Donald Sterling brought his fight to stop his wife from selling the Los Angeles Clippers to a courtroom Tuesday afternoon, spending an hour on the witness stand and offering testimony that was at times charming, at times combative and at times confusing.
The 80-year-old businessman, under fire since making racially charged comments to a female companion, cried as he described his wife’s inability to kill a fly, repeatedly said he could not remember specific dates, and, at one point, accused a doctor who concluded he has dementia of being drunk when she examined him.
And he insisted that the $2 billion deal his wife, Shelly Sterling, struck with former Microsoft executive Steve Ballmer does not make good business sense. He had been in negotiations, he said, on a new television deal for the team and said the Los Angeles Lakers recently signed a similar contract for $3 billion. And he predicted that a federal lawsuit he has filed against the NBA in the wake of the controversy over his remarks will provide a huge windfall.
“First, we have an antitrust suit,” Sterling said. “Watch that suit. We’ll get $9 billion for what they did to me … Second, I think I’ll get 2½ (billion) to 5 billion dollars for that team.”
“There’s no ego involved here. There’s tremendous opportunity. That’s all I can say to you.”
The Sterlings bought the Clippers 33 years ago for $12.5 million. The team had not been competitive for much of their ownership, making the playoffs only four times in three decades before a recent run of success fueled by stars like Blake Griffin and Chris Paul.
But Donald Sterling’s tape-recorded comments to an alleged girlfriend, in which he told her to stop bringing African Americans to Clippers games and stop posting photos of herself with blacks on social media websites, led NBA commissioner Adam Silver to ban him from the league and begin proceedings to force the sale of the team.
Shelly Sterling stepped into that breach and negotiated the deal with Ballmer.
Tuesday’s testimony in a stuffy, packed courtroom came as Shelly Sterling seeks a probate judge’s approval of steps she took to remove her husband from a decision-making position in the family trust that controls the team. She made that move after two doctors concluded that Donald Sterling is mentally incapacitated. The judge has agreed to consider two issues: whether she followed the requirements outlined in the trust’s guiding documents in removing her husband as a decision-maker, and whether the judge can legally bless the deal with Ballmer. That second question is far from certain. On June 9, Donald Sterling signed documents revoking the trust, which effectively dissolved it, and his attorneys have said that court no longer has any jurisdiction over the team.
Hanging over the trial — which is being heard by a judge but not a jury — is a July 15 deadline for the sale of the team to Ballmer to be consummated.
Much of the first two days of the trial focused on the medical examinations by two doctors who concluded Donald Sterling has dementia, possibly as a result of Alzheimer’s disease. Sterling’s lawyers contend that his estranged wife tricked him into seeing the doctors, telling him that she was concerned about his health when in fact she was carrying out a "secret Plan B" to wrest away control of the team so she could sell it.
Sterling’s attorneys argued Tuesday the disclosures by both doctors violate both California and federal laws governing the privacy of medical records, and as a result their testimony should be stricken and the case dismissed. Shelly Sterling’s lawyers have asserted that language in the trust, in which Donald Sterling specifically agreed to waive doctor-patient privilege, allowed the doctors to share the results of their examinations.
But Gary Ruttenberg, one of Donald Sterling’s lawyers, said the law requires a specific waiver, and that his client never signed one.
“I think it’s absolute,” Ruttenberg said. “I think any further allowance of that type of testimony in this courtroom is improper.”
Judge Michael Levanas said he would consider the issue and take it up at the beginning of Wednesday’s court session.
But despite the at-times tedious testimony of the two physicians, Tuesday was all about Donald Sterling.
There was a stir in the sweltering courtroom when Sterling entered, wearing a dress shirt with an open collar, a black sports coat and dark glasses. He sat in the front row and listened impassively as the two doctors who examined him testified and did not get up from his seat during a 20-minute break.
Every one of the 102 seats in the courtroom was taken, and many people fanned themselves — and Judge Levanas even apologized at one point and suggested to attorneys that they remove their suit jackets.
Then Sterling took the stand.
Bertram Fields, one of Shelly Sterling’s lawyers, attempted to pin Donald Sterling down on the dates of the medical exams and on one of his statements that indicated he supported the sale of the team. But he found out that Sterling, a lawyer himself, would fight to determine the direction of the conversation.
“Was that a compounded question?” Sterling asked after one question from Fields.
“I know you’re a lawyer and lawyers like to control what is going on,” he said to Sterling. “If you don’t understand a question, you let me know.”
Later, Sterling suggested that Fields had proposed a settlement of the legal action the previous day. Fields, appearing exasperated, tried to pin Sterling down on that assertion, asking if he was testifying under oath that the two men had discussed a settlement the day before.
“Are you trying to perpetrate a fraud on this court?” Sterling asked. “Be a man. For God’s sakes stand up and be a man.”
Finally, Fields turned to Judge Levanas.
“Your honor, I need your help,” Fields said.
But even Levanas had trouble corralling the witness, reminding him repeatedly to listen to each question and answer it, and make it clear if he did not understand what he was being asked.
At another point, Fields showed Sterling a letter he had signed that seemed to indicate he supported the sale of the team and was preparing to ask a question when the witness interrupted him.
Sterling called the two doctors who examined him — both making housecalls to do it — “guns for hire” and said he was not told that the results of their meetings with him could affect his ability to remain one of two people with decision-making authority over the trust.
“Absolutely not,” Sterling said. “Neither of them told me any reason they were there. I trusted my wife.”
One of the doctors, he said, “snuck into my tiny little den and sat so close to me I could not breathe but never told me why he was there.”
The other, he said, was “intoxicated” when she examined him.
“I have five corporations,” Sterling said. “I run them every single day. You can call me whatever you like, but those two doctors should not be practicing medicine. You know it and I know it.”
Finally, Fields asked Sterling if the reason he was fighting the sale was to reclaim his dignity.
“The reason you’re handling the case is because you want to charge millions in fees, right?” Sterling said.
After another exchange, Sterling said, “You think I’m doing this because of my ego?”
“Yes,” Fields responded.
“You’re wrong, like you’ve been wrong on every question you’ve asked today,” Sterling said.
After his testimony concluded for the day, Sterling was ushered out a side door to avoid the swarms of reporters outside the courthouse.
But attorneys for both sides stepped to the camera and, as with everything about this case, offered very different interpretations of Sterling’s testimony.
"I don’t want to get into whether he’s competent,” Fields said. “You guys can draw your own conclusions. You heard the guy on the stand. Is this a guy you’d employ to sell hamburgers?"
Bobby Samini, one of Donald Sterling’s attorneys, was just as emphatic that his testimony was strong.
“This is the mistake you guys are making,” Samini said. “You think he showed up here and put on a show. That’s our client. That’s been our client for many, many years. He didn’t go to bed last night and say ‘I’m going to show up and be this guy.’
“He came here. He gave his testimony. I think it was sincere. I think it was truthful."