Adopted Clippers fan Bill Simmons has filed his long-awaited Donald Sterling column for Grantland, and the most interesting part is a story about a plane ride spent sitting behind the Clippers owner. In the past few days, the Sterling anecdotes have naturally tended toward the grotesque, painting him as some cartoonish troll, but this is much more telling—a fly-on-the-wall account of the man in his element.
During last year's playoffs, Simmons sat one row behind Sterling on a flight from L.A. to San Antonio. (In first class, of course, though girlfriend/assistant V. Stiviano was stuck in coach, and constantly running back and forth to attend to Sterling, at one point, bring him an enormous bowl of soup to eat instead of the airline food. Seriously.) Sterling wanted a different seat. The flight attendant couldn't help him. He confronted a second. "There was a distinctive, gravelly whine to his voice, no different from what you heard on those audio tapes. He wasn't overtly hostile, more disappointed and confused. He couldn't believe that SHE wouldn't help HIM."
Once we were in the air, Sterling offered his Wall Street Journal to the guy sitting next to him. When the guy turned it down, Sterling abrasively snapped, "What's the matter, you don't want to learn about the news?!?"
And then, something incredible happened — THE GUY TOOK THE NEWSPAPER! Sterling bullied him into reading it!
As the flight wore on, Simmons says a different side of Sterling came out.
Sterling started eating the soup and flirting with the flight attendants, who suddenly adored him and laughed at his jokes. Like someone flipped a switch. What happened???
[E]verything was chummier now. Donald Sterling was holding court. He was slimy and oily and greasy and gross and weird and strangely charming. At one point, his assistant told everyone that Sterling owns his own plane but decided to fly commercial instead because "he likes United." (Yeah, right.) Sterling followed by mumbling something incoherent that vaguely resembled a joke. Everyone laughed reflexively. He had these ladies in the palm of his hand...For the last hour of that San Antonio flight, everyone loved Donald Sterling.
Yeah, this sounds about right. Humanity has a long tradition of successful shitheads, possessing enough charm to pave over their natural abrasiveness. Someone as personally repulsive as Donald Sterling doesn't make it as far as he has in the business world without the ability to make people like him—if only for as long as it takes to get things done.
You want to know how Sterling thrived and survived this long before alienating the country? Simmons's anecdote is a pretty perfect microcosm. He's enough of a bully that people reflexively turn sycophant around him, but he's also just charismatic enough that people don't seem to hate themselves for it.