Following the uproar over audio revelations of a racist rant by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, it is worth noting that Sterling’s racism is nothing new and should come as no surprise. Reprinted—with some edits—here is the essay on Sterling that I wrote for my 2010 book Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love. It is out of date insofar as the Clippers have gone from being a sad-sack franchise to contending for the 2014 NBA title, but everything else holds. Hopefully it will give some insight into a man who has become, in the words of Magic Johnson, “a black eye for the NBA.”
It takes a certain flair for racism—a panache for prejudice—to find yourself facing two different racial discrimination lawsuits simultaneously. Meet Donald Sterling, the owner of the most unspeakably malodorous franchise since the Cleveland Spiders: the Los Angeles Clippers. Since Sterling’s purchase of the club in 1981, his team has by far the worst record in all of the National Basketball Association. The Clippers have made the playoffs only four times in Sterling’s twenty-eight years as owner, never advancing past the second round of the playoffs. It’s been said that the NBA should rename its annual players draft “The Donald Sterling Draft Lottery.” He was named the worst owner in sports by the writers at ESPN.com because of his complete disregard for fielding a winning team as long as he could turn a healthy profit. It stands to reason why in 2000 Sports Illustrated named the Clippers “the worst franchise in professional sports.”
But Sterling transcends the stereotypical Scrooge-like miser. He is so much more boorishly colorful than just a man trying to fill his coffers while snoozing in the luxury box. Sterling is like a side character in a James Ellroy noir novel. He is ruthless and toothsome, a man who unabashedly reinvented himself in Los Angeles’s healing sunshine. Former LA Mayor Tom Bradley once said, “People cut themselves off from their ties of the old life when they come to Los Angeles. They are looking for a place where they can be free, where they can do things they couldn’t do anywhere else.”
That well sums up the tale of Donald Sterling. His real name is Donald Tokowitz. After moving from Chicago as a child, he came of age in the rough and tumble Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles. Donnie Tokowitz was the only son of an immigrant produce peddler. As a young boy, he worked boxing groceries at the local grocery stores and showed a talent for saving money. “As a kid, Donald never had enough of anything,” said a friend. “With him, acquiring great wealth is a crusade. He’s psychologically predisposed to hoarding.” His mother was not impressed with his ability to hustle a dollar and insisted that he go to college and become a lawyer. Young Mr. Tokowitz worked his way through Southwestern School of Law, graduating at age 23. To help pay his way through, he worked nights selling furniture. It was there that he changed his name to Sterling. “I asked him why,” a coworker told Los Angeles magazine. “He said, ‘You have to name yourself after something that’s really good, that people have confidence in. People want to know that you’re the best.’”
After some success as an attorney he started buying property throughout Los Angeles, and kept buying and flipping real estate until he earned enough to buy the then San Diego Clippers for $13 million, $10 million of that on layaway. By ownership standards, he was practically proletarian.
Before fleeing to Los Angeles, he ended any prospect of professional basketball in San Diego by being the most personally repellent owner in the game. In San Diego, he was like Mark Cuban, if Cuban maintained his outsized personality while actively trying to destroy his team. “It’s the start of a new era!” he promised in an open letter to fans. “I’m in San Diego to stay and committed to making the city proud of the Clippers. I’ll build the Clippers through the draft, free agency, trades, spending whatever it takes to make a winner.”