Shelly Sterling may soon make life difficult for Adam Silver

Shelly Sterling may soon make life difficult for Adam Silver
May 12, 2014, 9:15 am
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She has thus revealed herself as someone more than ready to throw her failing husband over the side to keep her possession of the family yacht, and quite possibly as the real spur in the league’s exposed ribs.
Ray Ratto on Shelly Sterling

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NBA Commissioner Adam Silver won a lot of fair-weather friends when he announced what his 29 active bosses told him to announce – that Donald T. Sterling couldn’t hang around any more and would never be allowed in the treehouse again.

Now comes the blowback, though, and it serves as an excellent reminder that no good performance goes unpanned, no fine speech unparsed.

Silver and the remaining owners are about to find out that sometimes, in contravention of the famous law of physics, "for any action, there is an opposite, unequal and sometimes even unforeseen reaction."

Oh, Sterling has played the doddering fool for everyone’s amusement well enough, with the latest example being his plea for forgiveness through CNN’s Anderson Cooper. He has been the perfect caricature of several periods in American history all at once – a diorama of the aging racist.

But it turns out that he is the least of the league’s problems. His soon-to-be ex-wife Shelly has played cards that nobody even thought were in the deck – telling Barbara Walters, among other things that she intends to have her 50 percent of the team come hell, high water, or health inspectors; that she is divorcing the great old dreadnought, and that he is showing signs of dementia.

She has thus revealed herself as someone more than ready to throw her failing husband over the side to keep her possession of the family yacht, and quite possibly as the real spur in the league’s exposed ribs.

Ahh, but wait. There is Magic Johnson, who is positioning himself as the future-owner-in-training despite a number of other potential buyers. He told Doris Burke Sunday that nobody in the Sterling axis is welcome to own the team, and that nobody will stand for it. And suddenly, Cooper and Walters and Burke have been joined in a reputation free-for-all through no connivance of their own – whose interview subject has the sharpest axe to grind.

Our money is on Burke, mostly because she isn’t quite as invested in the “My Interview Was Bigger Than Yours” game. Besides, she made her bones facing down Gregg Popovich, who could flay Shelly Sterling in a single time out.

And because Silver hasn’t been handed enough of a manure flambé just for taking the job from David Stern, there is LeBron James, who is becoming the de facto spokesman for a galvanized union that is insisting on the right of its members not to have to perform their duties for such evidently repellent people.

A galvanized union? James as Andy Messersmith in search of a Marvin Miller? Hello, America. It’s the 1970s, and everyone’s behind is up for kicks.

(For those of you among the disgustingly young, Messersmith was a pitcher who went to Miller, the head of the Major League Baseball players union claiming he was entitled to unfettered free agency, and Miller delivered just that as the union’s first great victory in a long series of them over 30-plus years)

It is clear that James is adamant about wanting the players’ opinions heard on the Sterlings, and the history of players unions is the history of powerful players standing up for the rights of their brethren without regard to relative skill or earning power. The NBA players union has been a hot mess for years, but Sterling has given it a cause, and James has provided a voice. Armed with the knowledge that solidarity matters, a re-invigorated union would make Silver’s head throb, and the 29 other owners howl in anger.

If you’re looking for a parallel here, don’t. The Frank McCourt expulsion from baseball didn’t involve the players at all, and McCourt got more than every dime of equity out of his forced sale of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Charlie Finley was an unpopular owner in Oakland in the ‘70s, but the union didn’t need to participate in his forced sale, nor did it when Ted Stepien was stripped of the Cleveland Cavaliers for being a dope with no money – the worst kind, as you might imagine.

In sum, the NBA owners will soon be sending Silver out time after time to provide updates on a problem he cannot solve with stern tones and facile speechifying. The league, by ignoring the gaping wound in front of its face, now gets to face the most implacable set of odd bedfellows ever imagined, some of whom have barely made a sound to date but surely will as this story advances.

There’s Donald Sterling, Shelly Sterling, the lawyers they will hurl into the fire on their greed-caked behalf, Magic Johnson, LeBron James, Oprah Winfrey, David Geffen, Larry Ellison, Floyd Mayweather, Oscar De La Hoya, billionaire doctor Patrick Soon-Shiong, billionaire real estate operator Rick Caruso, Barbara Walters, Anderson Cooper and Doris Burke.

My money is still on Burke, for one good reason. Despite being a longshot, she is the one most likely to be able to maintain her dignity through the seemingly interminable months ahead, doing her job without self-aggrandizing promotion or pronouncements. If that doesn’t win her some additional points with Pop, then we don’t know Pop. He likes brave folks who don’t pander.

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