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Sports Illustrated tells disturbing Donald Sterling story it scrapped in 2000

In the wake of Donald Sterling’s lifetime ban from the NBA, Sports Illustrated has published an article from Frank Lidz entitled “Sterling’s offensive behavior was no secret for years.”  In 2000, Lidz wrote a cover story for the magazine on Donald Sterling.  Sports Illustrated labeled the Clippers the worst franchise in sports history and the lengthy portrait of Sterling paints a man who is woefully inept and cheap (one who throws Great Gatsby inspired parties, but tries to defraud fans out of free throw contest prizes) but falls short of the image of Donald Sterling we’ve seen emerge this week.

In fact, the best summation of the 2000 Sterling profile is an eccentric billionaire who wants to win games with the Clippers, but has no idea just how to do it.  The first quote in the article sets that tone:

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For more than a decade, the most opulent office space in 90210 has remained virtually unoccupied. The building’s sole tenant is its landlord, Donald Sterling, whose billion-dollar real estate empire occupies the sixth and seventh floors. “Some people think I’m eccentric for keeping Sterling Plaza to myself,” Sterling says. “I like riding up and down the elevators alone. It’s a luxury I’ve earned.”

With Sterling in the news this week, Lidz offered something of a postscript, publishing a story involving Sterling that did not make the magazine in 2000.  He tells about a time when Sterling invited #1 overall draft pick Danny Manning and his agent to his Beverly Hills mansion where he beat his young son with a belt in front of them:

Shortly after the Clippers made Danny Manning the top pick of the 1988 NBA draft, team owner Donald Sterling invited the player and his agent, Ron Grinker, to talk contract in Beverly Hills. It was recounted to me how Sterling lounged around his mansion in a bathrobe open to his navel, wearing nothing underneath.

At one point Sterling’s preteen son wandered in and was chastised for skipping Hebrew school. The owner commanded the boy, “Go to your room and get undressed.” The child slouched upstairs. Sterling followed. The next thing Manning heard was a belt thrashing and the boy wailing, as Grinker bounded up the stairs yelling, “Stop! Stop! We’ll sign.”

I heard this in the course of reporting a profile of Sterling (owner of THE WORST FRANCHISE IN SPORTS HISTORY per the cover) that I wrote 14 years ago for Sports Illustrated (April 17, 2000). Except that much of the anecdote didn’t appear in the magazine. The profile did include Sterling’s hiring a former model to be an assistant GM. And his placing newspaper ads for “hostesses” interested in meeting “celebrities and sports stars.” The women were interviewed in Sterling’s suite. But so much of his behavior — extreme parsimony, discriminatory practices, wild sexual escapades — was deemed too weird, too cruel, too contemptible. An editor told me, “You’ve demonized him.”

With hindsight it’s clear that Lidz didn’t go too far, he didn’t go far enough in exposing Sterling.  Lidz writes that SI editors deemed those stories too hard on Sterling, so they were left on the cutting room floor.  The magazine thought nobody would believe the worst of the worst about the Clippers owner.  Fourteen years later, we would believe anything attached to Donald Sterling’s name.  If The Sporting News published an anecdote about Donald Sterling’s secret plot to control the world’s clean water supply we would be immediately convinced it was true.

There’s a couple of natural reactions to Sports Illustrated choosing to publish this story at this time.  A more cynical view would argue that the magazine is trying to capitalize on the controversy by emptying its coffers of all its Donald Sterling dirt.  If there’s ever a time to publish controversial or salacious details regarding the Clippers owner, now is the time to do it.  The piece will likely get a good amount of attention given it reveals more of Sterling’s character flaws.

A more constructive viewpoint would see the decision to publish this story now as a lesson in what we all missed for years with Donald Sterling.  The anecdotes about his behavior never went beyond a whisper.  The headlines about housing discrimination settlements never got beyond local papers and ESPN’s Page 2.  Maybe if more stories like the one above were published, there would be more attention given to Sterling’s behavior.

Hopefully the next time a story like this emerges, there is a more significant push to pay attention to what is happening in real time instead of looking back years later and shaking our heads.  As we discussed with Bomani Jones on yesterday’s podcast, everything was already there to document Donald Sterling’s behavior, but the NBA, the media, sponsors, and everyone else missed it.

Sterling’s behavior wasn’t a secret… except that it was.

Matt Yoder

About Matt Yoder

Managing Editor of Awful Announcing and award winning sportswriter. Bloguin consigliere. The biggest cat in the whole wide world.

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