Basketball

Column: Silver's leadership exam only beginning

Donald Sterling won't go quietly. Never has before. So even as praise rolls in for NBA commissioner Adam Silver's forceful decision, the first real test of his leadership may just be beginning.

Barely three months after taking over from David Stern, Silver, a lawyer and longtime league entertainment executive, has to muster a supermajority — 24 of the NBA's 30 owners — to carry out his threat to force the disgraced Clippers owner to sell the franchise. That's on top of the unprecedented $2.5 million fine and lifetime ban.

But when Silver was asked, more than once during Tuesday's news conference whether he has the votes, he didn't waiver. "I fully expect to get the support I need from the other NBA owners I need to remove him," Silver said.

No owners said publicly they wouldn't support the decision, even Mavericks owner Mark Cuban who said Tuesday he agrees with the commissioner 100 percent. A day earlier, however, Cuban — while criticizing Sterling's comments as "obviously bigoted, obviously racist" — called it "damn scary" that a precedent could be set.

"Regardless of your background, regardless of the history they have, if we're taking something somebody said in their home and we're trying to turn it into something that leads to you being forced to divest property in any way, shape or form, that's not the United States of America," Cuban said. "I don't want to be part of that."

If Silver has the votes, there's no choice. Even a cursory glance at Sterling's litigious past suggests that while he's barred from making his case before the league's Board of Governors, he may drag them into court.

"Anybody can file any claim they want to, but do I believe he has a reasonable chance of succeeding?" said Jeffrey Kessler, probably the savviest sports-law attorney in the country. "I do not." Kessler chairs the sports and anti-trust practices group at the firm of Winston & Strawn and has represented the players associations for the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB, as well as Latrell Sprewell and Michael Vick. Though the NBA contract is confidential, it's a safe bet Kessler has a good grasp on the relevant language.

"I don't think Mr. Sterling has any basis for a legal claim, period. The decision by Adam Silver is grounded in the NBA's constitution and its bylaws — which Mr. Sterling agreed to and signed — and any challenge would be considered as an arbitration decision and not by the courts," he said.

"And the only grounds to challenge an arbitration decision are very narrow, none of which apply here. All that said," Kessler added, "I'm sure if he's intent on suing, he could find some lawyer who would assert some claim for him."

That's never been a problem for Sterling's lawyers. His wife, Rochelle, is suing the woman purportedly heard on tape at the center of the scandal to reclaim at least $1.8 million in cash and gifts that Sterling allegedly provided her. In 2009, he sued a former mistress to reclaim a house he gifted her and lost (she kept the house). The same year, he agreed to a $2.76 million settlement to end a Department of Justice lawsuit alleging discrimination against African- Americans, Latinos and even children at apartment buildings he owned.

Sterling was sued unsuccessfully by former NBA great Elgin Baylor, who was his general manager for 22 years and alleged the franchise was run at times like "a plantation," as well as a few former coaches over non-payment of their contracts. Two decades ago, he sued the NBA over a $25 million fine levied for the unauthorized move of the Clippers from San Diego — then dropped it after the fine was reduced to $6 million.

Before Silver's announcement, FOX News reported that Sterling said he would not sell the franchise. He bought it for $12.5 million, and just like his real estate investments, the price tag has skyrocketed over the years — valued around $600 million. He's got a personal fortune estimated at almost $2 billion — which buys a lot of high-powered legal talent — and whether the NBA owners are willing to call his bluff could depend largely on Silver's powers of persuasion.

Given his record, exactly how Sterling survived to become the league's longest-tenured owner is a question that only Silver's predecessor can answer. And for the moment, Stern is laying low. That's not an option for the guy he handed off to.

"This league is far bigger than any one owner, any one coach and any one player," Silver said at the news conference. Now all he has to do is prove it.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.

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