BY ELDRIDGE RECASNER
When I first heard the Donald Sterling tape on TMZ, I was stunned, primarily because he singled out Magic Johnson, who is one of the NBA’s most beloved players in the same city Sterling’s Los Angeles Clippers play. He also disrespected black people, including most of the players that helped him become a billionaire.
But when I look back on my time playing for Sterling’s Los Angeles Clippers, maybe there were signs all along.
As an NBA player, I always said that when I signed with the Clippers my career would be over. Playing for the Clippers wasn’t hell, but most players felt you could see hell from there. In December 2001 I learned how true that really was.
I’ll never forget getting the call from my agent. “The Clippers want to sign you,” he told me. I said to myself: “Well, this must be the end for me” and it was. I was 34 at the time and had just been released by the Charlotte Hornets. Throughout my eight-year NBA career, from 1994-2002, the Los Angeles Clippers were the laughing stock of the NBA. They had a reputation of being poorly run and having an owner, Donald Sterling, whose picture was next to the word cheap in the dictionary. Everyone made fun of the Clippers. They were a bad team, so bad they repeatedly had the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft.
That’s why I was so shocked to find out what a talented, young team the Clippers had when I signed in late December 2001. The players included Elton Brand, Corey Maggette, Quinton Richardson, Darius Miles, Lamar Odom, Jeff McGinnis and Michael Olawokandi. These weren’t the Clippers I had heard about over the years.
Or were they?
The team was very successful during my time there, selling out every game and beating the Lakers at Staples Center with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. But something wasn’t right. The team played very selfishly at times. The coach would call a play for a certain guy, but another guy would shoot the ball. I had never been on a team that functioned that way. When I asked why everyone seemed to be out for themselves, one of the star players said: “We’ve gotta put up numbers in order to get a good contract from another team because Donald Sterling isn’t going to pay us.”
That was the mindset of the Los Angeles Clippers team during the 2001-2002 NBA season.
I didn’t know who Donald Sterling was but I had heard about the frugal way he ran his team. I would see him sitting courtside at games and once walked right behind him out of Staples Center after a win over the Lakers. Sterling never came into the locker room to address the team, and I don’t recall seeing him at the team Christmas party that year. Race never entered my mind as the motivation for him not wanting to pay his players, most of us black, millions of dollars. But looking back now, maybe it did.
I had signed with the Clippers in late December for the rest of the season on a make-good contract, which means it was not guaranteed. The Clippers could cut me at any time, which is what they did at the January deadline, after which they would have had to guarantee me money. But then something very strange happened. They asked me to stay, saying they would re-sign me to a 10-day contract, which was a way for them to save money. I went on to sign another 10-day contract before being waived for good.
I can’t say that I saw or experienced racism when I was on the Clippers’ roster, but we all felt the “cheapism.” Whether it was based on race or not, only Donald Sterling knows.
For 33 years this man owned a team that he purchased for $12.5 million in 1981 and today is worth between $600 million and $1 billion. Yet he never got to know the guys — most of us black players — who helped him make all that money. He never felt the urge to get to know us. That, to me, is the saddest and most disappointing part.
When I played, the color of my teammates’ skin never mattered. What mattered was whether or not they could play and help us win. ET the Extra Terrestrial could have been on my team, and it wouldn’t have mattered as long as he could hit an open jumper, block a shot or get a rebound.
Part of the beauty of sports is that race never mattered on the teams I played on. The only thing that mattered was if the guy could play.
Sterling missed an opportunity to get to know a race of people who worked for him for 33 years, instead opting to keep a distance and hang onto pre-Emancipation Proclamation ideas that black people are less than others. For 33 years, he missed a golden opportunity to see that we are all God’s children. No matter what color you are and no matter how much wealth you accumulate while on Earth, when you die you are leaving with the same thing — nothing!
It’s too bad Donald Sterling didn’t see and believe this. Nelson Mandela said it best: “Sport has the power to change the world … it has the power to inspire. It has a power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth (and all of us) in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”
Donald Sterling missed this, but guess what? I don’t think we are going to miss him. Adam Silver and the NBA took a stand and banned Sterling for life. I listened to that news conference at my house and I cried when I heard the words “banned for life.”
They were tears of joy!
Eldridge Recasner, 46, was star guard for the University of Washington and is a member of the Huskies’ and Pac-12 athletic halls of fame. He played in the NBA for eight seasons with five different teams. He lives in Bellevue and is offering his second Father and Son Basketball Camp on June 14. To sign up, go to eldridgerecasner.com.
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