Donald Sterling is expected to launch what could be a long and contentious legal battle with the NBA over his ownership of the Clippers without the support of the big, politically connected law firm that has been with him for more than three decades.
Manatt, Phelps & Phillips will no longer represent Sterling and his wife, Shelly, because of the couple’s diverging interests from each other and from the team that is now being run day-to-day by Chief Executive Dick Parsons, who was appointed by the NBA.
The conflict leaves Manatt partner Robert Platt as chief counsel for the Clippers, but no longer a representative of the longtime owners.
The shift sent Donald Sterling scrambling for representation, according to several people familiar with the situation. Another top Los Angeles law firm spurned the Clippers’ controlling owner, according to people familiar with the situation, before he landed this week under the wing of an old ally, the veteran antitrust lawyer Maxwell M. Blecher. Those who told of the situation asked to remain anonymous because their discussions with Sterling and his allies were supposed to be confidential.
The legal shift is just the latest wave in the tempest that has engulfed Sterling, 80, since the appearance of an audiotape in which he told a companion he did not want her to bring blacks to Clippers games. As a result of the inflammatory comments, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling from the league, fined him $2.5 million and called on other team owners to strip Sterling of ownership of the team.
Criticism of Sterling redoubled this week when the real estate magnate went on CNN to apologize but ended up offending many people with a string of racially charged allegations against Magic Johnson and other African Americans. CNN host Anderson Cooper said the Clippers boss appeared for the interview without lawyers or public relations representatives.
Blecher emerged as Sterling’s new lawyer Thursday when it was revealed he sent the NBA a letter stating Sterling would not pay the fine because it violated his due process rights. It also asserted the league’s longest-tenured owner did not deserve "any punishment at all."
Report: Lawyer says Sterling won’t pay $2.5 million fine
In the 80-year-old Blecher (pronounced "bleacher"), Sterling is putting his trust in a contemporary and a lawyer who previously represented him when he fought with the NBA over moving the Clippers from San Diego to Los Angeles.
Blecher, who did not return requests for comment this week, helped win that fight and also prevailed in a couple of battles with the NFL, assisting the Oakland Raiders and Los Angeles Rams to surmount objections from the pro football league as they moved to new cities.
Blecher was involved in the Raiders case as the lawyer for the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which wanted to lure the NFL team south from the Bay Area. The antitrust specialist argued the league had no right to prevent the Raiders from making the move. He prevailed and the NFL had to pay the Coliseum $28 million in damages.
A few years later, in 1995, Blecher successfully represented Los Angeles Rams owner Georgia Frontiere as she pushed to move the pro football franchise to St. Louis.
"We are dealing here with very arrogant people," Blecher said at the time. "It’s great to bring them down."
Before turning to Blecher, Sterling attempted to hire at least one other big Los Angeles law firm. A partner at the firm recalled talking to Douglas Walton, Sterling’s longtime Beverly Hills lawyer, who said Sterling needed help to get through the crisis. Walton could not be reached for comment.
But the lawyer, who requested anonymity to discuss what was supposed to be a confidential conversation, said the firm turned Sterling down because he had a reputation of being difficult to work with. Additionally, the lawyer said there was a worry other clients might not want the firm associating with someone who made comments so widely decried as racist. "I just declined to get involved, before it even came to talking about all the other issues," the attorney said.
In his CNN interview, Sterling denied he was a racist. He said he was enraptured with his young assistant, V. Stiviano, who recorded the conversation in which he disparaged African Americans. He said he spoke harshly about Lakers great Magic Johnson and others partly out of jealousy.