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The Mercy Rule

Donald Sterling, Human Cold Sore

Donald Sterling is a real estate billionaire of a notably porny bent who looks like a Milk Dud that has had Botox, and who was born without the capacity for shame.

by David Roth
Dec 7 2011, 9:20pm

The tiny television is tuned to KCAL 9, a network dedicated primarily to episodes of Duck Tales and terrifyingly comprehensive coverage of Los Angeles-area car chases. There is nowhere to sit in the room, really, although you could move those not-yet-dirty-enough-to-wash t-shirts, I guess. Just… yeah, onto the floor is fine. Oh, would you like a Mickey's? I ask because I am myself drinking a Mickey's, and because there are plenty of them in the little fridge over there. Consequently, the whole room smells like Mickey's, which is to say it smells like a headache farted. A thin film of sex-repellent dorminess has settled on every surface; the air is thick with it. It is a dozen or so years ago, and this is my college dorm room. Here's the most astounding part: the Los Angeles Clippers game on that tiny television in that bleak monument to unintentional celibacy was actually the most depressing thing happening in that room.

Some of that was specific to that particular era in Clippers basketball. For the entire time I was in college, the Clippers were losing by 17 points to one team or another. In the scenario above, it's safe to assume that what's happening on that television is either Michael Olowokandi, the worst player ever picked first in an NBA draft, absorbing a horrific dunk-related humiliation or a trembling Pete Chilcutt—a gangly mediocrity who was on the receiving end of a lot of mockery from Bill Walton, whose avant-garde sarcasm found its fullest flower during his gig as a color commentator for the Clips—doing at least a couple of things wrong. But bad basketball is just bad basketball. What made the Clippers a bummer then is what makes them a bummer now—one of the worst owners in sports, and the ambient worst-ness that he leaves in his wake.

That owner is Donald Sterling, a real estate billionaire of a notably porny bent who looks like a Milk Dud that has had Botox, and who was born without the capacity for shame. That description could also apply to many of Los Angeles's rich and lecherous, of course. What sets Sterling apart, besides the hilariously inept ads he designs for his high-end real estate properties and the massive racial discrimination settlements he has paid out related to his less-high-end ones, is how weirdly bulletproof he is. Sterling is so manifestly shameful that even ESPN, which generally embraces its role as fluffer to the sports elite, felt free to bring out the knives when it profiled him. But as an owner, he has the one job in sports from which it's impossible to be fired.

And so he remains in control of an NBA team in one of the league's biggest markets, the human equivalent of a cold sore that will never go away. The league seems content to let him do his thing—that thing, to reiterate, is settling lawsuits out of court and then hitting the tanning bed—and Sterling has steadfastly resisted calls to sell his team. For good reason, as it turns out: He turns a profit every year through a combination of old-fashioned cheapness and expert gaming of basketball's various scummy micro-economies, and will make even more money thanks to the NBA's new and more owner-friendly collective bargaining agreement.

This makes it all the more sad that the Clippers are, almost by accident, on the verge of becoming a very good and very interesting team. The flubby dead-enders who stunk out my dorm room over a decade ago have been replaced by a team full of talented young stars—year after year of terrible teams means years of high draft picks, after all—and likable veterans. With the NBA's frantic and lockout-shortened free agent signing period underway, the Clippers have money to spend and, in a twist dictated by the new bargaining agreement's salary floor, actually have to spend it. The Clippers have been rumored as a trade destination for a host of well-compensated All-Stars looking to build a Heat-style super-team of their own.

And yet, for all their present and future promise, the Clippers remain something worse than a bad team. Instead, they're injustice in action—bad teams can improve, after all, but bad owners are forever. In a fundamental way, the Clippers will never leave my sad dorm room until Sterling vacates his courtside seats. It's a good thing Mickey's is still cheap.

Previously - Commercials Are Fucking Terrifying