Audio Recording Almost Got Donald Sterling Booted From NBA in ’82, Report Says

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Los Angeles Clippers owners Donald Sterling and his wife Rochelle Stein watch the Clippers play the San Antonio Spurs during the second half of their basketball game, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, in Los Angeles.
Image: Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Stop us if this sounds familiar: An audio recording caught Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling saying the wrong things, made the NBA fear he would bring disgrace to the league and sparked an internal campaign to have him booted from the association.

Yes, this all happened over the past several days. But it also happened way back in 1982, according to a Los Angeles Times report.

But racist comments aren’t what got Sterling in trouble in 1982. Rather, he was caught saying the Clippers needed to finish last because that would give them a shot at selecting Ralph Sampson, the 7’4″ prize of the 1983 NBA Draft.

That, on top of “late payments by the Clippers to players, hotels, program printers and others,” prompted a $10,000 fine and a cadre of owners to push for his removal.


Donald Sterling at a May 4, 1981 press conference after buying the Clippers.

Image: Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

“A special committee of six NBA owners unanimously recommended Sterling’s removal in September 1982,” according to the Times, which was told by one source at the time, “He’s as good as gone.”

Sterling bought the Clippers in 1981 for a reported $12.5 million. But, the Times reports, after the committee’s 1982 report, a stated desire by Sterling to sell the team quelled the movement to get him ousted.. The following year — David Stern, who was then president of the NBA and would become its commissioner in 1984 — said the Clippers were a “first-class” organization and the matter was dead.

Over the coming two decades Sterling would earn a reputation among many fans as a disinterested owner and slum lord with racist attitudes. In 2000, a Sports Illustrated cover story called the Clippers “worst franchise in history” and identified Sterling as “the man responsible.”

Then a string of racist comments leaked to the media last week provoked a massive backlash against him and calls for his removal. Sponsors dropped the Clippers left and right. On Tuesday, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling from the NBA for life, fined him $2.5 million and said Sterling will be forced to sell his franchise as soon as possible.

That won’t be so simple, however. Legal experts say Sterling could mount a staunch and pricey defense if he decides to try to hold on to the team; he hasn’t said whether he intends to acquiesce to the league’s wishes or fight tooth and nail to keep the Clippers. Meanwhile, many celebrities have been speculated about as potential buyers and some fans have started crowdfunding campaigns.

For now, only one thing is certain: Should Sterling sell, he’ll see a huge pay day; many reports say the Clippers are expected to sell for upwards of $1 billion — way more than he would have made in 1982.

Here’s a fairly surreal newspaper scan from Nathan Fenno, the Times reporter who unearthed this story:

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