Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling says the NBA is unfairly singling him out and slamming him with draconian punishment, all prompted by the leak of a private conversation he says was illegally recorded.
In a scathing 32-page response sent to the league Tuesday and obtained by USA TODAY Sports, Sterling says he will fight the league's move to force him to sell his team and he noted he has received offers of more than $2.5billion for the franchise. Sterling says the league's proposed punishment would cause his family to take an egregious tax hit on the sale of the club.
And regardless of his comments, Sterling says, nothing he said violated his contractual agreements with the league.
"A jealous rant to a lover never intended to be published cannot offend the NBA rules," the document signed by Sterling said.
The NBA acknowledged Tuesday night that it received a response from Sterling and reiterated its plan to vote on terminating his ownership.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is trying to force a sale of the Clippers after Sterling was heard in an audio recording making racist remarks about African Americans in a private conversation in September with his companion, V. Stiviano. The recording was leaked months later to the gossip website TMZ, prompting Silver to ban Sterling for life and fine him $2.5 million April 29. The NBA has set a hearing for June 3, with approval by three-quarters of the league's owners required to strip him of ownership.
Sterling says he did not consent to being recorded by Stiviano, making the recording illegal in California. He also says he helped the league achieve its diversity goals and the penalties for his offensive speech are far beyond what any other player, coach or owner has suffered. He cited several examples, including Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant being fined "only a modest $100,000" in 2011 after using a gay slur against a referee.
The league says Sterling ran afoul of a morals clause in Article II of its joint venture agreement with him. But Sterling stays the provision "is not meant to oversee morals and ethics in the home; it is meant to govern morals and ethics in conducting the sport of professional basketball."
Sterling alleges he was baited by Stiviano into making his remarks while he was in a distressed and vulnerable state. While he has acknowledged the remarks were uneducated and hurtful, his response asserts they could not draw a fine of $2.5 million under NBA rules.
"Judging in terms of the punishment already imposed, and the Commissioner's current request, Mr. Sterling's offense is far and away the worst offense that any player, coach or owner has ever committed in the history of the NBA," his attorneys wrote. "In the past, the NBA has either punished offensive speech with a modest fine or ignored it."
Sterling argues that the league could fine him no more than $1million. "We do not believe a court in the United States of America will enforce the draconian penalties imposed on Mr. Sterling in these circumstances, and indeed, we believe that preservation of Mr. Sterling's constitutional rights requires that these sham proceedings be terminated in Mr. Sterling's favor," the response says.
His wife, Shelly Sterling, planned to file a separate response to the NBA by midnight Tuesday to assert her position that she is an innocent bystander in the league's efforts to strip her family's ownership of the Clippers, a person familiar with the situation told USA TODAY Sports. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
By reasserting her position as the innocent 50% owner, Shelly Sterling is building on her case that she should be able to retain a minority ownership stake in the team. Meanwhile, she is trying to sell a controlling interest in the team after her husband authorized her to sell it on his behalf. She visited with former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer on Sunday at her residence in Malibu, Calif., and received a strong offer for the team and commitment to keep it in Los Angeles, said the person, who is familiar with the negotiations.
Several other potential buyers have expressed serious interest, the person said, with Bank of America working to help Shelly Sterling sell the team on her terms and not through a forced sale by the NBA.
Despite Donald Sterling agreeing to let his wife sell the team, the NBA said last week it will proceed as planned to terminate the family's ownership.
However, the person said the NBA is aware of Shelly Sterling's efforts to sell the team on her own and might be open to it being sold without a forced termination. Depending on the negotiations, the June 3 deadline could be extended. A sticking point could be Shelly Sterling's effort to remain a part-owner -- a prospect the NBA opposes.
The Sterlings bought the team in 1981 for about $12 million.
If the NBA votes to terminate the Sterlings' ownership, Silver would temporarily take over the team.
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