Jeff Pearlman

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The Eccentric Donald Sterling

With the addition of Doc Rivers and the apparent return of Chris Paul, the Los Angeles Clippers are—along with the Brooklyn Nets—the hottest NBA franchise this offseason. It almost allows people to believe that Donald Sterling, the team’s longtime crazy owner, is righteous in his pursuits.

Which makes me think of Paul Phipps.

Those who really, really, really follow the NBA might remember Phipps as the Clippers’ general manager back from October, 1982 until April, 1984. He was a well-regarded executive; a nice man with genuine credibility and an eye for talent. I interviewed him several months ago for a book about the NBA in the 1980s. He told me a story about Sterling that didn’t make the final pages, but stands out nonetheless.

According to Phipps, during his time with the team he conducted a search for a head coach to replace the fired Paul Silas. “We needed someone different,” Phipps told me, “and one of the first guys we talked to was Rollie Massimino.” At the time, Massimino was coaching Villanova, and was known as a guy on the rise. “He flew in, and Pete Babcock (the director of player personnel) and I were impressed. He was very organized, he had a great philosophy, we liked his approach to practice. When we got done with him, he had to fly from San Diego to Los Angeles, then Los Angeles back to Philly. Don told us he’d like to meet with him. Oh, boy.” Sterling told Phipps he’d sit down with Massimino at the gate inside Los Angeles International Airport. “We told Rollie he’s a bit eccentric,” Phipps said. “He’ll probably have his shirt open and six gold chains sticking out.

“Don,” Phipps continued, “liked to have other women outside his marriage. There was one blonde girl in particular who was his friend.”

Anyhow, according to Phipps, Massimino boarded the jet, and when he landed in Los Angeles he exited the walkway and spotted Sterling. “They met,” said Phipps, “and between 3 and 4 in the morning my phone rings.” It was an irate Massimino. “I’m sorry,” he told Phipps, “but I’d never work for that son of a bitch. Ever.”

Phipps, half asleep, sat up on his bed and asked what went wrong. “Here’s this guy,” Massimino said, “and he has this blonde bimbo with him, they have a bottle of champagne, they’re tanked. And Don looks at me and he says, ‘I wanna know why you think you can coach these niggers.’”

Massimino told Phipps he began screaming at Sterling and swore he’d rather die than become coach of the Clippers. “That,” said Phipps, “was life with Donald Sterling.”

  • trainwreckog

    The way I see it Don was just an old school owner. True old school. I’d love to play or coach for him.

    • Donitizias

      Ugh yeah, trainwreck you are an idiot. Nothing old school about sterling. And you sound like a kiss ass hoping to land a job under him. He sucked for years and years.

    • Funk

      If by “old school” you mean a racist piece of shit, then yeah, Don Sterling is very “old school”.

      • Wagchamp

        The way I see it is you have no self respect. Or you’re a racist.

    • NSW

      Have you checked the history of the Clippers franchise?

      If by “old-school” you mean “Like Tom Yawkey who stood in the way of his own success and sabotaged his own team’s chances of winning” then you’re right, he’s “old-school.”

      Rollie’s a hero.

  • Omar Sanchez

    I worked with a guy at KPMG while we were both recent college grads and hotshot auditors.. He ended up marrying Donald Sterling’s daughter and we never heard from him again, lol.

  • Jerdog

    Wow, publishing a “story” that someone told someone else that happened 30 years ago? What a scoop! Amazing how this story was uncovered after much digging and journalistic research on the heels of CP3 re-signing with the Clippers.

    Never mind that Sterling was reportedly drunk at the time. While he probably is a bigot, people aren’t legally bound by contracts when they are drunk so why are you judging Sterling by his drunken words of 30 years ago. You know, there were a lot of Gay jokes circulating 30 years ago. If you use one today, you better have a good attorney – a criminal attorney.

    Interesting how Sterling can be such a racist yet hired and kept a black GM of the Clippers for over 20 years when any other owner in the league would have canned Elgin Baylor at least a decade earlier. I guess that you have a dirty little secret to share about this, too.

    Finally, I want to applaud your objective journalism by posting perhaps the most unflattering picture of Sterling that you can find while also labeling him as “Crazy”. While the “N” word is a pejorative and racist type of term, using the word “crazy” is actually libelous. Do you have proof that Sterling is crazy? Do crazy people actually accumulate a net worth over $1B and pay black employees over $20M per year. After considering these facts you may want to print a retraction of your “crazy” comment.

    while Sterling may be a despicable bigot, your self-serving, opportunistic reporting is rather despicable, too.

    • 132bpm

      I was at a Clippers game at the Sports Arena around 1991 as the Clippers were sucking as usual. A fan shouted to Sterling to sell the team.

      Sterling stood up and screamed fuck you,fuck off, fuck you motherfucker and never selling to the guy.

      Donald T didn’t give a shit about making a spectacle then , and he doesn’t care now. He is batshit crazy.

      And if you don’t think he is a racist, well fuck you.

    • NRWillick

      “while Sterling may be a despicable bigot, your self-serving, opportunistic reporting is rather despicable, too.”

      It’s amazing that people will come onto someone’s PERSONAL blog and criticize them for their opinion. This wasn’t reporting. It was relaying an anecdote that wasn’t included in his new book. If you don’t like what Pearlman writes, don’t read it. No reason to get personal about it.

  • Richard

    If nothing else, Sterling provides another in the long line of candidates for the ongoing “Worst Owner in Sports History” contest, along with Harold Ballard, Dan Snyder, George Steinbrenner, etc. Along with his accomplishments as an owner, Sterling’s history as a slumlord and his apparent racism just might make him the leader in the clubhouse.

    • Tony

      I’m not a Yankees fan by any stretch, but I’m not sure how one can include Steinbrenner on any Worst Owners list. Maybe Most Egomaniacal, or Meddlesome, or Insufferable, or Legendary in Their Own Fevered Minds — but certainly not Worst. The man’s teams won Championships. He doesn’t belong on any list with the likes of Sterling, Snyder et al.

      • Richard

        Great point, Tony. I had a hard time listing him (especially because I’m a Yankees fan), but I chose him because he was always such a topic of discussion. Living in the DC area, I’ve seen how Peter Angelos did some awful things to the Orioles, but even he seems to have backed away and let his baseball men push the buttons.

    • SS

      As long as we’re on the topic of bad, bigoted owners: Don’t forget Marge Schott. She was a peach; a Hitler-supporting peach.

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  • LAC fan since 1992

    Sterling may be a racist and eccentric but he’s not the worst owner by any stretch. He always said he would pay a premium for talent and he’s doing it.
    Jerry Jones, on the other hand, is the epitome of the worst owner in sports. He pays dogs all-star salaries, refuses to step down as GM and has ruined the relationship between the team and its fans.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life