Donald Sterling says he’ll never sell Clippers, calls wife a ‘pig’
LOS ANGELES – Embattled Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling spent a second day on the witness stand railing against the NBA and challenging the attorneys who questioned him – including his own – then sent a shock through the courtroom when he lashed out at his estranged wife.
Shelly Sterling had just stepped down from the witness stand after the judge called for the end of Wednesday’s testimony and approached her husband of 58 years, apparently to give him a hug.
“Get away from me, you pig,” Donald Sterling blurted out in the sweltering courtroom, in which every one of the 102 seats was occupied.
Two sheriff’s deputies took stations in the courtroom’s center aisle, between Donald Sterling, sitting in the front row on one side, and Shelly Sterling, who returned to her seat on the other side, obviously upset. She later was escorted out of the courtroom in tears.
In the meantime, Judge Michael Levanas rejected a request from Shelly Sterling’s lawyers that Donald Sterling be removed from the courtroom. But he made it clear that he found Sterling’s comment “somewhat disturbing.”
It was the latest drama in the ongoing saga that has enveloped the Clippers since April, when a tape recording of Donald Sterling uttering racially charged comments was made public and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banned him from the league for life and began proceedings to force him to sell the team. In the wake of that move, Shelly Sterling took over the family trust that controls the team after two doctors concluded her husband has dementia and negotiated a sale of the Clippers to former Microsoft executive Steve Ballmer for $2 billion.
“What a shameful display by a seriously demented tyrant,” Adam Streisand, who represents Ballmer, said outside the courthouse. “He proved today he absolutely has to go. The comments were hideous and reveal how truly demented he is.”
Sterling’s own attorney Bobby Samini struggled to put a positive spin on the outburst.
“Emotions were really high in the courtroom today,” Samini said. “Donald felt upset watching Shelly’s testimony, felt betrayed by it.
“Obviously not a happy time for him.”
Donald Sterling, who bought the Clippers in 1981 for $12.5 million, is fighting to scuttle the sale of the team to Ballmer, contending on the witness stand Wednesday that the NBA conspired against him, and singling out Silver, who had been leading the league for barely two months when the controversy erupted in April.
That tape that emerged included Sterling telling a female companion to stop bringing African Americans to Clippers games and to stop posting photographs her herself with blacks on social media websites.
“He’d been in office now almost 60 days,” Sterling testified, “and he was going to show the world that he was not going to permit racism. But I’m not a racist. I love all people. But I was the poster boy.”
As he had the day before, the 80-year-old businessman appeared at times not to understand questions – even some from his own attorney – and was at times combative.
Bertram Fields, a highly experienced lawyer who has represented everyone from The Beatles to Michael Jackson, finished his questioning of Sterling by asking him whether he was retired. Sterling insisted that he is not.
“I have five major corporations,” he said. “And I run every one of them. How can I be retired?”
But when Fields tried to get Sterling to acknowledge that he’d testified in court in 2012 that he was “totally retired,” the witness stared at a transcript projected on a screen for a time before answering.
“Is there a signature there of mine?” Sterling asked. “Is there some verification that I said that? You’re showing me a piece of paper with something just typewritten.”
Fields pressed on, but Sterling fought back.
“Where is the signature?” Sterling bellowed. “Where is the verification? Is that in the New York Times?”
Sterling even bristled under questioning from his own attorney Max Blecher, who has represented him for three decades. Blecher’s early questions focused on the beginnings with the Clippers, then playing in San Diego in an arena with a leaky roof, and to Sterling’s legal fight with the NBA after he moved the team to Los Angeles.
When Blecher asked Sterling how old he was, his client sat in silence for several moments.
“C’mon,” Blecher finally said, “you’re not a woman, you can tell me.”
“80 years old,” Sterling said. “But I feel half that old.”
“How long have you been married?” Blecher asked.
“100 years,” Sterling said, eliciting laughter. “Fifty-eight years.”
But after the trip down memory lane, Blecher got Sterling to return to the themes he stressed the first day on the witness stand: that he loves his wife but believes she deceived him when she had him seen by two doctors who concluded he has dementia, that nobody told him he could be removed as a co-head of the family trust as a result of the medical examinations, and that his wife doesn’t have the authority to sell the team.
“She has no rights whatsoever,” he said. “She may be a trustee, but she has no stock, she’s not a director, she has no authority to make decisions of sale, and all of that will come out.”
He said Shelly Sterling panicked in the face of pressure from the NBA and Silver.
“My wife is terrified, frightened to death,” Sterling said. “She can’t sleep because she’s afraid the NBA will take away everything she has, everything she’s worked for. … Her motivation was that she was scared out of her mind. She couldn’t sleep, she cried every night, she was so frightened.”
The NBA, he said, is “no different than every other corporation in America, except worse.”
Fields jumped up at that point and asked the judge if he could move to have the comment stricken from the record.
“Why don’t you do that, counsel?” Sterling said, looking at Fields. “Instead of asking the judge why don’t you just move? Be a man.”
“He may have a different style than you,” Judge Levanas said.
Sterling also said he initially approved the sale of the team because he understood his wife would be able to retain 25 percent of the Clippers – but that he changed his mind after that provision was changed.
“Before they put my wife and myself and my family through all this, I probably would have consummated the transaction,” Sterling said. “But make no mistake today, I will never, ever, ever sell this team, and until I die I will be suing the NBA to make them pay for the terrible violations of antitrust that they have imposed upon me and my family.”
At one point, Sterling said his wife is “beautiful and wonderful and I’ve been married 58 years and I love her?”
But then came her testimony, that after watching her husband’s erratic interview on national television following the public airing of the tape she scheduled his first appointment with a neurologist.
After her lawyer asked her to describe her husband’s decline, she ticked off a list of changes she said she has seen in recent years.
“Oh God – he’s been getting more forgetful,” she testified. “He’s slurring his words. He is agitated a lot. He gets mad for no particular reason. He’s just not the same person that he used to be. I know that he’s getting older, I just didn’t think that comes with age so much.”
After she saw his televised interview with journalist Anderson Cooper, she said she was shocked by his erratic behavior.
“No. 1, I couldn’t’ believe it and I started crying,” she said. “I just, I felt so bad. I couldn’t believe that was him.”
The team had not been competitive for much of time the Sterlings have owned the team, making the playoffs only four times in three decades before a recent run of success fueled by stars Blake Griffin and Chris Paul.
Now the proposed sale ultimately may hinge on whether Judge Levenas determines that Shelly Sterling acted properly when she removed her husband from decision-making authority over the Sterling Family Trust, which controls all of the stock in the team.
Shelly Sterling’s lawyers have asserted that the move was proper – that she followed the provisions of the trust’s guiding documents. Donald Sterling’s lawyers have contended that Shelly Sterling duped her husband into submitting to the medical exams and broke the law by sharing their reports with her attorneys.
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. That date can be extended 30 days if “substantial progress” is being made toward completing the deal.
Judge Levanas said Wednesday he doubts there’ll be a resolution before July 15.
Streisand, Ballmer’s attorney, said it was unclear what will happen if the trial is not concluded before the deadline.
“We’re going to have to regroup on that and see where we go from here,” he said.
Much of the trial has 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.
The disclosure of those doctors’ reports to Shelly Sterling, they also contend, violated both state and federal medical privacy laws.
The first hour-plus of Wednesday’s court session was taken up as Gary Ruttenberg, one of Donald Sterling’s lawyers, cross-examined Dr. Meril Platzer. Platzer is one of two doctors who examined Sterling and concluded that he has dementia. She determined that he likely has Alzheimer’s.
Ruttenberg walked Platzer through numerous e-mails, asking questions about her contacts with lawyers for Shelly Sterling and intimating that she was part of the conspiracy to remove Donald Sterling as a trustee.
Ruttenberg complained at one point that he was handicapped because the e-mails were turned over to him in the previous 24 hours.
“We’re trying this as a Rube Goldberg play,” Ruttenberg said at one point.
As Shelly Sterling’s lawyers protested Ruttenberg’s question, he hit again on the idea that Donald Sterling was duped by his wife and her attorneys.
“This is about ‘Secret Plan B,’ to whom it was known, and when my client’s treating physician was taken to the dark side."