LOS ANGELES -- Los Angeles Clippers co-owner Shelly Sterling said Wednesday that she believes she is legally entitled to maintain ownership of the NBA team and will attempt to do so, even as the pro basketball league pushes to remove her husband from the team he has owned for 33 years.
Sterling described her long tenure as a "die-hard" fan of the Clippers and said she believes that the sanctions against Donald Sterling -- which included a lifetime ban and $2.5 million fine -- do not apply to "me or my family."
Shelly Sterling's position presents a "wild card" for the pro basketball league as it faces its biggest crisis in memory, said a league official, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter. Her intention to hold on to the team is a wrinkle apparently not contemplated by NBA officials when they moved nine days ago to strip her estranged husband of ownership.
Players, fans and other owners have signaled that they would like to see a fresh start for the Los Angeles franchise, which is in the midst of a playoff run in what could be its most successful season after decades of mediocrity. Ownership by any of the Sterlings could mean a continued flight of sponsors and a potential boycott from players and fans.
Broadcaster Ralph Lawler, the Clippers' longest-serving employee, said Shelly Sterling's plan to keep the team was understandable but that others in the organization were ready to move on.
"I think in the eyes of the players and the coaching staff and the basketball staff, the page has been turned, and I think it would be difficult to turn it back," Lawler said.
The NBA had no immediate response to Shelly Sterling's desire to keep the team. On Wednesday, in the comments provided to the Los Angeles Times by her representatives, she said she had retained a law firm to guide her in her ownership quest.
The league moved against Donald Sterling after the website TMZ released a recording in which Sterling told a frequent courtside companion that he did not want to see her at Clippers games with black people. Faced with an exodus of advertisers and player anger, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver responded with the fine, lifetime ban and call for the league's 29 other owners to vote to force Sterling to sell the team.
When Silver announced Donald Sterling's punishment, he said there had been "no decisions about other members of the Sterling family," adding: "This ruling applies specifically to Donald Sterling and Donald Sterling's conduct only."
But Silver also said that when it comes to a vote on future ownership, fellow NBA board members would consider Sterling's "overall fitness to be an owner in the NBA," which would "take into account a lifetime of behavior."
The team is held in a family trust, and sources familiar with the Clippers say they believe that Shelly Sterling has equal ownership with her husband and each takes control if the other dies. Sterling paid $12.5 million for the team in 1981, but experts have said recently the team could be sold for $1 billion or more.
The NBA has been moving cautiously, in anticipation of a legal battle with Donald Sterling, who is the longest-tenured owner in the NBA and who fought to maintain control of the Clippers when the league attempted to force him out shortly after he bought it. A committee of owners held a conference call Wednesday to continue discussing the termination process.
In the days since the furor around the team began, Shelly Sterling has been positioning herself as a separate center of power within the Clippers organization. After remaining mostly in the background for decades, she has issued several statements as the "co-owner" of the team.
She lashed out, in a prepared statement, at her husband's "small-mindedness" and "racist comments."
On Tuesday, she praised the NBA's action to put longtime team President Andy Roeser on an indefinite leave of absence, saying she was "working with the NBA in the search for the new CEO."
On Wednesday, she said her primary interest was that "the focus remains on our team winning an NBA championship."
The NBA has sent signals that it is uncomfortable with Shelly Sterling's continued presence in the organization. The league let her know that it would prefer that she not attend playoff games Friday and Sunday at Staples Center against the Oklahoma City Thunder, said the NBA source. But league officials privately acknowledge that they do not know how they can prevent her from attending.
Even if she is not included in the owners' vote to force a sale, analysts said she might still need the approval of the 29 other owners before she can take over the team. That bid could become complicated by the fact that she, like her husband, has been accused of racial bias and other misdeeds in lawsuits related to the family's expansive real estate holdings.
Donald Sterling faced allegations that he discriminated against building tenants based on their race and reached a 2009 settlement with the U.S. Justice Department for $2.8 million, without admitting any wrongdoing.
Tenants at that time accused Shelly Sterling of racist statements and actions. In a 2009 deposition, tenant Darrell Rhodes said she reacted harshly when he asked for a rent reduction. "Who do you think you are, you black (expletive)," Rhodes quoted Shelly Sterling as saying.
In an earlier deposition, a former property manager said Shelly Sterling had instructed her not to rent apartments to members of certain racial groups. The employee, Sumner Davenport, said that Shelly Sterling often seemed to be relaying the wishes of her husband, though she sometimes seemed to be speaking for herself.
Davenport also recalled that Donald Sterling had complained that "blacks smelled and blacks stunk and he wanted them out of his buildings." During a visit to one of the buildings, Shelly Sterling complained about an African-American tenant's uncleanliness and said "See, Sterling is right, they do smell," according to Davenport's deposition.
Davenport sued Donald Sterling for sexual harassment in 2003, but lost at trial in 2005. Her statements came in a separate housing discrimination lawsuit by the Housing Rights Center, which ended in a settlement and Sterling's payment of almost $5 million in legal fees to the plaintiffs.
In conjunction with that lawsuit, Davenport accused Shelly Sterling of posing as a government official to gain access to tenants' apartments. U.S. District Court Judge A. Howard Matz called the allegations troubling but also said he could not issue an injunction because he did not have enough evidence that the Sterlings targeted tenants based on their ethnicity.
The portrait of Shelly and Donald Sterling remains complicated and in flux. On the same day she issued a statement decrying the statements by her "estranged" husband, Shelly Sterling defended him, telling TMZ her husband was not a racist. "Oh forget it," she snapped. "It's not true."
(Times staff reporters Ben Bolch and Broderick Turner contributed to this report.)
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