for a then-record $2bn.

Donald and Shelly Sterling in 2012. Photograph: Mark J Terrill/AP

Looking back, Shelly contends that Sterling was better off not keeping the franchise. “I don’t think he wanted to, to be honest, and in today’s world we’re so happy we don’t have a team.

“Right now to own a team is really tough and the salaries are crazy and there’s so many problems. He’s sort of relieved that he doesn’t have to go through all that. I have more than I had when we had the team. I have 12 tickets and everybody, when I go there, they like me, and I don’t have any problem.”

Shelly continues to deny that Sterling, now 90, is a racist. “Absolutely not. We have many friends that are African American. We donate a lot of money to them and it’s just ridiculous but I guess anybody can write anything they want.”

The infamous tape was hardly out of character, however. In 2009 Sterling and his insurance company paid $2.75m to settle a federal housing discrimination lawsuit after court proceedings packed with scandalous testimony about Sterling’s opinions of African American and Latino tenants of his properties.

Elgin Baylor, a former Clippers general manager who brought an unsuccessful lawsuit alleging race and age discrimination, claimed that Sterling had a “plantation mentality”, envisioning a team of “poor black boys from the south playing for a white coach”.

The Sterling Affairs podcast, which in 2019 provided a definitive account of the entire saga, interviewed Olden Polynice, who joined the Clippers in 1991. He recalled Sterling walking into the locker room when Polynice had a towel on. “So I’m sitting there and I’m the only guy in the locker room and he said, ‘Hey Olden, how you doing?’

“He put his hand on my shoulder, he’s rubbing, ‘Look how big and strong he is. Wow, look at that.’ I’m like, ‘OK, this is getting a little awkward.’ So I put my hand out, shake his hand. His friends, shake their hands and say, ‘How y’all doing?’ He goes right back, ‘Wow, look at these muscles.’ I’m like, ‘Oh hell. What the fuck is going on here?’

Laurence Fishburne, Ed O’Neill and Jacki Weaver. Photograph: Kelsey McNeal

“So I’m sitting there, now I’m starting to sweat a little bit. Because I’m like, ‘Nobody’s in here. There’s a reason why they left.’ And it’s like he just kept looking at me like, ‘Wow, look at this buck.’ Now when he said that, that’s when I, ‘Oh shit.’ I’m like, ‘Buck? I was like what the fuck?’

Polynice added: “Black slave on the trading block, yes. I’m telling you that’s when I was like, ‘Holy shit.’ That fucked me up.”

Shelburne, a Los Angeles native who covered the story when it broke in 2014, says in episode one of The Sterling Affairs: “Los Angeles sits on two faultlines – the San Andreas and race. All of us know it. We live with it.

“Donald Sterling was another. Anyone who played for him, or worked for him, or covered him in the press, or lived in one of his hundreds of apartments. On the one hand knew that it was all a matter of time until he blew up.”

Shelburne adds by phone: “Covering the story in real time felt like living in a larger-than-life movie. Even in the early days of reporting it, I felt like it was a very Los Angeles story. It had everything, it had sex, it had money, it had betrayal, it had racism, it had sexism and all of these characters jumped out in this elevated kind of way. It’s a narrative story that you can sink your teeth into.”

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