LOS ANGELES — With Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling banned from the NBA for life and his team's playoff lives still on the line, the next chapter began at Staples Center on Tuesday night.
The immediate concern for coaches and players was Game 5 of their first-round series against the Golden State Warriors, and this group that had been forced into the brightest of spotlights by its boss' racist comments defended its turf in a 113-103 victory for a 3-2 lead. A close second among the players' priorities at the moment? Figuring out who their next boss might be.
So while Magic Johnson was denying reports that he was destined to be the next Clippers boss and boxers Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Oscar De La Hoya were stating their desire to get in on the bidding and Clippers coach Doc Rivers was saying it was unlikely that Sterling's wife, Shelly, would be allowed to take over the team, a familiar face in this high-dollar crowd stayed silent. But Steve Ballmer created some buzz with his mere presence. The former Microsoft CEO, who partnered with hedge fund manager Chris Hansen in their failed attempt to bring the Sacramento Kings to Seattle for a purchase price of $625 million, was in the Clippers' house.
Yet before all those downtrodden Seattle SuperSonics fans get too excited, there was an unrelated reason for Ballmer to be at the game. He is close friends with Clippers guard Jamal Crawford, a Seattle native with whom he has done extensive charity work and who was aware he would be there for Game 5. Crawford is unclear on whether his friend will have a chance to take part in the process, if the league's owners are able to remove Sterling by way of a three-quarters vote.
"We didn't even talk about (him owning the team)," Crawford told USA TODAY Sports. "He was just telling me he'll be here to support me. He may stick around (in Los Angeles). I think he'll stick around for a little bit. ... That's my guy. He's unbelievable."
The notion of Sterling simply selling the team to his wife is as far-fetched and unacceptable as post-Sterling ideas come. But with suspicions building that he may attempt to take that route, Shelly Sterling — who received Rivers' permission to attend Game 5 and sat in a suite — did very little to help her own cause in recent days.
Despite a TMZ report indicating that she had been estranged from Donald Sterling for years and in which she admonished him for his views, the media outlet captured the couple leaving a steakhouse near Staples Center on Monday night. When a cameraman asks Donald Sterling if he's racist, Shelly Sterling can be heard yelling, "No, of course not" and also saying the stories were "not true."
What's more, a Los Angeles Times report published Tuesday reminded the masses about a 2003 court order that paints an unflattering picture of Shelly Sterling. As part of a housing discrimination lawsuit against Donald Sterling, she was accused of posing as a health inspector in her husband's rental properties and requiring an associate to "record tenants' ethnicity during inspections." There also were accusations of racist language being used when dealing with minority tenants.
Late Tuesday night, after Rivers had talked of the compassion he feels for Shelly Sterling and indicated that she asked him to tell his players that she loved him, the Clippers coach was shown the Times story by another reporter.
"We're going to find out new things every day," Rivers said, according to the reporter.
When asked earlier in the postgame news conference whether he thinks Shelly Sterling could own the team, Rivers said, "I don't know. I honestly don't know. It doesn't sound like it, to be honest, and I think she knows that. But she still wanted to be here. You know, I don't know if that's right or wrong (to allow her to come to the game) but I thought it was right."
The players likely would protest if Shelly Sterling were allowed to own the team. To that end, National Basketball Players Association vice president Roger Mason told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday that it was not acceptable in the players' eyes to have Shelly Sterling or any member of the family own the team. But as so many Clippers said afterward, the immediate focus — now that Silver came down with the first hammer of his early tenure — is on the basketball task at hand.
They were as buoyed by the league's discipline that preceded their Game 5 win as they had been demoralized by the ugliness that led up to their Game 4 loss, and Game 6 on Tuesday should be the leveling-out game that is certainly welcome for all involved.
"It's an unbelievable relief, because now you don't have to wonder (what will happen)," Crawford said. "It's hard to get sleep, honestly. You're like, 'Is this a bad dream?' You wake up, and it's like, 'Is this a bad dream?' It's good to get closure, because now you can move forward from here.
"As athletes, I think we do a great job putting things in compartments. But something like that, you try and you try and it was impossible… Now we just focus on hoops. We were one of the best teams in the league before all of this happened, before the playoffs. And we feel like we're getting back to that level."