Saturday Morning Quarterback

Sterling made money from NBA without contributing to success
May 3, 2014

Long before Donald Sterling insulted an entire race of people, the Los Angeles Clippers owner was considered the black sheep of the NBA.

Ever since he bought into the league for some $12.5 million in 1981, his team has been the laughingstock of professional basketball. The Clippers were the team Hollywood went to see to be different. They were the discount alternative to the glamorous Lakers.

While the Lakers were winning a dozen championships, the Clippers were losing a thousand games and doing little with the high draft picks which came with them.

The Clippers were a joke, though it wasn’t funny to the players, coaches, employees and fans.

That they are winning now, and also had a brief flirtation in the playoffs a couple of decades ago, are a fluke. Even blind hogs find an acorn sometimes.

I’ve long contended ownership is the key to success in pro sports. To have good coaches, players, management and system in place, an owner willing to do what it takes to put those ingredients in place is a must. Not just someone willing to throw around money. Redskins owner Dan Snyder is proof that throwing $s aimlessly won’t get it done.

It’s hiring the right person who will pick the right general manager who will hire the right coach and make the right draft picks and sign the right players. And then, spend the money necessary to keep those ingredients in place, rather than let them go for more bucks elsewhere without adequate replacements.

I always considered Eddie DeBartolo the ideal owner. The San Francisco 49ers owner during the Joe Montana era, he was one of the first to buy a charter airplane for his team to fly cross country stress free, rather than share seats with John Q. Public on commercial airlines. The ‘80s Niners were one of the best road teams in the league despite logging the longest trips. Players appreciated that and responded accordingly with five Super Bowl wins.

He was the man who hired Bill Walsh, who drafted Montana, and the rest is history.

The Niners kept winning after Walsh and Montana departed, winning their last title without them. But when DeBartolo was forced to divest himself of the team after being involved in a corruption scandal with the governor of Louisiana, the team went downhill and stayed there until recently.

Other owners – past and present across the pro sports spectrum – have followed similar formulas to success.

On the other end is Sterling, who was content to pile up losses on the court while he laughed all the way to the bank. The losingest team of the past three decades is worth nearly 100 times what he paid for it. There’s never been any financial incentive for him to try to improve his team.

Fans like to blast professional players as greedy. They have nothing on some owners, who don’t have to win to rake in the cash. Sterling, a lawyer in his younger days whose “day” job is landlord to countless apartments, has ridden the coattails of the Bird-Magic rivalry, the Jordan era and now the age of LeBron which have built the league’s success during his tenure without contributing one iota until perhaps right now.

New commissioner Adam Silver has banned Sterling for life as he joined the late Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott and Minnesota’s Calvin Griffith in racist purgatory. At least Schott saved baseball in the Queen City and saw her team win the World Series before her skinflight spending stripped her franchise to its foundation.

Griffith, a second-generation owner who brought baseball to the Twin Cities, made racist comments in the late ‘70s which prompted seven-time American League batting king Rod Carew to want out of the Upper Midwest [he got his wish]. By that time, he was already tightfisted and ill prepared when free agency came to baseball at that time.

Anyhoo, Sterling is banned from attending Clippers games or practices or having anything to do with the team or league – except for making money, since he is still the owner.

His peers and many others are trying to get him to sell the team. Judging by his history, they may have a fight on their hands. It may take economic boycotts by sponsors [which is already happening], dwindling ticket sales [which didn’t hurt him during the team’s losing years] and the refusal of players to suit up for the team.

In that regard, Sterling has surpassed Schott and Griffith.

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