The single undeniable lesson of the Donald Sterling saga

Who makes the game? It turns out it's NOT the old racist billionaire.

Good morning. Let’s basketball.

The most fascinating, impactful NBA story of the past decade is certainly the Donald Sterling saga. Now six years old, the ordeal has largely exited the public consciousness. The only Clipper involved in any way who remains in L.A. is Doc Rivers. Steve Ballmer is entrenched with the franchise, and it has a whole new face and vibe after the Kawhi Leonard coup. The Clippers have moved past Sterling to a degree that may not have seemed possible in 2014. It’s been an impressive metamorphosis.

ESPN and The Undefeated did a big podcast series called The Sterling Affairs in 2019 to mark the five-year anniversary, and it had lots of interesting backstory on the Sterlings and the early days of their Clippers ownership. It also had remarkable access into the actual events of April and May 2014 and beyond via a close witness: Shelly Sterling, Donald’s bewildered, bewildering wife. That access came at an apparent price, as the podcast lent massive credibility and credulity to Shelly, someone who a) had been accused of racist discrimination herself and b) defended her husband on a number of indefensible topics. As someone unwilling to spend limited supplies of empathy on a billionaire co-pilot of a real estate empire built on racism, Shelly’s presentation as a character worthy of sympathy was discomforting.

Thankfully, Shelly Sterling does not appear in Blackballed, a new documentary on the Sterling saga available on new streaming platform Quibi. The doc is about two hours in total, in 7-10 minute bites over 12 episodes. It’s every bit as quick and snappy as that sounds — I don’t know about other content on Quibi, but the documentary format works this way. (T-Mobile get a free year of Quibi, for what it’s worth.) And the content, construction and lessons from Blackballed — this coming from someone who wrote about the saga seemingly every day for months — is excellently done and worth your time.

This is the Sterling saga as the (most of the) players experienced it, as Doc Rivers experienced it, as Adam Silver experienced it. The frame is that the NBA was already experiencing what some sociologists have called The Great Awokening. Sterling put it over the top. He solidified the power slowly acquired by players over the previous decades. He cemented players as the leaders and moral conscience of the NBA, for better or worse.

Which is pretty f—king ironic given how Donald Sterling was his entire life and how he treated “his” players.

Chris Paul is in many ways the star of Blackballed, both as the on-court leader and conscience of the Clippers and the president of the NBA players’ union at the time. CP3 is candid about his priorities and emotions through the saga, and opens up about a racist incident in his North Carolina childhood at a basketball game. CP3 didn’t want to boycott a game. When he explains why, it makes perfect sense. Other players were also really fantastic in their interviews, particularly Matt Barnes (who is an All-Star level media personality at this point), DeAndre Jordan (he is so funny) and J.J. Redick.

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Blake Griffin was notably absent from Blackballed. But the documentary had a major advantage over the podcast series in being able to provide video evidence. And one clip that we get is the infamous, to my knowledge previously unseen image of Griffin being introduced by Sterling at his annual white party in Blake’s rookie year. The cringe is overwhelming.

The context is largely provided through interviews with Doc Rivers (always a delight to listen to) and a cadre of media folks including Jemele Hill, Stephen A. Smith, Dan Woike and the perfect duo of Rembert Browne and Wesley Morris. (Morris had never seen Sterling’s infamous Anderson Cooper interview — there’s a lot of infamy here so I’m using that word a lot, sorry — and his reaction is just incredible. I’d watch a show about anything if Rembert and Morris were hosting.)

Other than Griffin, the person I most wanted to hear from in this documentary but didn’t was LeBron James, given the importance the producers lend to his activism for making the Sterling saga end differently than prior scandals had. The documentary presents a throughline from player protest statements over the killing of Trayvon Martin to the strong player reaction over the Sterling tape (LeBron straight-up declared that Sterling should not be a team owner when it came out) to player activism over the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice in subsequent months. Hearing LeBron’s take on that social transformation on a media property he doesn’t directly control would be really interesting. (It would have been interesting to hear from Andre Iguodala or another Warrior on what they were thinking during that playoff series, too.)

The activation of social activism in the NBA aside, this presentation of the story via the players’ viewpoint really does reveal the true historical impact of the Sterling saga: it proved that the players run the league. One of Sterling’s despicable boasts in the (one more time) infamous tape is that team owners, like himself, “make the game.” The players proved that to be bulls—t in the immediate wake of the tape by getting him the hell out of there. That players asserted this righteous power in the early days of Adam Silver’s tenure as NBA commissioner set a tone and, I think, brought the league and players’ interests into closer alignment. Silver is fond of saying, like his predecessor, that he works for the 30 team owners. But we learned that’s a lie in 2014, and it remains a lie today. “The League” isn’t the 30 team owners. It’s the star players. They make the game.

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