The first time I remember praying was on June 12, 1984. As a 10-year-old boy living in Massachusetts, I begged and pleaded with God to let the Boston Celtics defeat the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. After the Celtics beat the Lakers that night in an epic win at the Boston Garden, I credited divine intervention for the victory. Later that year, my family moved to Southern California, and instead of rooting for the rival Lakers, I adopted the Los Angeles Clippers as my hometown heroes.
For the past three decades, my franchise loyalty has grown into a full-blown devotion, and I have become a "fan" in the most literal sense of the word -- a "fanatic." Indeed, my Clippers zeal resembles that of a religious devotee more than a casual sports fan. As a Hindu, rooting for the Clippers taught me firsthand about the core Hindu theological doctrines of causality and non-attachment. And as a proud member of Clipper Nation, I am now part of a kindred community of die-hard fans, who have collectively endured decades of heartache and pain, misery and melancholy, rooting for a historically inept team that Sports Illustrated famously called the worst franchise in sports history.
Despite all the losing, the most difficult part of Clippers fandom has always been supporting a team owned by Donald Sterling, the NBA's longest-tenured owner, who has a long and ugly history of racist and sexist speech and conduct. From housing and employment racial discrimination cases, to sex scandals and sexual harassment litigation, Sterling's repugnant behavior and offensive comments have been well-documented. Accordingly, this week's audio recordings of Sterling's racist rants came as no surprise to Clippers fans, but rather served as the "smoking gun" after years of allegations.
The fact that this controversy erupted during the most promising postseason in franchise history only adds to the popular perception that the Clippers are a cursed team. For Clippers fans, this year has been the one we have been waiting for our whole lives. It has been a great joy to watch Coach Doc Rivers bring "Ubuntu" to Los Angeles and transform a group of talented individuals into a cohesive and competitive team. "Point god" Chris Paul remains the best team player and leader in the NBA, both on and off the court. Blake Griffin shattered the myth that he is just a dunker and emerged as a legitimate MVP candidate and franchise superstar. And DeAndre Jordan grew by leaps and bounds this year, passionately embracing his role as an elite defender and rebounder. This year, for the first time in franchise history, the Clippers are championship contenders. And suddenly a dark cloud now hangs over the immediate and future prospects of the franchise.
For years, Clippers fans have wrestled with the ethical dilemma of financially supporting a franchise that enriches, emboldens and empowers Donald Sterling. When fans purchase tickets or merchandise, are they tacitly endorsing Sterling? And in the wake of audio recordings, do fans have a moral responsibility to boycott the remaining home playoff games so as not to financially reward Sterling? Or should fans attend the games and turn their Clippers gear inside out as a way of protesting Sterling while supporting the players? At the heart of this philosophical quandary lies the question -- who does the team belong to? Legally and literally, Sterling is the owner of the franchise. But spiritually and allegorically, the team belongs to the multiethnic fan base that has loyally supported the team through too many dark days and too few bright ones.
What has become clear is that Donald Sterling is no longer just a Clippers problem; rather, he has become an embarrassment and a liability for the entire league. While Sterling will likely get suspended and fined, that is simply not enough -- he needs to be removed from the league altogether. It remains to be seen if the league and the other franchise owners can legally force Sterling to sell the team, but there should at least be an attempt to do so, even if it means that the NBA temporarily takes control of the franchise as it recently did with the New Orleans Hornets. Having turned a blind eye to Sterling's racial animus for years, the league and the other owners now run the real risk of appearing complicit with his repugnant views if they do not expel him from the NBA.
Like religion, sports embody society's highest and most noble aspirations and achievements while also reflecting the most reprehensible dimensions of human behavior. The sordid Sterling saga is a reminder that the dark side of sports is not just relegated to the forgotten pages of history; it plays out daily on the front pages of newspapers and through the lead stories on cable sports channels. But even as sports continue to be a location for racism, sexual abuse, corruption, violence and homophobia, sports are also a boutique industry of redemptive stories produced and promoted each week on television shows such as HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, Showtime's 60 Minutes Sports, and ESPN's 30 for 30. So like religion, sports also have the power to help reconcile and heal the very divisions and damage they create. Here's hoping that the NBA finally relieves the enduring spiritual burden of Clippers fandom by ending the Sterling era once and for all.