As he threatened, Donald Sterling is not giving up the Los Angeles Clippers without a fight.
The embattled owner said this week that he is going ahead with a $1 billion lawsuit that claims the NBA violated his rights by banning him from the league and trying to take his team away. Instead of a quick resolution to the sordid saga, which started when Sterling’s mistress recorded him making racist remarks, the league now faces the prospect of months — or longer — in court.
Here are five ways the dispute could be resolved now that Sterling’s lawsuit against his fellow NBA owners is back on:
NEGOTIATION: The league could hammer out a deal with Sterling to get him to drop the lawsuit and let the $2 billion sale to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer proceed. What would persuade the notoriously litigious Clippers owner to go quietly? The NBA could back down on the $2.5 million fine levied against him by commissioner Adam Silver. But it’s doubtful Sterling is jeopardizing a $2 billion deal over a relative pittance.
More likely, the league’s longest-tenured owner wants to maintain some association with the Association. Would the NBA be willing to let him attend team functions, retain courtside seats or serve on the board of the planned charitable foundation after some sort of sensitivity training? Perhaps, if that’s what it takes to make this all go away.
BANISHMENT: Sterling’s temporary acquiescence to the sale may have been a legal rope-a-dope to lull the NBA into canceling the meeting at which it was virtually certain he would have been voted out of the league. Now that the sale is on hold, the league could reschedule the hearing — if for no other reason than to pressure Sterling into a settlement. If he doesn’t, the owners vote, the league seizes control of the team and sells it to Ballmer or re-opens the bidding.
BUYER’S REMORSE: Ballmer’s bid of $2 billion was almost four times the record for an NBA team, and 3.5 times the value placed on Los Angeles’ second-most illustrious NBA franchise by Forbes Magazine earlier this year. He won the auction in a crowded field of celebrity bidders that included Oprah Winfrey, entertainment mogul David Geffen and some of Los Angeles’ richest men and women.
But if Ballmer was hoping for a smooth transition, the potentially long delay could give him time to rethink his purchase. The Clippers have never been as hot a property as they were during the frenzied sale process, and Ballmer overbid the next-highest offer by $400 million. If Shelly Sterling can’t deliver the team, it could give Ballmer a chance to back out or renegotiate.
LITIGATION: The lawsuit proceeds, and a California jury decides whether the league violated Sterling’s rights by stripping him of his team based on a private conversation with his girlfriend. Or the NBA fights to have the case moved to New York. Or Shelly Sterling gets a probate court to affirm her right to sell the team. Or Ballmer sues Donald Sterling for interfering with his deal.
The winners in this scenario are the lawyers, with a twist: the league constitution says Sterling pays the NBA’s legal fees unless he wins on every single claim against him. And even if he does, he is essentially winning a judgment against himself: Shelly Sterling has agreed to indemnify the NBA against all lawsuits, including by her husband.
VINDICATION: Sterling wins in court and keeps the team. His lifetime ban is overturned. Maybe he even gets to keep his $2.5 million fine. And then the appeals. And the player boycotts. And sponsors flee. And the Clippers once again become the laughingstock of the league they were for so much of Sterling’s tenure as owner.
Jimmy Golen covers sports and the law for The Associated Press.
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