Uncontested: The life of Donald Sterling
Peter Keating [ARCHIVE]
ESPN The Magazine
April 28, 2014
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This story ran in the June 1, 2009 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

Donald Sterling looks good. The 76-year-old billionaire owner of the Clippers always looks good, an occasional tousle of salt-and-cinnamon hair dangling over his expressive, perpetually tanned face. Sweeping into the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles the night of May 14 wearing a black suit and white tie, he directs photo ops before commenting to his companions about a Mag reporter: "Do you know why they're here? They want to know why the NAACP would give an award to someone with my track record!"

For more than two years, Sterling has been staring down federal civil rights charges related to his real estate holdings and rental practices. According to the Justice Department, Sterling, his wife and three of his companies have engaged in discrimination, principally by refusing to rent to African-Americans. In February, Elgin Baylor, the Clippers GM from 1986 to 2008, filed an age and racial discrimination suit against his old boss alleging, among other things, that Sterling repeatedly expressed a desire to field a team of "poor black boys from the South ... playing for a white coach." Sterling's attorneys have denied the accusations. And even as these controversies swirl around him, Sterling is here tonight to receive a lifetime achievement award from the local chapter of the NAACP.

The man of the hour ushers two black guests over to talk to the reporter.

"Donald Sterling is a prince among men," says Leon Isaac Kennedy, who starred in the Penitentiary series of movies in the '70s and '80s. "I've been his friend for 25 years." At dinner, the emcee updates the crowd on the Lakers, who are losing to Houston in a crucial playoff game. With Sterling in attendance, guests aren't sure whether to boo or cheer. But when the Clippers owner rises to speak, he is gracious. "I really have a special feeling for this organization," he says. He's a major donor, contributing $10,000 to $15,000 this year alone, according to chapter president Leon Jenkins.

Sterling doesn't stay to hear all the speakers -- his entourage is at the hotel bar watching the game -- but while speaking, he holds his two-handled trophy cup aloft. And he smiles that smile, the almost smirk you see in photo after photo of the man associates call The Donald. It's smooth and self-satisfied and says not just that the guy behind it makes his own rules but that he's won yet another round. Tell him he can't move his team, and he'll move it anyway. Complain that he's a cheapskate, and he'll spend just enough to maintain the profit margin he wants. Sue him for sexual harassment or housing discrimination, and he'll buy your silence with a hefty cash settlement. Call him a racist, and he'll show you an eminent civil rights organization lauding his accomplishments.

As for his franchise? Well, there are two kinds of basketball fans: those who know the details of its sad history and those who don't need to. Suffice it to say that 2008-09 marks the seventh time the Clippers have lost 60 games in a season and the 17th time they've lost 50 since Sterling moved them to Los Angeles 25 years ago, both achievements unequaled by any other team in the league over this period. The Clippers have reached the second round of the playoffs just once in that time, going 701-1,317 overall, for a .347 winning percentage that is easily the worst among the four major sports. Horrible trades, disastrous drafts, endless injuries -- with Sterling at the helm, the Clippers and their faithful have been through it all, again and again.

Not that Sterling is happy to fail. As recently as March 2, after a home game in which the Clippers were blown out by the Spurs 106-78, he barreled into the locker room and cursed out his club. One player who didn't recognize his employer reportedly thought about calling security. "It's a total frustration for him," says Hollywood producer Michael Selsman, who's known Sterling since 1962. "People probably think he has a less-than-firm commitment to winning, when he's actually consumed with it." But while owning a team hasn't brought him a title, it has given Sterling something he seems to value more: the power to be heedless.

"Just evict the bitch."

It was 2002, and Donald Sterling was talking to Sumner Davenport, one of his four top property supervisors, about a tenant at the Ardmore Apartments. Already the largest landowner in Beverly Hills, Sterling had recently acquired the Ardmore as part of his move to extend his real estate empire eastward toward Koreatown and downtown LA. As he did, Sterling "wanted tenants that fit his image," according to testimony Davenport gave in a discrimination lawsuit brought against Sterling in 2003 by 19 tenants and the nonprofit Housing Rights Center. (That case ended in a confidential settlement in 2005; attorneys for the Center declined to comment for this story. In a separate suit, also concluded in 2005, Davenport claimed Sterling sexually harassed her, and lost. She declined comment. The Magazine has obtained depositions in both cases.) Cultivating his image, Davenport said, meant no blacks, no Mexican-Americans, no children (whom Sterling called "brats") and no government-housing-subsidy recipients as tenants. So according to the testimony of tenants, Sterling employees made life difficult for residents in some of his new buildings. They refused rent checks, then accused renters of nonpayment. They refused to do repairs for black tenants and harassed them with surprise inspections, threatening residents with eviction for alleged violations of building rules.

When Sterling first bought the Ardmore, he remarked on its odor to Davenport. "That's because of all the blacks in this building, they smell, they're not clean," he said, according to Davenport's testimony. "And it's because of all of the Mexicans that just sit around and smoke and drink all day." He added: "So we have to get them out of here." Shortly after, construction work caused a serious leak at the complex. When Davenport surveyed the damage, she found an elderly woman, Kandynce Jones, wading through several inches of water in Apartment 121. Jones was paralyzed on the right side and legally blind. She took medication for high blood pressure and to thin a clot in her leg. Still, she was remarkably cheerful, showing Davenport pictures of her children, even as some of her belongings floated around her.

Jones had repeatedly walked to the apartment manager's office to plead for assistance, according to sworn testimony given by her daughter Ebony Jones in the Housing Rights Center case. Kandynce Jones' refrigerator dripped, her dishwasher was broken, and her apartment was always cold. Now it had flooded. Davenport reported what she saw to Sterling, and according to her testimony, he asked: "Is she one of those black people that stink?" When Davenport...
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