Shelly Sterling Is The NBA's Real Nightmare

Donald Sterling sounds resigned to his fate—or at least too tired to care. And why not? If the league forces him to sell the Clippers, he'll be hundreds of millions of dollars richer. But co-owner and estranged wife Rochelle Sterling believes she stands to gain the entire franchise, and she's not going down without a fight.

The distaff Sterling, who co-owns the Clippers through a family trust (so it's not as if it's as clear-cut as Donald owning a certain percentage, and Shelly the rest), has begun her media blitz, sitting down with Barbara Walters yesterday and the New York Times today. Her main talking points: She doesn't intend to give up her share of the team, doesn't believe the NBA has the power to remove her, and would like her husband to transfer his stake to her, making her the sole owner.

"We're ready to go to war if we have to," said Sterling's lawyer Pierce O'Donnell. The NBA says its constitution covers the ouster of minority and co-owners, but Shelly Sterling says she's prepared to sue if they try it with her. And that could get ugly for the league—"Armageddon," is how O'Donnell puts it.

So if you sue the N.B.A., would you depose other owners and their team personnel?

O'DONNELL: "I'd certainly be entitled to discovery. Any fair administrative process would allow us to get discovery. And I want to know a lot of different things about the records of the N.B.A. and what information they have about the conduct or misconduct of other owners that was not acted upon. The N.B.A. is as much at risk as Mr. Sterling to have this whole thing aired publicly. So it's not risk-free for either side. To answer your question, of course I'll ask for discovery. But it's in everybody's best interests to avoid Armageddon."

It's not a stretch to think the NBA would rather avoid attention brought to some of its owners' seedier pasts, like, say, the fact that the Nets' owner was arrested in connection with a prostitution ring and has faced multiple corruption allegations, or that the Cavs' owner was a major player in the subprime mortgage scandal, or that the Magic's owner is a bigot who got rich off a pyramid scheme. Remember, Donald Sterling had decades of conduct that was only deemed "detrimental to the association" after receiving too much bad publicity.

In her interview, Shelly Sterling also raised the specter of sexism:

"I often wonder: If the wife of one of the owners had done this, and if the roles were reversed, would they take the team away from the man? Is it something sexist? Is it the man's club?"

This is your clue to Sterling's legal strategy: she's the unwitting victim here. She's going to say, again and again, that her husband's controversies are his own, and as a silent partner, she shouldn't be punished for her co-owner's mistakes. A big part of establishing that narrative is to distance herself from Donald Sterling's racism. Watch how she artfully parses this question—"racist views" becomes "racial slurs," and she can offer plausible deniability on the latter.

Has he ever expressed racist views to you?

Sterling: "I've never heard him use a racial slur in the time I've been married to him. When those tapes came out, I was disgusted. I was sick over it. I mean, I couldn't believe it."

Let's not forget that every awful thing alleged by the Justice Department and the Housing Rights Center of Los Angeles in its two discrimination suits against Donald Sterling also applies to his wife. After all, it's the Sterling Family Trust—the same mechanism that Shelly is using to argue she should keep the Clippers—that was accused and that settled, not Sterling individually.

And Shelly played more than a passive role in those cases.

  • In 2003, a court order noted Sterling was accused of "regularly [posing] as a government official in order to gain access to tenants' apartments." Video later emerged of her pretending to be a health inspector to illegally enter one apartment.
  • In a 2004 deposition, a property supervisor testified that Shelly Sterling wanted to evict tenants from "certain ethnic groups" that had children. "She didn't want — if they were playing in the hallway, if they were out hanging in front of the building, they didn't fit the image."
  • In 2006, one African-American tenant accused Shelly Sterling of making "inflammatory remarks...on several occasions," including calling him a "black motherfucker."
  • In 2009, a building manager testified that Shelly Sterling made comments disparaging Hispanic tenants. "She said, 'Oh, my God. This is so filthy. I can't remodel my apartments the way that I want because Latinos are so filthy.'"

The NBA has already released a statement stating that this ownership situation is covered in the constitution. "If a controlling owner's interest is terminated," the league said, "all other team owners' interests are automatically terminated as well." The league is very much hoping that stands up. Because while Shelly Sterling may or may not have a case, just getting to court is the NBA's worst-case scenario.