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’ll be hearing from the players, coaches, writers, and executives who found themselves caught in the strange vortex of Donald Sterling’s Clippers. Call it an oral history of crushing incompetence.
Yesterday, some former Clippers players told us all about how much it sucked to play for the team back in the ‘80s. Today, we’ll hear from some of the reporters who had to cover Sterling’s Clippers team.
Mark Heisler (L.A. Times, 1979-2011): It was just like God teed him up. He was absurdity on its face. He would make the kinds of mistakes that nobody could make. And he would not learn from ’em. Woefully and defiantly ignorant. He would just do the same things over and over again while maintaining, “I just want to win.” He would say that over and over again. When I did the first piece about him, there’s a quote in there, he’s just like hyperventilating about the attention he gets. And he’s talking about how George Page, who’s the head of one of the museums around here, was calling him up and talking to him as if he knew him. ... It was very clear that that was the payoff for him. And winning was secondary.
Nick Canepa (beat writer, San Diego Evening Tribune, 1981-82): The first road trip [of the Sterling era] was Kansas City, Chicago, and Milwaukee, and I was working for the Evening Tribune then, and we didn’t have a Sunday paper. The Union had the Sunday paper. So Saturday game in Chicago, I didn’t write. I was there and Sterling had a bunch of relatives. I’d just met Donald T. Sterling. And he had a bunch of relatives there, and he’s flitting around, introducing them all, so the game was about to start and I sat down there at courtside at the old Chicago Stadium, and his niece or cousin or somebody—one of his relatives—sits next to me and at the start of the conversation she says, “How well do you know Donald?” I said, “I barely know him at all. I just met him.” And she just went off on him, just called him every name under the sun. “Bad guy.” “Despicable human being.” And I’m sitting there, and I’d barely met the guy. This was a relative.
Scott Howard-Cooper (beat writer, L.A. Times 1988-89 to 1992-93): He made it hard for everybody to do their job because he was a meddler, and he was a meddler who didn’t know what he was doing. That’s the real problem. ... Owners get involved. It’s their investment in what has now become hundreds of millions of dollars, and in some cases, billions of dollars. Of course they’re going to be involved. Jerry Buss was heavily involved. The guy who gets all the credit for being a great owner. ... There were times where [Lakers GM] Jerry West had to throw himself on the tracks to stop something from happening that Jerry West didn’t believe should happen and Jerry Buss did. So it’s not like Sterling was unique in that regard in being a meddler. But it was the way that it had impacted everything, the way that it always involved of some degree of madness, that was what set Sterling apart.
Heisler: I remember in this first piece that I wrote, he’s actually standing up and he’s telling me about how to run the team. And then he kind of like drifts off and then he says, “I don’t know the point I’m making.” Given the fact that the team was terrible and he had no credibility, later on, you know, in the last few years, it changed because the team got good. And it had nothing to do with him. It was a lucky series of coincidences that removed him from being able to harm what was happening.
Ailene Voisin (beat writer, San Diego Union/L.A. Herald-Examiner 1980s): Opening night in , they beat the Houston Rockets in the old San Diego Sports Arena. And Sterling ran across the court and jumped into the arms of the head coach, Paul Silas. From that point on, anytime the Clippers were doing anything, all eyes were across the court on where Donald Sterling always sat with his friends. Sometimes his wife Shelly was there.
Canepa: Silas should’ve dropped him but he didn’t, and then later on that year, Sterling came over, they were awful, they were getting killed by somebody, and Sterling comes over from his usual perch across from mid-court there, and Silas had called a timeout and the team was huddling—And I used to sit right next to Paul, right next to him on the bench. He sat on the last chair and I sat on the last chair of the press table.—And Sterling comes over and sticks his head into the huddle, and he’s there for just about a few seconds, and spins around and walks back across the floor. So Paul came and sat down and I said, “What was that all about?” He said, “He loves me.” And I said, “What’d you tell him?” And he said, “Get the fuck out of my huddle.”
“...She says, ’How well do you know Donald?’ I said, ‘I barely know him at all. I just met him.’ And she just went off on him, just called him every name under the sun. ‘Bad guy.’ ‘Despicable human being.’ And I’m sitting there, and I’d barely met the guy. This was a relative.”
Voisin: [Silas] was just in a state of shock. He said something like, “Not now, Don. Not now.” Donald whispers something to him and Paul says, “Not now, Don. Not now.” And then when Sterling left, Silas was trying to give instructions to his players. … We sat right there. The writers sat right next to the huddle, and Paul was trying to talk to his players and call a play, and he just started stuttering. He was so shocked by what had transpired. And afterward, we asked him about it, and he said that Donald said, “He wanted to tell me that he loved me.” We asked [Pat] Riley afterward, I said, “What would you have done if your owner had come into your huddle?” And he laughed.
Canepa: And then later on, Silas took a tour to China with NBA players, and he came back and all his furniture was in the hallway, and Patty Simmons had taken over as assistant general manager or executive vice president, or whatever it was. She couldn’t describe what a basketball looked like, so it was an amazing year.
Voisin: He’d have these luncheons. The famous luncheon...where he announced to all of us that “We need to finish last to draft first to get Ralph Sampson.” Now, these guys say that kind of stuff all the time. It was kind of interesting. He was just a little more overt about it. They don’t talk about it.
Canepa: [He’d already] rehearsed the speech with me and [my editor] Bud [Poliquin]. He’s saying all this stuff. “We gotta finish last [so] we can draft Ralph Sampson.” But I’m not taking a note. And one of the writers next to me says, “Aren’t you gonna write any of that down?” And I said, “No, it’s already in the paper.” The whole thing. Everything he said, he’s just repeating it. Ted Podleski was the general manager, a great guy, he passed away a while ago. He quit drinking about six months before this speech, and he must’ve gone through a carafe of wine during the speech. And Silas comes up to me afterwards and says, “Hey Nick, any of that shit off the record?” And I said, “No, it’s already in the paper.” And he said, “Aw, shit.”
Heisler: He was a huge party thrower, and was always trying to get celebrities to come and couldn’t, basically. It was always B-List, or C-, or D-, or E- List, celebrities. Pia Zadora was one… At his level he would always invite the newspaper people. I was invited to many of them. Never went. That would be my idea of hell. I had to chat up Donald at a party? God.
Howard-Cooper: He would grab me by the arm and say, “Let me show you where Burgess Meredith lives.” ... He would say, “Have you met the commissioner yet?” “Oh yeah, I have talked to him, yes.” He said, “You must go to him in New York and let him know that you know me. He will be so delighted.” It would be this sort of comedy routine on a daily basis.
Voisin: Then you have the White Parties, at his house by the Beverly Hills Hotel, and he’d always get mad because I’d never wear white. And I went to a couple of them. … One time he was sitting with John Wooden, and they were holding hands while they were waiting to see who won the number one pick [in the NBA draft]. It was kind of pathetic. John Wooden was old. At that point, John Wooden was in his 80s, I’m sure he just wanted to be around somebody, around basketball. Literally, they were holding hands.
Howard-Cooper: We would see [Sterling], we would talk to him. I certainly didn’t imagine that I would be one of his advisors. But that’s sort of the role that he put people in. You would go to talk to him and he would say in a sort of whiny voice that he would have, “What do you think we should do about the coach?” And it wasn’t like he wanted me to make a decision. He was asking the security guard at the arena the same thing. He didn’t care about my opinion, he would just go the security guard, he would go to his family members, he would go to the reporters.
Voisin: He’d talk to the bellman at the hotel, he’d talk to the bus kid at the restaurant. Oh, he’d just bullshit with anybody. But it was just a game to him. I think it was a game within a game. ... He was just a different person when he went to L.A. The end game from day one in San Diego was to move the team to Los Angeles.
Canepa: Look, Donald T. bought the team, put his face on buses and billboards, and he tried to sell himself instead of basketball. The reason he bought the team was to move it. There’s absolutely no question about it. I’ll go to my grave thinking that’s the reason why he bought the basketball team. It was obvious from the start and then he moved it. And they weren’t doing any better in L.A. than they were doing [in San Diego]. He moved it to the old Sports Arena. They weren’t doing any better there than they were doing here. But it was close to his buddies, it was close to his cronies. That’s all he cared about.
Heisler: I mean there are some things you see in stories all the time and it sounds like Donald. About him being nude in front of people. Or just having a housecoat on. That kind of rings true. The part about him being an abusive parent. I mean his son committed suicide. His son shot a friend with a shotgun. When you start seeing all this stuff, at that point, I said to myself, “Well, I’m done writing about this guy. It ain’t funny anymore. The joke is over.”
Voisin: I saw Shelly [Sterling] in the bathroom during the  Golden State series [hours before TMZ published the infamous Sterling audio], and she sees me, and I go, “Are you Shelly Sterling? Remember me?” She goes, “Oh my god, Ailene, you look so young.” Anyway, she says, “Come on over and say hello to the Donald.” So Sterling was sitting in the front row with her at the time, and the last thing I want to do—I’m on deadline getting stuff—is go see Donald Sterling. I had not had a conversation with him in years and I just didn’t want to go there. In retrospect, later that night the story broke. You say to yourself, “Dammit.”
“And Sterling comes over and sticks his head into the huddle, and he’s there for just about a few seconds, and spins around and walks back across the floor. So Paul came and sat down and I said, ‘What was that all about?’ He said, ‘He loves me.’ And I said, ‘What’d you tell him?’ And he said, ‘Get the fuck out of my huddle.’”
Heisler: Donald didn’t just have no credibility. He had minus credibility. Like he was a staple on the Tonight Show, which of course is out here. So he was local fodder. The anecdote I always use is: When Jay Leno was succeeded by Conan, like 45 seconds into Conan’s first routine, he tells a Clippers joke. Just to keep the whole thing alive. That’s the staple they were.
If [the audio tape scandal] had happened to Jerry Buss—let’s make it a generic guy—if this happened to some generic owner, first of all, the guy would’ve built up some goodwill somewhere. Second thing, he would apologize right off the bat. Third thing, Donald could’ve skated on this. All he had to do was get up and tell the truth. “I’ve got cancer, I’m on a lot of drugs.” All he had to do was make a sincere show of contrition. Well, he made none. Instead he insults Magic Johnson and African Americans everywhere. Seriously, Donald, he’s a cartoon villain. Him and Snidely Whiplash.
There really is a human being in there somewhere but you gotta go in so deep. Nobody’s been in deep enough to find it yet.
Canepa: There were reasons why they were bad for so long. I mean, almost everything they did was wrong. It was a confederacy of dunces for a long, long time.
Howard-Cooper: At that time [the Clippers’ beat] was considered a starter beat, even though it was the NBA. That’s how the Clippers were regarded: the next step up from covering high schools.
Heisler: They wouldn’t extend Elton [Brand] and Elton wanted an extension really badly. And Elton had really come here, I think he had been here for two years, and had really, you know, proven himself. Averaged 20 and 10 and he had been their leader, and the team had gotten better. And anybody who had ever dealt with him—he was a delight to deal with. ... Donald didn’t re-sign him. The whole team was young players. That team quit before the season started. You could feel the gas going out of the balloon. Alvin Gentry was the coach. He didn’t say anything to me—he didn’t have to. He communicated in shrugs. But they went on to have a disastrous season.
Canepa: I think it was the draft where they drafted [Terry] Cummings. I think it was the ’82 draft. This is the honest to God’s truth, there were a lot of rounds in the draft then, not two like there are now. There were a lot of rounds in the draft then. Not two like there are now. I think they were up to like, the seventh round. And I’m sitting in Silas’s office, and you know, he’s looking at these sheets, and he goes, “I don’t know Nick, you pick somebody.”
I’m saying, is Eddie Hughes gone yet? Eddie Hughes was a little guard who was just a rocket at Colorado State. I’d been covering San Diego State basketball before that. ... One of the fastest players I’ve ever seen. [I said] “Is Eddie Hughes from Colorado State gone yet?” And he says, “No.” So they drafted him. I drafted a guy.
Heisler: The coach that it was the hardest on was Alvin Gentry, because they were closest to something when he was there. He had kept it going, and Donald just pulled the plug... So when Elton didn’t get the extension that was just like typing it out for everybody: nobody’s getting one. Nobody’s gonna get some money out of there except under the most trying of circumstances. That team just completely quit.
Howard-Cooper: Sterling was never satisfied with getting a contract done, he had to feel like he won. He had to beat the other guy. That’s not what you do in that kind of situation. You’re the Clippers, you can’t afford that. You have to say, “What’s it gonna take Danny [Manning] to get this done?” He set a price. As long as you think the price is OK, you say OK. Not “we agree” and then as you’re down to the final details, say oh, “Let’s do $50,000 in year 3 of the deferred payments instead of year 4.” That’s just stupid. That’s how they lose people. That’s how guys like Danny Manning throw up their hands and say, “I’m done. This is ridiculous.”
Heisler: So now [general manager] Elgin [Baylor] is trying to trade Danny [Manning]. And he works out a trade to Miami for Glen Rice. Well that’s not a bad trade, seeing as how [Danny] was gonna leave. So they’re down there training in Irvine. University of California of Irvine. So out of nowhere—they’re doing the deal this day—out of nowhere Donald stops by. Donald doesn’t generally stop by, but he did, with his girlfriend, Patricia Simmons, and so you tell him what’s going on and he says, “Hold everything.” So he goes into Danny, and he says, “Danny, do you really want to leave?” Danny’s a really nice guy, but he’s non-confrontational. So he says, “No, I never said that.” So Donald convened a full meeting and they decided not to do it. Elgin had to call Miami…
Canepa: We got a hold of the budget. [Sterling] had $100 for [training] camp, budgeted for camp. Over in North Island over by Coronado. … He played no exhibition games. No travel budget, nothing. It was amazing. Pete Babcock was an assistant coach back then, and [Sterling] actually asked Silas and Babcock if they really needed a trainer. “Couldn’t they just tape the players’ ankles?” That’s true. He asked them that question. And I don’t know what the NBA’s like now. But back then, that trainer did everything. He was the traveling secretary. He made all the travel arrangements, booked the hotels—everything.
Voisin: The stories of [Sterling] asking, “How come you have to have a trainer? How come the coach can’t tape ankles?” That’s absolutely true.
Canepa: I know there was a problem with paying the bills. Even the minor bills, let alone the players. It was not the Yankees. It was pretty much a nightmare.
Voisin: Back in those days, the reporters traveled with the team. We all flew commercial. We took the bus to the hotel. The trainer took your luggage for you. You got a cheap rate for the hotel. So the Clippers were supposed to play the Spurs that night at HemisFair Arena, and we get into the hotel at 8 in the morning, and everybody’s just dragging. Mike Shimensky, the trainer, he’s going up [to the front desk] and he’s getting the room keys, and he’s having trouble and they’re giving him a hard time. They’re refusing to give the team the rooms because Sterling hadn’t paid his previous couple of trips there. The trainer had to put down his personal credit card. Otherwise, these guys were passing out on the couches in the lobby they were so exhausted.
“[Sterling] actually asked Silas and Babcock if they really needed a trainer. ‘Couldn’t they just tape the players’ ankles?’ That’s true. He asked them that question.”
Howard-Cooper: Elgin Baylor has taken so many bullets for Donald Sterling for so many years, because Sterling would make things so much more difficult. Elgin, he took a lot of heat, but he made some bad decisions, like every team does. But a lot of those bad decisions were not his decisions.
Voisin: One story that was absolutely true, it was ’82-’83 and, the Clippers were supposed to play somebody, and there was a possibility—you had to have at the time I believe eight players to not forfeit a game, eight active players on the roster—and back in those days teams would sign a guy to like a 10-day deal just to pad the roster and make sure you had enough bodies and what not. Well, one day Michael Brooks had his wisdom teeth out, and he was not gonna be available for the game that night, and Silas literally had to call Michael and ask him to just come and put a uniform on, otherwise they were gonna have to forfeit the game because Sterling wouldn’t get another player.
Howard-Cooper: I remember when Ron Harper hurt his knee. The PR staff came out a little while later after Ron left the court, that was at the Sports Arena, and they gave me the update. Back in the pre-electronic days, it was just handed out, somebody would just scribble it out on a piece of paper, and just pass it down press row or maybe Xerox it a few times and hand it out to different people. I’ll never forget, if these aren’t the exact words, they’re very close, the note said, “It’s only a sprain, expect him to return.”
And then of course he didn’t return. And for years after, one of the running lines among some of the media people around the Clippers was, “It’s only a sprain.”
Voisin: [When Sterling bought the team] He inherited a bunch of contracts. So Don Nelson, Bill Fitch, John Havlicek—there is just a laundry list of former Celtic greats who had to sue him to get paid. Don Nelson took him to court. I think Fitch took him to court.
Canepa: Sterling is picking up salaries for retired Celtics players. He told me, “Do I really have to pay, you know, Havlicek and these guys?” I said, “What are you talking to me for? You bought the team. You deal with it. I don’t know what to tell you. You’re a billionaire for Christ’s sake. You’re asking me whether or not you’ve gotta pay these guys?” It was pretty incredible.
Voisin: When I was covering the team, there was a road trip from San Diego to Seattle. The rule in the collective bargaining agreement was that on any flight over two hours or longer, the players had to fly first class and the team had to provide that. Well, I’m on the flight, and the team’s flying up to Seattle, and I look down and I see half the team sitting in coach, including Jellybean Bryant, Kobe Bryant’s father, who’s 6-foot-9. So Jelly sees me as we’re getting off the flight, and Jelly comes over to me after we get our bags and says, “Come on over, I’ve got a story for you.” It was a page one story.
Howard-Cooper: Part of what made the Clippers’ story so unique is that they were always in a contrast. It wasn’t like they were just these knuckleheads trying a capture a market on their own. They were not only bad and incompetent in so many ways, on court and off, they were standing next to one of these monument franchises of all sports. I had a conversation with Don Casey once, after he’d become the head coach, and he had all these great ideas about how they can turn things around. And for a while they had a little bit of a rally going, and then Ron Harper got hurt, and his thing was, “We can be the Cubs. We can be these lovable guys that people will get behind partly because of our tradition.”
And I said, “No you can’t.” I said, “I get the premise, but nobody’s gonna root for Donald Sterling.” They may root for players, and they’re gonna have their good moments, but I said, “This is not the Cubs overcoming decades of coming close. This is a level of incompetence that goes beyond anything that we really see anywhere.”
Heisler: It’s like the American dream upside down. It’s like what would happen if you got all the money and it was shit.
Photo via AP