Sale of Clippers may hinge on Donald Sterling’s mental state

Donald Sterling's mental state might prevent him from fighting the sale of the Clippers by his wife, Shelly.

Kirby Lee/Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The intertwined saga of Donald Sterling, the NBA and the Los Angeles Clippers will play out in a small courtroom over four days in July – and the outcome may hinge on everything from brain scans to the embattled team owner’s ability to spell backward, draw a clock, and connect a series of letters and numbers in order.

Sterling – under fire for more than a month for his racially charged statements about African Americans – is fighting his wife’s effort to sell the Clippers without his approval. Shelly Sterling is seeking a judge’s blessing to proceed with the sale of the team for $2 billion without her husband’s consent, a move she contends is proper because he is mentally incapacitated and can no longer make decisions as one of two heads of the family trust that owns the Clippers.

Two doctors who examined Donald Sterling reached that conclusion.

“Because of his cognitive impairment, Mr. Sterling is at risk of making potentially serious errors of judgment, impulse control, and recall in the management of his finances and his trust,” Dr. J. Edward Spar, one of the doctors who examined him, wrote in a letter that was filed with the probate court in Los Angeles.


A Los Angeles judge has scheduled a four-day hearing, beginning July 7, at which he will consider Shelly Sterling’s petition to affirm her right to sell the Clippers.

The firestorm surrounding Donald Sterling and the Clippers began April 25, when the celebrity gossip website TMZ posted an audio recording of the team owner talking to a female friend, V. Stiviano, and expressing dismay that she had posted a photo on a social media website that showed her with NBA legend Magic Johnson.

In one exchange on the recording, which was made last September, Sterling told Stiviano to say away from Clippers games – “don’t bring black people, and don’t come.”

“It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people,” Sterling said at another point. “Do you have to?”

And he also made pointed comments about Johnson.

“Don’t put him on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me. And don’t bring him to my games.”

The furor was immediate, and four days later NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced that he had banned Sterling for life and fined him $2.5 million. He also said then he would ask the other team owners to kick Sterling out of the league, thereby forcing him to sell the Clippers.

A defiant Sterling, in a May 10 interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, said he was not a racist but attacked Johnson for becoming infected with the virus that causes AIDS.

“What kind of guy goes to every city, has sex with every girl, then he goes and catches HIV?” he asked. “Is that someone we want to respect and tell our kids about? I think he should be ashamed of himself. I think he should go into the background. And what does he do for black people? He hasn’t done anything.”

The backlash was fierce – the team’s coach, Doc Rivers, said publicly he would consider leaving if the Sterlings weren’t removed from ownership.

Since then, Donald Sterling signed documents approving the sale of the team, said publicly he would not sell the team, filed a $1 billion lawsuit against the NBA, said he would drop the suit, and then pressed ahead with his legal action.

In the meantime, Shelly Sterling reached an agreement to sell the team for $2 billion to Steve Ballmer, the former head of Microsoft. The agreement included a clause in which Shelly Sterling indemnified the NBA from the risk of legal action by Donald Sterling to block the sale. That means, essentially, that she agreed to pay the NBA’s legal bills if it has to fight Donald Sterling in court.

Donald and Shelly Sterling, who have been married for 58 years, have been described as being estranged but enjoying an amicable business partnership.

They purchased the Clippers in 1981 for $12.5 million, and the couple formed the Sterling Family Trust on Aug. 12, 1998, according to court papers, and “restated” it last Dec. 18. The trust is the sole owner of the team, and Donald Sterling and Shelly Sterling are the only decision makers for the trust.

But the trust, according to bylaws filed in court, includes a provision that either Donald Sterling or Shelly Sterling could be removed as a trustee if he or she becomes incapacitated – defined as being “incapable of managing an individual’s affairs.”

Ballmer’s purchase agreement requires either that Donald Sterling consent to the sale or that Shelly Sterling obtain “a final and non-appealable order” from a judge giving her the sole authority to close the deal.

Shelly Sterling sought the fast-tracked action in the case because the terms of her agreement with Ballmer call for the sale to be concluded no later than Sept. 15.

In documents filed with the probate court, Shelly Sterling’s lawyers argued that examinations from two doctors conducted in May led both to conclude that Donald Sterling has dementia and cannot manage his affairs.

Both doctors performed what is known as the Folstein Mini-Mental State Examination – a series of questions and tasks. The person taking the test is asked to do such things as spell “world” backward, recall three words – ball, flag and tree – and count backward from 100 in increments of seven.

In a report filed with the court, Dr. Meril Platzer wrote that Donald Sterling was unable to spell “world” backward, stopped counting when he got to 93 and did not know what season it was. He also was unable to draw a clock.

Although his score on the test of 23 is considered at the bottom of the “normal” range, Platzer wrote that it was “below normal” for a man of Sterling’s age – he’s 80 – and “advanced” education.

“Based upon my evaluation performed on May 19, 2014, it is my opinion that Mr. Donald T. Sterling is suffering from cognitive impairment secondary to primary dementia Alzheimer’s disease,” Platzer wrote.

Platzer noted that a PET scan of Donald Sterling’s brain showed changes consistent with dementia.

 “It is my opinion that Mr. Donald T. Sterling is unable to reasonably carry out the duties as trustee of the Sterling Family Trust as a result of, among other factors, an impairment of his level of attention, information processing, short term memory impairment and ability to modulate mood, emotional liability, and is at risk of making potentially serious errors of judgment,” Platzer wrote.

It is my opinion that Mr. Donald T. Sterling is unable to reasonably carry out the duties as trustee of the Sterling Family Trust as a result of, among other factors, an impairment of his level of attention, information processing, short term memory impairment and ability to modulate mood, emotional liability, and is at risk of making potentially serious errors of judgment.

Dr. Meril Platzer, from report filed with court

In a follow-up examination a few days later, Dr. Spar reached nearly identical conclusions.

Spar wrote, in a document filed with the probate court, that Donald Sterling told him he’d noticed problems with his memory for the past two years.

“I can’t remember names and streets,” Donald Sterling said, according to the physician’s letter. When Spar asked Donald Sterling if he got lost, he said he did not – but that “sometimes I get confused when I get off an elevator.”

Dr. Spar’s letter noted that Donald Sterling was unable to complete what is known as the Trail-Making Test, Part B. It requires the subject to connect a series of letters and numbers within a specified time – 1-A-2-B and so on.

During the test, Spar wrote, Donald Sterling “was unable to perform the task and became angry, stating, ‘I can’t do it, I don’t want to do it, and I have to get back to my meeting.’ ”

Shelly Sterling and the doctor persuaded him to try again, but Donald sterling looked at the test, said, “I can’t do it,” threw the pen down and left the room, according to Spar’s letter.

Spar gave Donald Sterling a score of 24 on the test but noted that he could not count back from 100 in increments of seven and did not attempt to spell “world” backward.

“Mr. Sterling is suffering from mild global cognitive impairment, with relatively greater impairment in memory and frontal executive functions,” Spar wrote. “The overall picture is consistent with early Alzheimer’s disease but could reflect other forms of brain disease.”