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Tarnished Sterling


Highpoint of the Donald Sterling fiasco -- or was it actually the low-point -- came with the belated revelation the nutty basketball mogul might be terminally ill in body, as well as spirit. All of which inspired in massive boldface this astounding headline filling the front page of scandal-loving America's newspaper of record, the New York Post:

"HE'S REALLY SICK: NBA BIGOT HAS CANCER!"

In response to which, we presumably are expected to offer, "Hip Hip. Hooray!" There being no underestimating the capacity for bad taste in the American culture.

Not to be outflanked in the media feeding-frenzy that Sterling's racist rant inspired the irrepressible Barbara Walters, still hustling scoops well into her eighties, gave us a tender interview with the co-star of this wretched mess, femme fatale Vickie Stiviano; thus conferring on Mr. Sterling's improbable ex-gal pal the secular immortality only the true doyenne of American celebrity journalism can confer while also casting Ms. Stiviano as, heaven help us, a victim.

What was the point of it? What that is meaningful could have been learned? Why am I wasting my time wondering if it had anything to do with anything other than titillation and ratings? Believe me when I tell you it would be impossible to make this stuff up.

There being no room left on the soap box I'll spare you yet another lofty sermon about how despicable Mr. Sterling may be and how ridiculous all the other characters in this absurd melodrama surely are too. You know all that. The point has been adequately made.

Although it should be noted that also worthy of indictment are the NBA, which tolerated the old fool's loathsome act for a quarter century, and the long line of estimable fellows including ex-Celtic Coach Doc Rivers who accepted well-paid jobs with Sterling even though they apparently well-knew he was a clown, and the ex-commissioner everyone showered with accolades upon his retirement just weeks ago. The new commissioner is hailed as a hero for finally getting tough on Sterling. Nonsense! It's not like he had a choice. There are no heroes in this miserable tale.

Owners in sports are a quirky breed. They always have been. Owning a team in any game is not the normal pursuit of rich guys. Historically, most people of wealth have mainly yearned to parlay their riches into still more riches and until recently there were a lot better, easier, smarter ways to do that than by owning a dumb ballclub.

In baseball, long the biggest money game, some always did well like the succession of plutocrats who owned the Yankees. But they were outnumbered by the suckers who got taken for a ride, like the owners of the Braves, Browns, Phillies, etc. Early on, pro-basketball was a particularly lousy investment. The Boston Celtics at their mightiest had a string of about a half-dozen ownerships that got beat up badly before bailing out sadder but wiser, generally after only a couple of years.

It was in the 1970s that the scene began to change, at first incrementally, thanks to television and expansion, and then with revolutionary impact thanks to radical improvements in marketing, media, franchising, venues, fees, rights, surging gate receipts. Finally, there was the frosting on the cake, glorious cable; that veritable slot machine now spiking the value of franchises in all sporting leagues and alliances to dizzying heights. To the hotshot investor, who yearns for a touch of pizzazz spicing up his business dealings to go with all the bragging rights and ego balm, owning a sports team -- once so widely thought to be the domain of the goofy -- has become too good to be true.

Moreover, you can be a total idiot and still profit mightily; a fact Owner Sterling is proving quite brilliantly. He purchased the LA Clippers in 1981 for $12.5 million, presided over the poorest performance of any team in North American sports for three decades, then brought utter shame to himself and his game. Yet, if he now sells out as he's being ordered to do he'll walk off with a profit of over a half a billion bucks. According to Forbes, the last word on the subject, the book value on the Clippers has risen to almost $600 million, despite the crazy owner's determined effort to destroy them. And sporting franchises nowadays never sell for less than their book value. It's such a great country!

And it's thereby no surprise that you find off-the-wall characters and stray rascals sprinkled among the more traditional entrepreneurial types in ownership ranks. Basketball has a bunch of them. Along with the stunning example of Sterling, there's the Russian politician in Brooklyn whose ultimate goal is to unseat Vladimir Putin, a billionaire playboy in Texas with an opinion on everything, a maverick cable potentate in Manhattan, a jet-setting heiress in California.

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