The series has history in the title; let’s take the full measure of things, because in the Clippers’ case, it’s astonishing. They were literally never consistently good until Chris Paul showed up in 2011. Donald Sterling bought the franchise, back when they were in San Diego, in 1981. They went 17-and-65 that year. They rebranded with new logos and wordmarks. Two more losing seasons. They left for Los Angeles in 1984 and two years later went went 12-and-70, which was then the second-worst record in NBA history. They didn’t post their first winning season under Sterling until 1991-92, and even then, they fired Mike Schuyler midseason to hire Larry Brown, who lasted a year-and-a-half before leaving to fill the much more desirable Pacers job. The team cratered without Brown, going 27-and-55 under Bob Weiss.
Elgin Baylor was the franchise's GM from 1986 until Mike Dunleavy pushed him out in 2008. The Clips made the playoffs four times over that span. This was due to certain factors beyond Elgin’s control—namely, that Donald Sterling never met a free agent whose worth he was willing to pay—but his draft record, extensive because he was in the job for longer than Zion Williamson has been alive, is atrocious: Reggie Williams one spot before Scottie Pippen in 1987, Danny Ferry over Sean Elliott and Glen Rice in 1989, 91-game pro LeRon Ellis in 1991, Lamond Murray over Brian Grant and Eddie Jones in 1994, Antonio McDyess over Rasheed Wallace and Kevin Garnett in 1995, Michael Olowokandi number one overall in 1998, and Chris Wilcox over Amar’e Stoudemire in 2002. There were other flubs, but you get the idea. Every talent evaluator screws up a draft or two, but they typically don’t screw up five, because they’re fired before that happens, and they don’t just kind of hang out in the front office for two-plus decades, making the same mistakes repeatedly, as if there’s no superior around to notice they shouldn’t have a job anymore.
This isn’t to dump on Elgin, who has always given off a neutral impression—a dusty old Basketball Man in a bad sweater, wordlessly and incorrectly clocking some Carolina guard who should absolutely not go ninth overall, mulling a trade offer he should have laughed at—so much as illustrate the ineptitude with which the Clippers were being run for a very long time. Everything mean said about Donald Sterling has been true. He’s a racist—not like a mean uncle is; rather, like a man who would rather black and brown folks sleep in the street instead of the buildings he owns—and a prismatically unpleasant guy. But he also ran his NBA franchise in the most cynical fashion. He figured out that in the Los Angeles media market, all he had to do to turn a nice profit was put something resembling a professional basketball team on the court. So that’s all he did. He kept Elgin around because Elgin was relatively cheap and didn’t make a fuss. He almost exclusively hired mediocre retread coaches. He kept only as much support staff around as was absolutely necessary. With that happy misery common to crusty cartoon rich folk, he went as far into the black as he could without ever taking a risk.
We can and do and should castigate owners for treating their franchises as extensions of their own egos. They want to win, not for the fans or for the glory of some institution they love, but because the NBA serves as another high-profile arena in which they can assert their dominance over the rest of the wealthy jagoffs against whom they’re constantly competing. This is ugly and embarrassing. There is no moment more sharply deflating than when, amid a championship celebration, some great athlete hands the microphone over to some Dr. Pepper-haired sex yacht enthusiast so he can uncharismatically belch on about “the meaning of success.”
But say what you will about Joe Lacob or Dan Gilbert, they are trying to accomplish something that makes other people happy, if only by accident. In 33 years of owning the Clippers, Sterling cared for about three or four of them. He arrived in San Diego positing himself as a savior, plastering his own face onto bus ads and billboards and promising to make the fans proud of their Clippers. And then he took them away, tried to make it work in L.A., and then settled into a twenty-plus-year gin nap, awaking only to say some very offensive but also somehow just more gobsmackingly strange things about owners being way more important than players, and being offended by his girlfriend bringing Magic Johnson to Clipper games.
Since he said those things and was subsequently run out of the league by people who pretended to have only recently found out Donald Sterling had the soul of a woefully overmatched confederate general, we’ve been inundated with admirably thorough coverage of his awfulness. And that’s good; we should bury people like Sterling with contempt. It’s not entirely clear why, over the summer, ESPN threw together a Serial style rundown of his sins, simply because it didn’t have much new information and for reasons of having no point of view whatsoever positioned his wife as a wronged party and not, like, his willing partner in ignominy. But whatever: as with our current president, who knows how much calling this stuff out helps, but it’s probably better than doing nothing. The whole world should know to hate Donald Sterling, at least.
But the question of why he was allowed to own an NBA team for so long is a question that lingers. The Clippers were never good. Nobody liked being employed by them. Sterling was obviously taking advantage of other owners who were, competently or otherwise, attempting to build contenders and/or put a decent team on the floor every year. The NBA will never answer that question, because the people who run it and used to run it can’t—the days when you don’t do something about a problem don’t tend to stick in the memory—and won’t. Adam Silver is not really into talking about the league’s habit of looking the other way. Particularly at this very moment.
As ever, the simple and probably mostly correct answer is that it was easier not to deal with Donald Sterling. A professional sports league is a money-making concern, not a moral one, and so anything that seems like it’s going to be messy gets pushed way down the list of priorities. Everybody knew there was a rancid little empire in Los Angeles, run by a charlatan, and whatever, maybe he would die in a spectacular limousine fellatio incident before he did anything too embarrassingly public.
You would think a perennially terrible basketball team would qualify, or a lawsuit that argued he was systematically immiserating hundreds of black and Latino families with his housing policies, but the awful thing is they didn’t. The people who needed to care enough didn’t and that was that. Without their mortification or, more likely, their fear that the accounting numbers might be trending in the wrong direction, nothing big gets done. You can whine and wail about this for decades; it doesn’t matter. Progress, when its flow is regulated by corporations, moves slowly, and usually not at all.