CHICAGO — No Bulls players wore their warm-up shirts inside-out before their playoff game Tuesday night against the Wizards as a silent protest over Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s racist comments.
No incendiary signs from fans at the United Center ridiculed Sterling, and no outlandish statements from the Bulls or Wizards rebuked him. No need existed for anybody to symbolically show dissent over Sterling’s discriminatory speech, not after NBA Commissioner Adam Silver directly delivered a powerful message earlier in the day that echoed around the league.
“It’s unfortunate, the whole thing, but it’s a strong statement by the league, and it needed to be made,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said before Game 5. “It’s great leadership by Adam.”
If the release of secret recordings of Sterling scolding his girlfriend for bringing African-Americans to Clippers games stripped him of his personal dignity, Silver took away everything else that mattered to the disgraced 80-year-old Chicago native.
Bravo, Mr. Commissioner. The easy decision also happened to be the right one, and the NBA will benefit as much as society. In a move as strong as it was swift, the newest commissioner in pro sports emerged as the boldest when Silver imposed a lifetime ban on Sterling and fined the exposed bigot $2.5 million — the harshest penalty ever issued by the NBA. As Thibodeau said, the most progressive league in professional sports, one that welcomed Jason Collins this season as the first openly gay player in a major sport, needed this.
Additionally, Silver announced plans to strongly urge the NBA Board of Governors to exercise its authority to force the billionaire to sell the Clippers. It seems unlikely Silver would include that final step as part of the punishment if he didn’t feel confident three-fourths of the NBA owners would approve it as the bylaws require.
“I fully expect to get the support I need from other owners to remove (Sterling),” Silver said at a New York news conference.
Enough momentum among ownership exists that some league observers predict unanimous approval, even if early reports say Sterling insists the Clippers aren’t for sale and won’t go down quietly.
Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, an influential owner with a history of hiring minorities for leadership positions with the White Sox and Bulls, left no doubt about where he stood.
“The Commissioner was correct to ban Mr. Sterling from all official NBA business, to levy the stiffest allowable fine, and we will support his recommendation to press for Mr. Sterling to relinquish his ownership of the Los Angeles Clippers franchise,” Reinsdorf said in a statement. “We believe Commissioner Silver’s decision reflects the best interests of the NBA and public civility. The league’s decision underscores the severity and reprehensible nature of the comments attributed to Donald Sterling. This behavior cannot be tolerated in any form.”
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban concurred, supporting Silver’s punishment within minutes on his Twitter account. “I agree 100 percent with Commissioner Silver’s findings and the actions taken against Donald Sterling,” Cuban tweeted.
Knicks Chairman James Dolan echoed those sentiments. Blazers owner Paul Allen followed suit: “I completely support NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s decisive action on the Sterling issue. Great leadership and the league is in good hands.” By tipoff, more than half of the league’s 30 teams had voiced approval, as well as stars of the present, such as LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, and the past, such as Scottie Pippen.
“Thanks to Adam Silver (and) NBA owners for standing up (and) making a prompt, just decision. No place for racism in basketball or anywhere in 2014,” Pippen tweeted.
Indeed, as much as the decision was a triumph for justice, it represented a victory for Silver, who replaced longtime former commissioner David Stern fewer than three months ago. Silver immediately established himself as a commissioner who cares about the players despite working for the owners, a man influenced more by racism infecting a predominantly African-American league than by the reputation of a litigious businessman with deep pockets. Sterling almost surely will wage a legal battle, but Silver acted anyway, his outrage evident even in the measured, methodical tone of his voice.
To NBA fans and pioneers of the game such as Bill Russell and Magic Johnson, Silver offered a sincere apology. Alas, the basketball world still is waiting for Sterling’s.
Unlike the stiff and mechanical performance Saturday night when the news first broke, Silver brought purpose and passion to the podium and connected like someone whose sensibilities were offended like most of America’s. He articulated well how Sterling exercising his freedom of speech didn’t free him from the consequences of that speech. He sounded disappointed admitting Sterling had shown no remorse over his rant. He helped begin a healing process that everybody involved acknowledged would take time. And surely it will, but this was a good start.
In the minds of some league executives and observers, Sterling’s penalty for expressing personal feelings in a private setting establishes a dangerous precedent, and that’s a valid concern. But imagine the precedent ignoring such hateful speech by an NBA owner, private or public, would have set. The slope is indeed slippery — does this mean owners can be sanctioned for their views on gay marriage or homosexuality if they aren’t politically correct? — but Silver sounded like an executive more than capable of applying a common-sense standard on a case-by-case basis.
People can debate whether Silver afforded Sterling due process with a four-day investigation that authenticated Sterling’s voice. But most people around the league agreed that an NBA response was overdue for the man referred derisively as a slumlord in Southern California for the way he got richer mistreating minorities.
Silver couldn’t do anything about the way Stern ignored or enabled Sterling over the past 30 years, but armed with evidence his predecessor either never had or never sought, he did what was necessary to protect the league’s future from bigotry and racism. With his league looking for direction, Silver followed his moral compass to make a bad situation better.
As much as Sterling’s words forever will be part of his epitaph, Silver’s actions instantly became part of his legacy as NBA commissioner, no matter how long his tenure lasts.