After Week Of Tumult, Clippers' Focus Must Turn Back To Basketball
ARUN RATH, HOST:
The Los Angeles Clippers are back to the business of basketball. They'll play the Golden State Warriors tonight in a deciding game 7 playoff game. It will cap a jaw-dropping week for the franchise, bound together by race, the Internet and the economics of sports. Here's NPR's Uri Berliner.
URI BERLINER, BYLINE: It all started last weekend with the recording posted to the gossip site TMZ. In it, Clippers owner Donald Sterling is telling a woman he knows very well that he doesn't approve that she publicly associates with black people like Magic Johnson. Sterling's ugly words jolted the NBA and reverberated far beyond basketball. Responses were swift and harsh.
MAGIC JOHNSON: There's no place in our society for it. There's no place in our league...
OPRAH WINFREY: We're all off the plantation. Plantation days are over.
DOC RIVERS: A lot of guys voiced their opinions. None of them were happy about it.
BERLINER: That's reaction from Magic Johnson himself, Oprah Winfrey and Clippers' Coach Doc Rivers. On Monday, the financial glue holding the Clippers together began peeling away.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Firestorms surrounding L.A. Clippers' Owner Donald Sterling, sponsors pulling away from the Clippers after hearing those racist comments caught on tape.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Today nearly a dozen sponsors severed ties with his team. The NBA promised swift action and announced...
BERLINER: State Farm, Kia, CarMax, Virgin America and others all backed away from the Clippers. Adam Grossman says they had no choice. He's founder of the sports marketing and analytics firm Block Six Analytics.
ADAM GROSSMAN: The main reason that corporate partners work with the NBA or work with sports teams in general is to increase brand awareness and enhance their brand perception. If you're brand is tied to somebody who clearly has racist sentiments, there's just no way for a sponsorship to work in the NBA.
BERLINER: And as Clippers sponsors vanished, the team's players responded in their own way.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Just a few moments ago, while entering the court for pre-game warm-ups, the unified statement from the Clipper players wearing their warm-up shirts inside out so the word Clippers are not across their chests.
BERLINER: For the players that was just the start. All 16 scheduled to play Tuesday were reportedly ready to boycott their games. And if games were canceled with so many sponsors already on the sidelines, the league would be heading for real trouble. Sports marketing executive Adam Grossman.
GROSSMAN: The economic factors are what caused the NBA to move so quickly.
BERLINER: And that's what happened on Tuesday.
COMMISSIONER ADAM SILVER: Effective immediately, I am banning Mr. Sterling for life from any association with the Clippers organization or the NBA.
BERLINER: Not only did NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banish the Clippers owner from the league, he said he would seek to force Sterling to give up ownership of the team. And with that the storyline changed instantly. Clipper players weren't wearing their shirts inside out anymore. Boycott plans ended. Fans were happy in their seats, cheering on the Clippers to a game 5 victory. And toxic franchise suddenly turned into an alluring one. Adam Grossman.
GROSSMAN: I think it's weird when it got even more valuable because it's kind of like now well once in a generation property.
BERLINER: In true L.A. fashion, the buzz turned to deal making and celebrities. And which ones might bid on the Clippers? Oprah Winfrey's spokeswoman confirmed Winfrey was talking to software billionaire Larry Ellison and media mogul David Geffen about a potential play for the team. Boxer Floyd Mayweather, Jr. - he goes by the nickname money - said he had partners ready to go.
FLOYD MAYWEATHER, JR.: Do we want to buy the Clippers? Yes, we do. We're very, very interested in buying the Clippers.
BERLINER: And then Wednesday, in the ultimate twist, Magic Johnson opened the door. Here he is speaking to movers and shakers at the Milken Institute Global Conference.
JOHNSON: I will be owning an NBA team sometime. It has to be the right situation. Is the Clippers the right situation? Of course. It's one of the premier franchises. He's made money. Despite of what we think of him, he's done a good job with his business.
BERLINER: Celebrities maneuvering to become the anti-Donald Sterling. What a right thing for Hollywood. Mariel Wakeem(ph) writes for Los Angeles magazine.
MARIEL WAKEEM: Controversial topic, big names, lots of money going into this and a town that's pretty involved and wrapped up in the basketball scene.
BERLINER: All of a sudden interest won't hurt the value of the Clippers. Before the Sterling implosion, Forbes valued the team at $575 million. Sports business executive Adam Grossman says they could now easily fetch $650 million. And other NBA watchers think the price tag could even top a billion dollars. Uri Berliner, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.