When the racist comments from Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling first surfaced, basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar didn’t know what to think.
“My first reaction was surprise, because I had worked for Mr. Sterling,” Abdul-Jabbar said Monday at the Omni Dallas Hotel during a panel on sports, race and politics at the United States Conference of Mayors. “I had coached the Clippers in the year 2000 — he invited me to his daughter’s wedding.
“I had no idea exactly what was going on. ... So I was confused not knowing exactly which set of facts Mr. Sterling stood behind. Then when his words came out, it was so obvious and shocking and just disgusting — all of those things wrapped in one.”
The NBA fined Sterling $2.5 million, banned him from the league for life and forced the sale of his team after he was heard on a secret tape telling a companion not to bring African-Americans to Clippers games, especially Magic Johnson. The tape created a firestorm and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver moved quickly to separate Sterling from the league.
Ex-Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer agreed to purchase the Clippers for $2 billion from Sterling’s wife, Shelly. However, Donald Sterling and his team of lawyers are trying to halt the execution of the sale.
Former Dallas Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin, who was part of Monday’s panel, stressed that he was hurt that Sterling’s comments affected the Clippers players in the midst of the playoffs.
“They’ve been waiting a long time, where they are right now, they’ve been waiting a long time,” Irvin said. “And there have been a lot of fans, a lot of loyal fans.
“And to have [Clippers coach] Doc Rivers, to have [Clippers point guard] Chris Paul, guys that really are such upstanding African-Americans representing the best we have to offer. And then to point out and attack one of the best we have to offer in Magic Johnson, I was hurt.”
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, also a part of Monday’s panel, said he was stunned that a person in Sterling’s power position could make such insensitive remarks about African-Americans.
“It’s the epitome of like an accident,” Nutter said. “You’re like an owner of a team, you’re like an adult, you’re supposed to be responsible.
“I had some other thoughts, but this is a family program. It was insane. It was a stunning moment in America.”
The irony for Abdul-Jabbar to ascertain is that it appeared to him that Sterling was hurting himself.
“The surprise of it was to find that type of sentiment in someone who relies on black Americans for so much of his success and public profile,” said Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. “I just couldn’t believe that someone can have that much bigotry inside and think that it was OK.”