It was pushing 90°F as afternoon turned to evening in Los Angeles on Tuesday — not exactly ideal weather for wearing all black. But huge swaths of the crowd outside the Staples Center downtown felt that the occasion demanded it, and they showed up dressed darkly from head to toe. Inside the arena, less than twelve hours after Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was banned from the NBA for life, his team triumphed in a critical playoff game against the Golden State Warriors. It was the Clippers’ first home game since recordings of Sterling espousing racist sentiments were released over the weekend.
The Warriors were planning to walk off the court just after tip-off in protest of Sterling, who was recorded telling his then girlfriend he did not want her publicly associating with black people, including basketball legend Magic Johnson. But new NBA commissioner Adam Silver brought the hammer down on Sterling on Tuesday, imposing an unprecedented lifetime ban for an owner and vowing that the league would force him to sell the team. The action was hailed by players and Clippers coach Doc Rivers as the right decision, one that would allow the NBA playoffs to continue as planned. The energized Clippers, who had seemed distracted in a blowout loss to the Warriors on Sunday, topped Golden State 113-103 this time, taking a key 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series.
Fans rallied behind the embattled team. Even as reporters swarmed around the small groups and lone protesters holding signs further condemning Sterling and racism in general, the pregame atmosphere was undoubtedly one of elated support for the Clippers players and relief that they could continue their pursuit of the 2014 NBA championship.
“That was as good as I’ve ever seen,” Rivers said of the fans’ support. “They were unbelievable.”
“I’m emotionally invested in the players,” says season-ticket holder Joe Crue, a 27-year-old graduate student at the University of Southern California. Crue said longtime Clippers fans disliked Sterling, who was one of the least popular owners in the NBA even before the recent recordings were released over the weekend. “For hardcore Clippers fans, this was not new,” Crue says. He was wearing a Clippers jersey inside out “to show solidarity for the team. That’s who we’ve always supported.”
Mark Ebner, a novelist, wore a black armband to the game on Tuesday. “That’s for solidarity with the fans, the players and Doc Rivers,” says Ebner, adding that Sterling’s comments “showed profoundly reprehensible leadership.”
Tanya Shephard, a 37-year-old Angeleno who attended the game on Tuesday with her boyfriend and 11-year-old son — all of them dressed in black — said when her son, who is African American, heard the Sterling tape recording, “He was upset. He wants to be in the league one day and said, ‘Mom, I can’t believe that stuff is still happening.’”
But for longtime Clippers fan Rick Dennis — who said he has had season tickets since 1990 and supported the team as it eventually transformed from league loser to championship contender under Sterling’s ownership — the punishment meted out to the owner seemed overly harsh. “It’s wrong what he said, but just because you’re an idiot doesn’t mean people should be able to take away what you’ve built,” Dennis says. “There should be an avenue for redemption.”
Silver expressed confidence on Tuesday that at least three-quarters of NBA owners would vote to force Sterling to sell the Clippers, which would prompt a sale, although Sterling could fight the action in court. Before Silver announced Sterling was banned from the NBA, including all Clippers games, the 80-year-old owner reportedly said the team was “not for sale.”
Dennis was among those fans who were disappointed that one of Clippers’ most promising season in years was tainted by the Sterling scandal. “I love the team,” Dennis says. “I’m a perennial rooter for the underdog, but this year we were meant to mean something.”
Inside the Staples Center on Tuesday evening, passionate support for the Clippers was palpable. Los Angeles Times sports columnist Bill Plaschke tweeted before the game that he had “never heard such a standing ovation for players shooting layups and stretching.” Jesse Jackson walked around the court before the game, and as the team warmed up before tipoff, the words We Are One — a motto the team adopted earlier on Tuesday — flashed across the scoreboard above. An announcer’s voice blared through the arena, which was sold out. “We stand as fans! We stand to show our team we’re here!”
Condemned or not, Sterling still owned the Clippers on Tuesday. And a championship would only increase the value of his team and the potential windfall if he were to sell it. Sterling purchased the Clippers in 1981 for $12 million and, according to Forbes, the team is now worth $575 million.
“He’s going to win either way,” Brinden McGowan, 27, said outside the Staples Center on Tuesday. “Even if he sells the team, he’s still gonna make a lot. It’s a catch-22.”