Donald Sterling had me by the hand. You know that thing elderly women do where they grab the top of your hand with just their fingers and lead you around? That’s what he was doing. We were in Malibu for his annual White Party, and it was the first time I was meeting him since the Clippers had drafted me in the spring of 2009. He led me through the house to the balcony overlooking his tennis court. The whole party was set up out there. White tents. White umbrellas. White cloth. I showed up in all white. Everyone showed up in all white. Then there was Donald, standing on the balcony overlooking it all, wearing all black. “Isn’t this just fabulous?” he said.
I was hoping to escape down the stairs, find one of my teammates and blend in with the rest of the crowd. I tried to pull my hand away. Nope. Things were about to get weirder. Two blonde models showed up on either side of me. They had clearly been hired for the event. I knew this because they were wearing size XXXX-L Clippers T-shirts tied at the stomach. I looked at Sterling. He had a big dumb grin on his face. I looked at one of the girls, as if to say, “Uhhh, you don’t have to do this.” She looked back: “Uhhh, yes I do.”
So I walked down the stairs with the two girls arm-in-arm, hoping that was the end of it. That was not the end of it. At the bottom of the stairs, Donald grabbed my hand again. I tried to do the old shake-and-release move. No dice. He kept holding on. “Blake, isn’t this fabulous? I need to introduce you to everyone.”
Donald Sterling literally introduced me to everyone. Here’s how he did it, every single time, to every single group of people, while holding on to my hand:
“Everyone, have you met our newest star? This is Blake! He was the number one pick in the entire NBA draft. Number one! Blake, where are you from?”
Then I’d say I was from Oklahoma.
“Oklahoma! And tell these people what you think about LA.”
Then I’d say it was pretty cool.
“And what about the women in LA, Blake?”
It was the same conversation with every group of people. When he would start having a one-on-one conversation with someone, I’d try to slip away, and he’d reach back and paw my hand without even breaking eye contact with the person. Whenever he didn’t have anything left to say, he just turned around and walked us over to the next group.
“… Have you met our newest star?”
It went on like this forever. At one point, a guy who had clearly been to a bunch of these parties turned to me and said, “Just keep smiling, man. It’ll all be over soon.”
At this point, a lot of you are probably wondering why I didn’t pull my hand away, or why I didn’t just leave the party. For one, I was a 20-year-old kid from Oklahoma. But even if I had been 25, I don’t know if it would’ve been any different. The guy was my boss. Ask yourself, how would you react if your boss was doing the same thing to you?
When I knew the Clippers were drafting me, the first thing I did was type Donald Sterling’s name into Google. The first hit that came up was “Donald Sterling is a racist.” I read an article on how he didn’t want minorities to live in his apartment buildings. My first thought was, Wow this guy is really, really a racist … how is he an owner of an NBA team?
My second thought was, Wow, these articles are from 2003 and 2008. I guess everybody already knows about this stuff and just doesn’t care.
As players, we’re not supposed to really care about anything but basketball. We’re just supposed to perform. To be honest, I didn’t ever really think about bringing up Sterling’s past. What was I supposed to do? Just picture me at the press conference my rookie year. “Uh … hey, guys, before we talk about today’s game, did you happen to see that investigative report on my owner?”
I didn’t see Sterling for a long time after that White Party. The reality is that he barely interacted with the players, and when he did, he’d just talk at you.
Later in my rookie season, we were playing a home game and Sterling was sitting in the front row with his usual entourage. Someone from the other team got a technical foul and so Baron Davis went to the line to shoot the free throw.
At that point, the arena was dead quiet, and Sterling stood up and started going absolutely nuts. Now, there are two different Sterling voices. There’s the regular voice, and then there’s the voice when he gets excited. For those of you who have been lucky enough to avoid listening to the infamous tapes, he kind of sounds like a combination of Walter Matthau and Michael Jackson.
As Baron is lining up, Sterling started flapping his arms and yelled to no one in particular, “Why are you letting him shoot the free throw? He’s awful! He’s terrible! He’s the worst free throw shooter ever!”
Baron had been shooting like 87 percent that season. He was by far our best free throw shooter on the floor.
I was standing at half court, right next to Sterling’s seats, watching this out of the corner of my eye, trying not to laugh. I looked at the guys on the other team, like, I cannot believe this is happening right now.
Baron didn’t even react. He walked to the line and sank the free throw as Sterling carried on his rant. After the game, I don’t even think we talked about it in the locker room. Everyone was just used to it. It was both funny and sad. The guy was off his rocker.
The incident didn’t make SportsCenter. It didn’t even make the local papers. If you’re wondering how a known racist can own an NBA team without anyone batting an eye, first ask yourself how the owner of an NBA team can scream at his team’s best player in front of thousands of people and hundreds of cameras without anyone even caring.
The Staples Center was barely half full that night. We were the old Clippers. We were a joke in the eyes of the media back then. They just wanted to laugh at us.
That’s why I was conflicted when the tapes came out last season, and suddenly everyone had an opinion on what we as players should be doing to handle it. When I woke up the morning after the tape leaked, I had 40 or 50 text messages. The first thing I did was listen to the tape in bed. It was shocking to actually hear what he said, but not really that surprising to me.
For the next 48 hours, as we were trying to prepare for the end of a heated playoff series against Golden State, my phone did not stop vibrating. Everybody had an opinion on what we should do, what we should say. When I turned on the TV, media people were saying we should boycott the game. Now, that sounds great when you’re a talking head in a TV studio, but when you’re trying to get locked in for the biggest playoff series of your career, it’s not so easy. I was getting texts from people like, “Man, how can you guys go out there and play for Sterling after this?” Eventually, I just shut off my phone.
My feeling, right or wrong, was that we should shut it all out and go out and play for our fans, our families, and for each other. For people to ever think we were playing for Donald Sterling is comical. It wasn’t like before the tape came out, we were putting our hands in before every game and saying, “Okay guys, let’s go out and win one for Donald!”
Of course, he tried to spin it that way. After we beat Golden State, Sterling did the infamous interview with Anderson Cooper. Thankfully, commissioner Adam Silver had already taken quick action to ban him from the NBA for life. I was sitting in the trainer’s room getting treatment with Chris Paul during the Oklahoma City series when the interview came on the TV.
Sterling looked at Cooper with no irony whatsoever and said, “Ask the players. My players love me!”
CP and I looked at one another from across the room and just tried our best not to laugh. We were hoping after Silver’s decision that it was over, but the circus wouldn’t end. The first question I got asked at my locker the next day by a reporter was, “Blake, do you love Donald Sterling?”
Steve Ballmer was pretty excited at the first fan rally after he took over the team. He was jumping around, high-fiving fans, giving us chest bumps. The media and the Internet ran with this. They tried to turn him into a joke. Ballmer was everywhere. People cut up his speech into a montage and put it on YouTube.
All the players thought it was awesome. Personally, I love that kind of crazy. Ballmer wants to win no matter the cost. Donald Sterling didn’t care if we won — at least if it meant he had to spend money. It wasn’t just about spending money on players. For years, our training staff wanted to buy this sophisticated computer software that would let them scan our bodies and keep track of our progress throughout the season. Sterling wouldn’t sign off on it.
When I walked into the training facility for the first time this summer, the entire vibe was different. People were smiling. From the security people to the game operations staff to the office staff, everybody seemed happy to be there. For the first time ever, they were on permanent contracts. Under Sterling, all the staff were on temporary contracts. Top to bottom, everybody just appreciates being appreciated now.
When I walked into the trainer’s room, the staff was going crazy. They showed me the new body scanning software. Ballmer signed off on it Day 1.
It’s little bit ironic to me that the media has tried to turn Ballmer into a meme when they turned a blind eye to Sterling for years. Steve is a good dude. He’s like a cool dad who gives you candy. Donald was like a weird uncle.
Someone asked me the other day if I’m mad that he made out with $2 billion for selling the team. Maybe a little bit. But in the end, I’m just happy he’s gone. I think about him pulling me around the White Party in Malibu, and a saying comes to mind: “Some people are so poor, all they have is their money.”