By Chris Hoenig
Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling is fighting to keep his team, despite a deal with his wife to sell the club after being charged by the NBA for his recorded racist comments.
After sending a 32-page response to the league ahead of his hearing next week, Max Blecher, Sterling’s lawyer, told ESPN that the 80-year-old “is going to fight to the bloody end” and has no intention to follow through with any sale, regardless of the deal with Shelly Sterling.
“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.'”
USA Today reports that Sterling claims in his official response to the league to have received offers upward of $2.5 billion for the team. An NBC Los Angeles reporter tweeted that he confirmed the information with Sterling’s lawyer, but DiversityInc could not find any reference to a $2.5 billion offer in the response and no other independent reporting confirms the figure aside from the single tweet.
— Robert Kovacik (@RobertNBCLA) May 27, 2014
“He was in a state of shock at first. Now he’s recovering and he’s much more feisty,” Blecher told ESPN about Sterling’s change of heart.
In their response to the NBA, Sterling and his lawyers claim that the plan to potentially force the sale of the Clippers is illegal for several reasons. First, they claim that Sterling’s racist comments, “made in a living room during a ‘lovers’ quarrel,'” were recorded without Sterling’s knowledge, which violates his constitutional right to privacy and makes them inadmissible as evidence.
Even if the tape is deemed admissible as evidence, Sterling’s legal team writes that “a jealous rant to a lover never intended to be published cannot offend the NBA rules,” and that Commissioner Adam Silver has not provided sufficient proof that Sterling has violated any article of the NBA constitution.
They also claim that comments made to CNN’s Anderson Cooper, in which he spoke disparagingly of Magic Johnson, don’t constitute a violation of the NBA constitution. “While Mr. Sterling’s opinion of Magic Johnson may also be unpopular, is the NBA willing to set a standard that an individual can be punished for voicing a negative opinion of a popular player,” the response asks. “If so, such a standard will make short shrift of many players and coaches. It will also needlessly suppress free speech.”
Sterling has been locked out of his offices at Staples Center, preventing him from collecting evidence to defend himself, and cannot get a fair hearing from other league owners who have already spoken out against him, the lawyers write.
In addition, they say that forcing the sale of the team would cause unfair financial ramifications for Sterling, due to the tax burden of a sale. Even though Sterling still stands to walk away with a massive profit despite his racist comments and dealings—he paid just $12 million for the team and could sell for $1 billion or more—the deal would cost him hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes (20 percent of the sale would be owed to the federal government as capital-gains tax, while the deal is subject to an additional 13.3 percent tax by the state of California).
“In other words, if the Los Angeles Clippers passed to the Sterlings’ heirs and they subsequently sold the team, they would pay immensely reduced capital-gains taxes—by several orders of magnitude,” the response reads. “Accordingly, a forced sale of the team would result in an egregious forfeiture to the Sterling family.”
The lawyers also dispute the $2.5 million fine imposed on Sterling by the league, arguing that it is unjustly greater than any fine ever doled out by the league. They cite several examples—including the case of Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, who was fined just $100,000 for directing a gay slur at a referee, which was caught by television cameras—and claim that the maximum allowable fine is $1 million.
You can download the full 32-page response by clicking here.
Shelly Sterling, meanwhile, is moving forward with the sale of the team, and is already accepting a first round of bids. Pierce O’Donnell, Shelly Sterling’s attorney, reiterated Tuesday that she does have a written agreement with her husband to sell the team. She has retained Bank of America to help broker the deal.
Four out of at least six serious bidders for the team are known: former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who met with Shelly Sterling over the weekend; billionaire surgeon and entrepreneur Patrick Soon-Shiong, a minority owner of the Lakers; a group led by Oracle CEO Larry Ellison and media moguls David Geffen and Oprah Winfrey; and another group that includes former NBA All-Star Grant Hill and local businessmen Tony Ressler and Bruce Karsh. First-round bids are expected to start at $1 billion.
Donald Sterling will appear before the league’s Board of Governors on June 3, when the owners could vote to strip Sterling of his ownership rights.