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Superstars and Pitiful Apologizers: The NBA's Shifting Balance of Power

05/16/2014 11:23 am ET | Updated Jul 16, 2014
Andrew D. Bernstein via Getty Images

Poor Don and Shelly Sterling.

The Los Angeles Clippers owner, Donald Sterling, in an interview televised last night, now says he's "sorry." In a pitiful display of humility, he's begging for forgiveness. But that's probably the best way to describe Sterling's so-called apology: Sorry. How arrogant do you have to be to wait two weeks to apologize for being a social Neanderthal and then in the midst of the long-delayed apology you take another shot at the same beloved NBA superstar who was mentioned in the racist rant that originally revealed your messy views of people?

Sterling's wife, Shelly, who co-owns the team with her apology-challenged husband,says the NBA-imposed ban on her husband should not apply to her. In recent days she has raised her visibility at the Clipper's playoff games. Apparently, Shelly Sterling either doesn't realize, or doesn't care, that her presence at games right now is tantamount to rubbing salt in the wound -- she too appears racially insensitive and she's making it clear that what matters most to her is the prestige that goes along with sitting courtside. What she apparently doesn't understand is that, in light of the revelations of her longtime husband's views on race -- her courtside presence evokes the feeling of a plantation owner overseeing the workers. This cannot be good. If watching the game live is what is most important to Mrs. Sterling, then for now, she'd be better off to sit in the stadium's upper deck, in the "Bob Uecker" front row.

What the Sterlings don't seem to understand, in spite of their 33 years of ownership, is that owning an NBA team is a privilege, not a right.

The NBA, and owners like the Sterlings, have seen the value of their franchises fly into the financial stratosphere, on the backs of African-Americans such as Magic Johnson, at whom Sterling curiously keeps directing his social and racial verbal blunders.

According to Forbes magazine, the average NBA team is worth $634 million. Earlier this year, Forbes writer Chris Smith wrote that of the 30 teams in the NBA, "14 are owned, at least in part, by a billionaire. Six of those billionaire owners have fortunes in excess of $5 billion. The 14 billionaire team owners have a combined fortune of $76 billion, though the top three control more than half of that wealth."

And in addition to becoming even wealthier, owners have been sprinkled with a celebrity stardust that their wealth could never buy. Sterling's so-called apology, and his wife's recent actions underscore a simple truth: There is tremendous value in the ownership of NBA assets, and the Sterlings want to do anything they can to avoid losing their franchise. They seem to be begging for forgiveness from their fellow team owners. However, other NBA owners cannot help the Sterlings.

The problem is that neither the Sterlings nor any other owner has anything of value, without the players. The NBA is a superstar league and without African-Americans such as LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Blake Griffin and others on the court, the owners have nothing without the stars, "owners" like Donald Sterling would strut past empty locker rooms and empty uniforms. The players have all of the power, and the players must refuse to play as long as a person such as Sterling stands to benefit as an owner.

I have never met Sterling, however, I have had the privilege of meeting Magic Johnson. Over the decades, he has demonstrated more class and heart than Sterling appears capable of possessing. Class and heart, after all, are two things that money can't buy. Magic Johnson does not have to give faux apologies during exclusive interviews to prove his sincerity and character.

Likewise, I have met LeBron James and spoken with him on a few occasions. With his willingness to take a stand against Sterling's ownership, LeBron proves that he is a star off the court, as well as on. I'm not sure that other superstars who came before LeBron would have done the same thing. LeBron and his fellow superstars have enormous power, and they should not hesitate to exercise it. Remember a few years ago when the owners threatened to lock the players out during contract negotiations? Just imagine if LeBron and 15 other superstars had taken their talent and started their own league? For the current owners, the game would have been over.
For the NBA and its new commissioner, Adam Silver, this whole Sterling brushfire is no longer just about racism. It is about the ownership of assets. And this is an area where African-Americans have very little participation. Oh yes, there are plenty of wealthy people on the court. They get rich performing, but often times, they own very little.Once their legs are old, and their paychecks are spent, they have no appreciable asset left to sell. Hall of Famer Michael Jordan, who owns the Charlotte Bobcats, is the NBA's only African-American majority owner at this time.

This is an opportunity for the NBA to do more than silence one racist owner. It's time to change the ownership paradigm. Whether it's Oprah Winfrey, the rapper Dr. Dre, Magic Johnson, or some lesser known wealthy person who becomes owner of the Clippers, let the ownership change begin now.

But of course, Donald and Shelly Sterling say they want to keep their team. After all, it keeps rising in value, and ownership is quite prestigious. But the time when owners actually realize the value of their teams is when they decide to sell. Sterling bought the Clippers in 1981 for $12.5 million, and now the team is worth an estimated $575 million, according to Forbes.So, if the NBA is successful with its plan to force Sterling to sell the team, the exiled Clippers owner will cry all the way to the bank. Even with the additional hundreds of millions padding his bank account, Sterling will still be sorry. He's so sorry.