After eight days in court, after nine witnesses, after a very public display of friction in a 58-year marriage, Shelly Sterling got everything she needed from a judge Monday and may now be a little more than two weeks away from selling the Los Angeles Clippers.
A deliberate, detailed ruling by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Levanas, though not yet final, dismantled every part of Donald Sterling’s assertion that his estranged wife swooped in and tricked him in an effort to take the NBA franchise away from him following the public disclosure of a recording of his racially charged comments.
Donald Sterling was not in the cramped downtown courtroom for Monday’s closing arguments — or for Levanas’ 30-plus minute oral ruling.
At every turn, Levanas found Shelly Sterling’s testimony and witnesses believable — and he publicly questioned the credibility of one of the only two witnesses Donald Sterling called.
Ultimately, he ruled that Shelly Sterling acted properly when she removed Donald Sterling from a decision-making position in the family trust that controlled the team, that Levanas had the authority to decide the case and that he could order the sale to proceed because failing to do so would imperil the $2 billion offer on the table from former Microsoft executive Steve Ballmer.
And that’s just what he did, pending what is expected to be an unsuccessful objection to his decision.
Shelly Sterling burst into tears after Levanas’ final pronouncement, hugging her lead attorney, Pierce O’Donnell, in the second row of the courtroom as Donald Sterling’s lawyers sat nearby.
"This is going to be a good thing for the city, for the league, for my family, for all of us," Shelly Sterling said outside the courthouse, facing a phalanx of reporters and cameras.
Donald Sterling — who last week filed a new lawsuit trying to block the sale — is not expected to go away quietly.
One of his attorneys, Bobby Samini, said he was calm when told about the decision. But he also vowed to fight on.
"He didn’t see this as the final battleground," Samini said. "This is one stage of a long war. This is one battle. We had hoped for a different result, but this is not over."
Donald Sterling has 15 days to object to Levanas’ ruling, which will be formally filed with the court on Tuesday. He also has the right to file an appeal — and to seek a court order blocking the sale while his appeal is pending. His lawyers continue to assert that their newest lawsuit, which contends that Donald Sterling is the only shareholder in the corporation that owns the Clippers, will still be heard.
And Sterling has filed a $1 billion lawsuit in federal court against NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, alleging that the effort to take the team from him is a violation of antitrust laws.
Though Shelly Sterling’s lead attorney, O’Donnell, was giddy outside court, he wasn’t ready to proclaim the court fight over.
"We never know what happens," he said. "We hope at this point that Donald realizes he can’t run out the clock forever. We’re thrilled with this victory."
Adam Streisand, who represents Ballmer, conveyed the ruling to the former head of the software giant in a text message.
"He is very excited — he is really, really excited about this team, this city and about bringing dignity back to the Clippers and rolling up his sleeves and running this team," Streisand said.
Donald Sterling bought the team in 1981 for $12.5 million and quickly moved it from San Diego to Los Angeles. After decades of struggles — the Clippers made the playoffs only four times in the first 30 years Sterling owned them — the team has surged in recent seasons with stars like Blake Griffin and Chris Paul.
All the while, Donald Sterling was a controversial figure in Los Angeles — twice he was sued for housing discrimination.
But it wasn’t until the disclosure in April of a recording of Sterling talking to a mistress, V. Stiviano, that public opinion galvanized against him. In the recording, Sterling told Stiviano to stop bringing African Americans to Clippers games and stop posting photos of herself with blacks on social media websites.
The object of his ire was a photo she has posted of herself with NBA legend Magic Johnson.
Within days, Silver — in his second month as NBA commissioner — announced that he would ban Sterling from the league for life and fine him $2.5 million. And he threatened to have other NBA owners vote to strip him of the team and sell it if he didn’t sell it on his own.
That vote was scheduled for June 3.
Shelly Sterling testified that, with her estranged husband’s blessing, she began the process of selling the team. After Donald Sterling refused to sign off on the deal with Ballmer, she had him removed as a trustee of the Sterling Family Trust — which held the team’s parent company — following examinations from two doctors that he was suffering from dementia, possibly as a result of Alzheimer’s disease.
She signed a binding sales agreement with Ballmer on May 29, and the vote of NBA owners to strip Donald Sterling of ownership was canceled.
Donald Sterling subsequently revoked the trust, which had the practical effect of dissolving it.
Donald Sterling’s lawyers argued that Shelly Sterling got her husband to submit to the medical examinations as part of a "secret Plan B" to wrest control of the team from him if he refused to sell. They argued that she had, in the words of attorney Max Blecher, "unclean hands, filthy hands." They argued that there was no danger to the value of the team — that if this sale was scuttled, a subsequent auction would bring even more money.
At times, the argument devolved into an examination of the specific paragraph of one section of probate code or another, one section of a previous court ruling or another. There was even extensive discussion about another probate case in which a judge sided with a 40-year-old woman who wanted to use frozen semen provided by her boyfriend prior to his death while she was still young enough to conceive a child.
In the end, Levanas sided again and again with Shelly Sterling — even announcing that the witness called by Donald Sterling to assess the value of the team was not reliable. As a result, Levanas said he considered none of the testimony of Dean Bonham, who overstated his position with the Denver Nuggets and acknowledged he had neither a high school nor college degree and did no research on the value of the Clippers.
"There was no secret Plan B," Levanas said early into his ruling, signaling that Donald Sterling’s fight — at least in this court — was over.
Afterward, Blecher — who has been Donald Sterling’s attorney for more than three decades — ripped into the judge’s conclusions.
"It goes without saying that we’re deeply disappointed at this result," Blecher said. "I’m also deeply disappointed at the quality of the analysis that the judge engaged in."
Assuming Levanas rejects the expected objections from Donald Sterling, and he can’t get another judge to block the sale, Shelly Sterling’s lawyers expect to conclude the deal with Ballmer a day or two before the Aug. 15 deadline in the sales contract.
If the unexpected occurs and Ballmer’s offer for the team expires, Silver has vowed that the NBA will begin proceedings Sept. 15 to seize the team and put it up for sale.
Shelly Sterling was asked what it’s been like to fight with her husband in an open courtroom — they professed their love for each other, but Donald Sterling also called her a "pig" after her testimony concluded loudly enough that the 100-plus people in the courtroom all heard it.
"Very tough," she answered, "and we do have love for each other, and I hope it will all work out between us. And it will. It’ll be good."
She said the stress of recent weeks had kept her awake night after night.
"All I want to do now is get some sleep," she said.