These days, the Los Angeles Clippers are in pretty good shape. The team is worth $2 billion, is a perennial playoff contender, and has been free of the ownership of racist shitbag Donald Sterling for over a year. With the Clippers entering a new era, one in which they aren’t the most embarrassing franchise in pro sports, it feels like a good time to look back at the bad old days, and talk to those who lived through them.
We’ve already heard from some of the players and reporters who were caught in Donald Sterling’s strange vortex, and we’ll finish this oral history by hearing from Don Casey and Pete Babcock, two guys who had the misfortune of coaching Sterling’s Clippers.
Don Casey (two-time assistant in the 1980s, head coach 1989-90):
Inside that bubble is probably just [Sterling]. Trying to explain this person, I think he was probably talking in an old man’s jealous rage. That reveals though how he really thinks about things. And the key to that is that when he said [to V. Stiviano on tape], “I thought you were that girl. But you’re not that girl.”
Well, he would say, internally, “I thought you were that coach. And you turned out not to be that coach. So I gotta go find another coach.” And on and on and on.
His ownership was poor because all he did present the team on the floor, he didn’t really let anybody work on concrete trades... He thought the youth movement was the way to go. So, the atmosphere created by his too much fingerprints or no fingerprints. The team really paid a terrible price. The coaches and the players maybe wanted to stay there, but in their minds, in their agents’ [minds], it wasn’t gonna happen.
That’s [Sterling’s] life. I was an expert witness for [former Clippers head coach] Bill Fitch when he was trying to get his deferred money back because [the Clippers] said that he had to go look for another job before he collected the money. It went right to the 12th hour, because that’s what [Sterling] does.
He’s a bad owner. He’s a bad owner of apartments. I heard he used to throw people out at like midnight.
The thing is, with off-court problems they eventually show up on court. The key is to somehow diminish it. This was always lingering out there knowing that there was Sterling’s knee-jerk behavior on many things. It was an uncomfortable setting. He just doesn’t have a human pulse. He has his own pulse.
Despite all the changes, things remain the same. I think [former Clippers president] Alan Rothenberg said that [Sterling] is one who always sues. He wants you to spend money on what you really should be getting anyway. And [he’ll] take you to the wall. And what are you gonna do?
Sterling relied on [general manager] Elgin Baylor because he was star struck. The difficulty was that Sterling always believed—and I heard him say this—that fear will produce results [more] than compliments. And that’s the way he worked. The late Ron Grinker, a very good agent, made a statement: “Hey Donald, you can do all you want, but your buildings don’t talk back to you. We’ll talk back to you. We will talk back to you.” And that sums it up: challenge me if you want but if you’re like an hour late on your rent I can throw you out. And he did.
Nobody has as many properties as he had. He was in Malibu very early, he bought Cary Grant’s house, he used to find out back then if the movie stars were slipping down the slopes. If they weren’t getting any movies, he would go in and buy their houses, give them a lowball [offer], and use them as trophies to establish as real estate. That’s what he was a genius at.
Donald Sterling, being gross.
He caused rent control in Beverly Hills. Because he was screwing the people. That, and Santa Monica, I think, where he has his properties. They all came under rent control because of his unconscionable actions with tenants.
He used to come in [to the locker room] after the games. He would always have somebody sitting alongside him. So, one time, there’s Wilt [Chamberlain]. And I knew Wilt, [he] was a friend from Philly. And so he brings Wilt to a game, and he sits there, and we’re not shooting very good foul shots, because we only had two [practice] baskets. So, it was time consuming, but we did it. So [Sterling] comes in after the game. Now, he doesn’t know that Wilt missed 10,000 foul shots. And I guarantee Wilt did not say this, but [Sterling] said to me, “Wilt can help us with foul shooting.” Which Wilt didn’t say, but [Sterling] was using that. You should’ve seen Elgin’s face. I can see it right now, when [Sterling] came in and said, “Wilt will help with the foul shooting.”
The guy that owned the [L.A.] Kings, [Bruce] McNall, that went to jail, [Sterling] brought him into a game. And we’re down 15 at halftime, and I’m the interim coach, and it’s a big 15, he comes in at halftime and says to this guy, McNall, that he would fire everybody on the spot, including the general manager, and Elgin had two heart attacks. At halftime, [Sterling] left the game. We ended up winning by 11. But that is what he would use these other people for, like that, which was bullshit. As you’ve seen with the 24-second clock, things can turn very quickly in a game. But he left and left his two seats vacant there to show to the crowd that he was very displeased with what was going on.
“The difficulty was that Sterling always believed—and I heard him say this—that fear will produce results [more] than compliments. And that’s the way he worked.”
We were in Phoenix—I forget the name of it—because it was a neat hotel. The old arena, the team was in there, and they wouldn’t let us register because as a team, because of the unpaid bill from the last road trip. No one had credit cards to put that on. I don’t know how it got handled, but it took a while, and we always called ahead then, to make sure, because you get up there to scout in the room and they wouldn’t give you the room. Not delayed, unpaid.
This is not because of dementia in my opinion. This is because this is the way he works, he might be having dementia problems, but this is the way he operates historically. Like when he moved the team [from San Diego to L.A.]. He thought that he could do it because the Raiders [moved from Oakland to L.A.]...Al Davis used to come to the games. He got infatuated with him. To this day he wears a leather jacket and sunglasses.
You can’t quit because you want to stay in the league. If you don’t have a strong name—because my life in the NBA was 80 percent as an assistant versus head coach—you know, you’re lost, because you haven’t been able to establish anything. As good a job as you did, that’s OK, but when the owners start looking around, they got somebody that’s got 31 wins, and says, “What can you do for me?” Because the owners themselves don’t do that much investigation, at least at that time.
I left there in ’90 to go to the Celtics. Fortunately, [then-Celtics head coach] Chris Ford, who I’d known, he needed an old older person, so to speak. And when you got with the Celtics, it was not night and day, it was heaven versus hell. You could just feel the difference. Everyone knew that with the Celtics, Red [Auerbach] was in charge, Red cared, you know, in his way.
You know, [Sterling’s] standard question, when I was with the Celtics even, he came up, he’d make a big fuss over me, and in fact [Larry] Bird said, “Why are you talking to that guy?” I said, “He’s coming over here.” And he’d ask you, “What do you think of the team? What do you think of my team?”
We’re gonna play against you! He asked everybody that.
Pete Babcock (vice president of basketball operations, director of player personnel, assistant coach, 1980-84):
Irv Levin was the owner when I first went to work there. A year later he sold it to Donald Sterling and so I worked for Mr. Sterling for three years before I left and went to Denver.
I always felt like if you weren’t a competitive team, they really had no reason to come out and support you, so as a result, people didn’t have Clippers fever. We weren’t the hot property in [San Diego]. It was an older arena at that time. Had not been well-maintained, nor updated. Either one. That was a constant problem for anybody that played there. There were a number of legal actions between ownership and the San Diego Sports Arena. Different things, like not maintaining the building properly. It would leak when it rained hard. It had various issues like that. It just had not been updated and maintained well. It wasn’t a great building, unfortunately.
I remember a game or two, I can remember the rain being a problem. Having to have ball boys go out and clean up the water off the floor so the game would continue. And those kinds of things. The locker rooms were really below NBA standards.
I think the general feeling was that most of the wounds were self-inflicted. I think that was the general perception, there was some bad luck with players that would get hurt and miss the whole season, and things like that. But well, for example, we drafted in three consecutive years, Tom Chambers, Terry Cummings, and Byron Scott, so you’d think, “Well, you’ve got two All-Star forwards and a big-time guard, that’s 60 percent of your starting lineup. You’re off and running.” Well, the problem was is that the team historically had not held on to their draft picks. Guys would play there, maybe make it through their first contract, maybe get traded away during their first contract, and so there was no sense of stability at that time.
I think my perception is, everything’s relative. When you look at 30-plus years that Mr. Sterling’s owned the team, it’s been relatively recent that the franchise has really committed to keeping players and spending a lot of money. And they’ve done a fabulous job of it as a franchise now. It’s a really, really competitive team. Why that changed? I have no idea because I wasn’t there. In the early days there was a sense that you really weren’t gonna spend big money to keep the players. So that’s why I said a lot of it was self-inflicted. It wasn’t just a spring of bad luck. You draft Chambers and Cummings and Byron Scott, you oughta be on your way. Byron never played a day for us, because we were forced to trade him to the Lakers for Norm Nixon, which was a move nobody basketball-wise wanted to do. That’s what we were told to do. And in those days there was no rookie scale. All the contracts were negotiated separately. And so it was not unusual for first-round draft picks to hold out [during] training camp. It happened across the league.
Norm Nixon, playing for the Clippers in 1993. Photo via AP.
Not with every franchise, but it wasn’t unusual to see a guy that wasn’t at camp for the first few days. The problem with us is that it lasted longer than a few days. Terry Cummings came in toward the end of preseason. Byron never reported at all because of contract negotiations were dragging on. And then Jerry Buss apparently told Donald Sterling that they would make a trade and trade Norm Nixon to us for Byron Scott. That was a deal that ownership wanted done, because Norm was a Laker, and a name, and all that, and they didn’t understand who Byron Scott was at that point. I tease Byron to this day, “You know, you owe the Clippers an awful lot, because they launched you on your career.” I said, “I’d like to tell you I took credit for it, but I was really opposed to it.” As far as I was concerned, he would’ve stayed with the Clippers forever. But anyway.
I was fortunate in a lot of ways to be, to start there as a young assistant coach, I was only 30 years old. And I was only there four years, and by my fourth year, I was the general manager of the team. And I was not prepared to be general manager of the team by my fourth year. I didn’t have the experience for it. But I progressed very quickly in those four years from being an assistant coach to director of player personnel and I think the title was vice president of basketball operations, but I assumed the GM’s responsibilities for the last year that I was there.
I left when the team made the decision to move to L.A. And the league was suing the team for making the move without permission. The team was suing the league. It was a mess. On one hand I benefited from the instability of the team, and moved up pretty quickly, and faster than I was probably prepared to do. I was forced into learning very quickly. So the learning curve shortened dramatically. But I felt if I stayed much longer, I was gonna become part of that instability.
I can’t tell you that it affects the players at all, because they’re somewhat shielded from all of that. It affects everybody working in the front office. I guess a prime example would be, when I left there Jimmy Lynam was our head coach. ... I think we were playing in Phoenix, and he got served by a process server during his pregame talk by I think like the Hyatt Regency was suing the team for non-payment for the last visit or something like that. So, here’s Jimmy giving his pregame talk and he doesn’t know what’s going on. He doesn’t know that we haven’t been paid our bill at the Hyatt. And the process server walks in in the middle of his talk. And the process server served Jimmy only because he’s the senior representative of the franchise at the moment. It’s not that he’s the person who should receive these papers. So now, it affects his job.
“I remember a game or two, I can remember the rain being a problem. Having to have ball boys go out and clean up the water off the floor so the game would continue. And those kinds of things. The locker rooms were really below NBA standards.”
Those are the kinds of things that you would deal with. Jimmy and I a couple times would half- kiddingly [talk] to each other—I remember we both had been called to testify, it may have been one of the cases with the arena—about the amount of time we spent doing those types of things rather than basketball work. You’re trying to prepare your team, instead you’re preparing to do this deposition. Or you’re preparing to go testify in a trial. Well, you shouldn’t be spending your time doing these kinds of things.
I’ll tell you one that goes along with the theory or concept of bad luck. We were going on a long Eastern [Conference] road trip. Jimmy Lynam’s the head coach. Don Chaney is one of the assistants. Don Casey’s the other assistant. I was traveling with the team. And it’s the longest road trip of the year. I can’t remember how many games it was. So in those days we flew commercial all the time. We didn’t have chartered planes or teams that owned their planes in those days. When you’d get to the gate of your commercial flight, the trainer would hand you an envelope with your per diem money in it. It was all cash for the trip. So it was whatever number of days we were out and whatever the per diem was in those days—I don’t have a clue of what it was—there was a lot of cash in the envelope. So I’m standing there with Don Chaney and getting ready to board the flight and a lady comes up and asks Don for an autograph and he signs it and we get on the plane and we sit down and he and I are sitting together and we’re talking. And as we’re taking off, he says, “I can’t find my per diem.” We’re kind of going back and forth [and I’m saying] “Well, you got it from the trainer.” We both got it from the trainer and you’re holding it there. “What happened after you held it?” And he goes, “Oh, man. That lady that I signed an autograph for. Whatever it is that I signed, I think the envelope was with that.” And so I said, “Well that lady’s gonna love that autograph.”
And so anyway, that’s Day 1. Don and I used to play tennis a lot and mess around and hit the ball back and forth. And so we’re playing tennis in each city we go to, when there was time. And we’re in New York on the trip and we didn’t take a bus to practices, we took cabs to practices. So we load up the team, whatever number of cabs it takes, and Don loses his wallet in one of his cab rides. So now he’s lost his per diem, now he’s lost his wallet, his credit cards, his driver’s license—everything. And then our final game is in Atlanta before we fly back to San Diego, and we’re playing tennis, and he tears his Achilles tendon. And I’ve always told him, “I’ve never been with anybody that had more bad luck on one road trip.” And on top of it, we lost every game on the road trip.
Top photo via AP