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Price of NBA Victory: A Racist Gets Much, Much Richer

3 minute read

This was what the NBA wanted, the ideal endgame: the Sterlings selling, without a fight. If the reports hold up, and former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer — who dreamed of thriving in sports as a kid, but only got as far as manager of his high school hoops team — buys the Los Angeles Clippers for $2 billion, the league will have to live with its devil’s deal. A win for the NBA, billions for a bad guy. An idiocy windfall for Donald Serling.

For years, the league harbored a man with a noxious racial record. He settled a housing discrimination lawsuit for a record amount, was sued by an NBA legend, his long-time general manager Elgin Baylor, for racial discrimination. Sure, without convictions or tape-recorded rants distributed globally on the Internet — and probably the most damaging damage-control interview in sports history — the NBA had little recourse to push Sterling out years ago. But he was tolerated a bit too much. And now, on the foundation of the “Southern Plantation type structure” Baylor accused him of building — that charge rings very true today — Sterling made the richest sale in NBA history.

Sterling’s LA Clippers were often a joke. But the product Ballmer is buying — the Los Angeles market, healthy TV revenues, superiority, for the moment at least, to the legendary Lakers, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, and the absence of Donald Sterling — is a $2 billion catch.

The league will move on from this moral tradeoff, fast. Ballmer fits the bill as NBA owner. He’s an experienced Fortune 500 manager, and his old Microsoft chum Paul Allen is ensconced as owner of the Portland Trail Blazers. An NBA team back in Seattle would be nice, but Ballmer’s not moving the Clippers up north: $2 billion is L.A. money.

As for Sterling, some good will come out of his purchase. A hefty chunk of his profits — he bought the team in 1981 for a mere $12 million — will go to the government, thanks to capital gains taxes. The Sterlings have a history of buying good PR. His philanthropy has won him special recognition from the NAACP. He can surely try to clear his name with cash by, say, donating millions of his sale proceeds to minority scholarship funds, or some other cause that helps lift the groups his disparaged. The question: if you’re one of these charitable organizations, do you take Sterling’s money? That’s yet another moral dilemma Sterling may create. The guy’s chock full of them.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com