LOS ANGELES — A teammate of former Los Angeles Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor can remember a time in the 1960s when NBA owners intentionally limited the number of black players on their rosters. Retired Minneapolis/Los Angeles Laker and Cincinnati Royal Tommy Hawkins has watched the league progress in the decades since then, and speaking with ThinkProgress before Game Five at Staples Center, he commended Commissioner Adam Silver for taking harsh action against Clippers owner Donald Sterling.
Tuesday, Silver banned Sterling from the NBA for life and asked the league’s Board of Governors to take necessary action to force Sterling to sell the team after an audio recording illustrated the owner telling his girlfriend not to bring black fans — including Magic Johnson — to his games.
“Justice has been served,” Hawkins said. “With that, we move on. There’s no place for that type of thing in the NBA.”
Still, Hawkins lamented a culture that allows for someone like Sterling to flourish.
“There is a paternalistic attitude … a plantation mentality that still exists in the United States today,” he said.
Hawkins, who played with Baylor in two stints with the Lakers, spoke to his old friend the day of Game Five. Baylor lost a discrimination and wrongful termination lawsuit against Sterling in 2011. The NBA Hall of Famer alleged that Sterling had a “vision of a Southern plantation-type structure” and had frozen his annual salary for nearly a decade.
“Nobody paid any attention to Elgin when he brought that suit,” Hawkins said.
Hawkins was one among a legion of onlookers, fans and protesters who descended upon downtown Los Angeles Tuesday night before the Clippers’ first home game since the news of Sterling’s racist diatribe broke.
Signs and T-shirts denouncing Sterling dominated the streets and L.A. Live entertainment complex adjacent to Staples Center, and Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network staged a rally outside the arena. Willie Hampton, a volunteer with NAN participating in the protest, wants to force a sale of the franchise as soon as possible.
“I don’t think the community can take much longer,” Hampton said. “We actually don’t want him to profit — not another dollar from these hard-working men and women in that organization.”
Hampton sees Sterling’s profiteering off of black labor while expressing racist sentiments as a symptom of ties between wealth and white supremacy. Although most owners have expressed disgust with Sterling’s comments — and they seem likely to clear the 75 percent threshold necessary to force him out of the league — the NBA’s racially exclusive network of power remains evident. Michael Jordan of the Charlotte Bobcats is the only African-American majority owner, and Vivek Ranadive of the Sacramento Kings is the only other person of color who owns a majority stake in a team. Hampton advocated for public ownership and investor purchases of shares in the Clippers to break up the current power structure. While that path is unlikely, Cynthia Brumfield, another NAN activist, said that selling the team to a person or group without Sterling’s history of racial discrimination must be a top priority.
“Clipper Darrell” Bailey, the franchise’s most visible fan, has led the Clipper crowds in chants through its past woeful seasons. Yet in 2012, Bailey, who is African-American, alleged that Clipper management told him to stop making public appearances in connection with the organization. The Clippers believed that Bailey was profiting off the team without demonstrating actual loyalty. Despite the treatment and latest revelations about Sterling, Clipper Darrell arrived at Will Call Tuesday in his trademark red-and-blue suit, waiting for his ticket and opportunity to support a team that has finally become relevant.
News broke Tuesday that the Golden State Warriors, the Clippers’ first-round playoff opponent, and players like Washington’s John Wall and Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant had planned to boycott if Silver did not take decisive action against Sterling. But players around the league commended the commissioner for his strong response, and slowly, attention turned back to basketball, an approach Clipper Darrell was ready for.
“People do stuff in life that catches up with them, and basically, it caught up with him,” Bailey said of Sterling. “But the NBA will deal with it. Let’s talk about basketball. Let’s talk about the NBA championship –when could you ever see ‘Clippers’ and ‘championship’ in the same sentence? You couldn’t ever say that, now we can. Let’s go play some basketball, man. This is these [players’] sanctuary.”
Mark Ebner, who had a ticket to the game, expressed discomfort with a private conversation of Sterling being recorded, but added that “there’s no downside” to his downfall. If Sterling refuses to sell the team, Ebner argued that Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns Staples Center, should kick the Clippers out of the arena. That shouldn’t be necessary — Silver said Tuesday that he feels confident the owners will vote to force a sale — and donning a black armband and a red Clippers’ playoff t-shirt, Ebner too was ready to focus on basketball.
“We’re not fans because of the owner,” he said. “We want to see some basketball and see our team win Game Five.”
The Clippers, who were blown out in Game Four just a day after the Sterling recordings surfaced, went on to win Tuesday, 113-103, putting them just one win away from advancing to the next round.