Assuming one can still call an owner of a professional basketball team an “owner,” this piece is about two of them. Both owners are white and bigoted, but only one was white, bigoted and incredibly stupid.
The first was named Ted Stepien. In 1980, this advertising magnate purchased the abysmal NBA Cleveland Cavaliers. Stepien thought he had a formula for success. White fans, he insisted, preferred to watch white players. The Cavaliers’ stadium, at the time, was located between Cleveland and Akron, Ohio, in a predominantly white demographical area.
Stepien felt fans would come if the players looked like them. In 1981, he told Sport Magazine: “I feel that whites should have a position in the athletic world. Sometimes they’ve given it up. … Professional sports in general would gain greater respect if whites competed more with Blacks in athletics, as much as Blacks want to compete more in the business world.”
Stepien stacked the team with white players for the white fans. In 1980, he told a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sports writer: “No team should be all white and no team should be all Black, either. That’s what bothers me about the NBA: You’ve got a situation here where Blacks represent little more than 5% of the market, yet most teams are at least 75% Black and the New York Knicks are 100% Black. Teams with that kind of makeup can’t possibly draw from a suitable cross-section of fans.”
Stepien made a series of bad player trades that hurt the team’s competitiveness for years. How bad were his deals? A rival general manager said: “They overestimated the talent of the people they brought in. … They’ll be impressive walking through airports, but they won’t play well. … The vultures were circling. Every club in the league was saying — I was saying — ‘What can we cook up with them?'”
The team played even worse than before. The team also drew even fewer fans. White fans, Stepien learned, did not enjoy watching white players lose any more than they enjoyed watching Black players lose. Turns out, it was the “lose” part that fans, irrespective of their own race or the race of the players, objected to. Embarrassed, the league pressured him to sell and eventually instituted the “Stepien rule,” forbidding any team from trading its first-round pick in consecutive years.
This brings us to the second bigoted owner, Donald Sterling, who owned the NBA Los Angeles Clippers. For a long time, Sterling was content to lose games with a skinny payroll as long as he made a profit. A 2014 article on Grantland, an ESPN-owned website, said: “Since 1981, when he bought the team, Sterling’s Clippers have compiled not merely the worst winning percentage in the NBA, but the worst winning percentage in all four major American sports, and that includes several teams that didn’t even exist when Sterling first graced the Association with his presence.”
A secretly taped 2013 conversation between Sterling and his then-girlfriend was publicly released. The most eye-raising parts have to do with Sterling, then 79 years old, telling his less-than-half-his-age girlfriend that he does not want her attending games with Black people, particularly with former Los Angeles Laker great Magic Johnson.
She can “sleep with them,” he said, just “don’t bring them to my games.” As for Johnson, said Sterling, she can “admire him, bring him here, feed him, f—k him … but don’t put him on an Instagram for the whole world to have to see. … And don’t bring him to my games.” Eventually, the league forced Sterling to sell his team.
But in the years right before he lost his team, Sterling decided he wanted to win. Despite his bigotry, nearly all of Sterling’s players were Black. His player payroll was among the highest in the league. In 2013, he gave an experienced championship-winning Black coach, Doc Rivers, a three-year, $21 million contract.
Booker T. Washington, an ex-slave, wrote an autobiography called “Up From Slavery.”
He said: “When a Negro girl learns to cook, to wash dishes, to sew, or write a book, or a Negro boy learns to groom horses, or to grow sweet potatoes, or to produce butter, or to build a house, or to be able to practise medicine, as well or better than some one else, they will be rewarded regardless of race or colour. In the long run, the world is going to have the best, and any difference in race, religion, or previous history will not long keep the world from what it wants. … No man who continues to add something to the material, intellectual, and moral well-being of the place in which he lives is long left without proper reward. This is a great human law which cannot be permanently nullified.”
Why would the bigoted Sterling sign a Black coach and assemble a highly paid roster of mostly Black players? He was bigoted, but not completely stupid. He wanted to win.