LEILA FADEL, HOST:
Five years ago, the young girlfriend of an old, wealthy, married man felt slighted, ignored, dismissed. She got mad, so mad that she released a recording of one of their arguments to TMZ.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
V STIVIANO: People call you and tell you that I have black people on my Instagram, and it bothers you.
DONALD STERLING: Yeah. It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you're associating with black people. Do you have to?
FADEL: You might remember this recording. The woman was V. Stiviano. The man was Donald Sterling, the longtime owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. The recording rocked the NBA.
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STIVIANO: Do you know that you have a whole team that's black, that plays for you?
STERLING: You just - do I don't? I support them and give them food and clothes and cars and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them?
FADEL: The fallout was quick and surprising. Sterling was ousted after decades of unchecked bad behavior, and the Clippers got a new owner. Now, the entire saga with its seedy, sordid details is being told by ESPN's Ramona Shelburne in a new series from "30 For 30" podcasts and The Undefeated called "The Sterling Affairs." Ramona Shelburne joins us now. Hi, Ramona.
RAMONA SHELBURNE: How's it going?
FADEL: Good. So this was a really fascinating listen. But what was it that made you kind of want to take a step back, go back, unpack it in the way that you did today?
SHELBURNE: So I felt in 2014, when I was covering this, that it was so much bigger than what we were reporting on minute to minute, hour to hour. I - especially once I started making the connections between, you know, 30 years ago when the NBA tried to get Donald Sterling out of the league - they tried to kick him out.
SHELBURNE: But they ended up in court for six years. And Donald eventually won. And I think maybe doing a deep dive on this helps you reckon with why, you know, us in the media didn't do enough maybe to expose some of this. Like, you know, we wrote about him being, like, this weird, old owner...
SHELBURNE: ...With this weird, old uncle quality. But we didn't expose the depth of it.
FADEL: Right. For people who are not from LA, who don't follow the NBA or sports, can you describe Donald Sterling?
SHELBURNE: Donald Sterling was a poor kid from East LA whose father worked at the markets and was a junk peddler and ends up putting himself through Southwestern Law School. He built a great career as a personal injury attorney and then invest that money into LA real estate in the '70s. Instead of taking his own background as Donald Tokowitz at the time, as a young Jewish boy who had sort of been discriminated against by law firms and understood the effects that redlining have on a community in his city, Donald Sterling basically does unto others, unto all of Los Angeles, where he became the largest residential landlord in LA - he basically does unto others what had been done to him.
SHELBURNE: (Laughter) Like, he was so loud and inappropriate with his players all the time. And I would hear stories from players about the way he would treat them and the way they just all cringed when he was around. It was like they all ran the other way when he would come into the locker room or into any of their social settings.
FADEL: And there are some really cringe-worthy moments. One from the podcast that really stuck with me was from a player, Oden Polynice, describing an interaction with Sterling in the Clippers locker room with Sterling talking about his body.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE STERLING AFFAIRS")
OLDEN POLYNICE: He goes right back. Wow. Look at these muscles. Like, aw, hell (laughter). 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, dang. He just kept looking and was like, wow. Look at this buck. I'm like, buck? I was like, what the [expletive]? Black slave on the trading block - yes.
FADEL: I mean, it leaves you kind of speechless.
SHELBURNE: Oh, yeah. And I think that when we talked about this story and the part of the reason why people reacted so viscerally to it, so emotionally to it, is he had what's called - you know, what we refer to as a plantation mentality, right? Like, this idea that I am the owner. And Olden hints at it. You know, these are black slaves. OK? These are proud black men who have worked their entire lives to become fantastic basketball players. And they're in the NBA, the best league in the world. Most of them have great careers off the court as well. For them to be treated like, as Olden Polynice says, black slaves and be seen that way and made to feel that way was absolutely disgusting. And, you know, they - even in the tape that Donald Sterling has where he talks to V. Stiviano where he says, who feeds them? Who gives them clothes? - like, as if they should be indebted to him...
SHELBURNE: ...As if they owed him something.
FADEL: And then he repeated that...
FADEL: ...In defense of himself when people were accusing him of being a racist.
SHELBURNE: Yeah, like, as if somebody else can own the Clippers and give them this job. They don't need you for a job. You just happen to have a franchise. The reason why that felt like such a dangerous thing in the league, if we want to extend this metaphor - and it's - I'm always careful in how I talk about it. But I think owners are always terrified of the players rising up against them, the same way - if we go back to the plantation days. Plantation owners were afraid of slaves rising up against them. I mean, this is a terrifying existential question. And I think, at that moment, it finally was so egregious...
SHELBURNE: ...And it was so public that players like LeBron James felt comfortable the day after those tapes came out stepping in front of the cameras and saying, there is no place for Donald Sterling in this league. That right now seems so obvious, right?
SHELBURNE: There is no place for Donald Sterling in the NBA. But when Lebron said it, it was revelatory. It was like, this is the rebellion.
FADEL: So this is also a story about how a new NBA commissioner actually does something about an owner. How much of this was about Adam Silver asserting his authority?
SHELBURNE: I think a lot of this story is about Adam Silver hearing the tape and knowing instantly that they needed to get rid of Donald Sterling. You know, I've talked to Adam at length about this over the years. Like, I think I like his comment. He says, you know, in some ways, my newness to the job - he'd only been on the job for less than 90 days...
SHELBURNE: ...When this happens. He said, in some ways, my newness to the job actually helped me because he didn't have to think through or get bogged down by all of the other issues involved here and the slippery slope for other owners, the issue of being in court with him forever. Like, he just knew this was morally repugnant. And he issued what amounted to an executive order. I mean, he just did it and challenged anyone to say he was wrong later.
FADEL: And where is Donald Sterling today?
SHELBURNE: (Laughter) It's like nothing ever happened. He's living in Beverly Hills. He has...
SHELBURNE: He's $2 billion richer. He is still frequently spotted around town with much younger women.
SHELBURNE: I mean, I have people who always are texting me screenshots of Donald out with another mistress or young woman. The only difference is he doesn't own the Clippers anymore. And, you know, I'll never forget one of the longtime employees of the Clippers. He said, you know, without the Clippers, Donald is just another rich guy in LA.
FADEL: Ramona Shelburne - she's the host of "The Sterling Affairs," a "30 For 30" podcast from ESPN and The Undefeated. Thanks for joining us.
SHELBURNE: Appreciate you having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.