Rivers has not acted shocked or indignant or blindsided, which is good, because he can’t be any of those things. He can’t be surprised that a voice purported to be Sterling, the Los Angeles Clippers owner, turned up in an audio recording saying some disgusting, unforgivable things about black people. Sterling has never been known for his tact or his progressiveness. If Rivers — or anyone else — is surprised by any of this, they haven’t been paying attention for the last 30 years.
The first big whiff of Sterling’s bigotry wafted through the NBA underground in the late 1980s and early ’90s, back in the days before social media, when such outrageous statements could somehow sneak below the mainstream public’s notice. The story goes that while negotiating a contract with Danny Manning, Sterling said something along the lines of “that’s a lot of money for a poor black boy,” which seems tame compared to the more recent taped recording at first blush.
But then you start to think about it. Read his words again. Buried in that statement is Sterling’s sentiment, essentially, that these men — these “boys” — were his property, that they should be grateful for the riches he showered upon them as a magnanimous rich white man on high. If you think that is a fair trade-off, well, that says as much about you as it does about Sterling.
Which brings us back to Rivers. Eventually, something was going to happen to cause Rivers some severe headaches in L.A. It was inevitable. Most people probably figured it was going to be basketball related, perhaps a roster fire sale in a year or two, when the famously fickle Sterling would decide he had given his fans enough of their sip of success and revert back to the style that produced eight playoff appearances in 42 years.
Rivers had to understand this. Grant Hill’s insistence that the franchise’s culture had changed was a nice gesture, but Rivers had to know better. There was too much of a history there with Sterling.
The losing. The Manning incident. The accusations by former general manager Elgin Baylor in a wrongful termination suit that Sterling’s “ongoing racist attitude” permeated the organization. (The court ruled in favor of Sterling in the wrongful termination suit; Sterling’s attitudes toward race were not on trial.) The discrimination suit against Sterling for allegedly refusing to rent to Hispanics and blacks. The weird fraud allegations leveled at outgoing coach Mike Dunleavy when he tried to get the Clippers to pay his salary.
This was all part of the trade-off Rivers made in exchange for getting to coach Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. The talent was superior to what the Boston Celtics were bringing back, for certain, but Rivers was trading one of the more stable and rational ownership groups in the NBA for arguably the most dysfunctional owner in sports. Rivers knew what he was getting into. He’s too smart for anyone to believe otherwise.
At some point, Rivers would get a rude awakening in Clipperville. It just manifested a bit sooner than expected, and in a far uglier form than he might have foreseen.