OAKLAND, Calif. — Sometime between 2005 and 2008, then-Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling would, on multiple occasions, bring women into the team’s locker room while the players — mostly black, save for a Chris Kaman or Vladimir Radmanovic here and there — were showering.
“Look at those beautiful black bodies,” he’d boast to the women.
If Sterling wasn’t subtle enough with his Psycho routine, he also told then-Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor, according to 2011 legal filings, that he preferred the team have a “Southern Plantation-type structure” where “poor black boys from the South” played for a white coach. (It seems relevant here to point out that Sterling once paid $2.73 million to the Justice Department for refusing to rent apartments to blacks, Hispanics and families with children.)
Sterling was never punished by the NBA for any of those actions. Outside of the $2.5 million Sterling was fined in 2014 when he was forced to sell the Clippers for an unrelated racist incident, the only time he was ever fined was in 1982, when he said he wanted the Clippers to have the worst record in the league so they could get the No. 1 draft pick. That cost him $10,000.
But while Sterling may have viewed himself as the owner (or procurer) of the Clippers players solely due to his title as “owner” of the Clippers, he never derived that power from shouting from the bowels of Staples Center to the tip of the San Bernardino Mountains that those “beautiful black bodies” belong to him. His power came from what can best be called the owner mentality in sports.
That difference — between “owner” and “owner mentality” — is at the heart of a recent TMZ report that at least two NBA clubs, the Philadelphia 76ers and Clippers, are doing away with the term “owner” to titles with fewer racial connotations. It was further exacerbated in the fourth quarter of Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Wednesday, when Golden State Warriors minority owner Mark Stevens shoved Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry after Lowry chased a loose ball into a row of courtside seats.
The actions of the Clippers and 76ers come on the heels of comments Warriors forward Draymond Green has made over the past few years. In 2017, Green said the term “owner” should be changed to titles such as chairman or chairwoman, because “to be owned by someone just sets a bad precedent to start. It sets the wrong tone.” A year later, he added that the term “owner” shouldn’t be blindly accepted due solely to precedent. “Just because someone was taught that 100 years ago doesn’t make that the right thing today,” he said on LeBron James’ HBO show, The Shop. “And so, when you look at the word ‘owner,’ it really dates back to slavery. The word ‘owner,’ ‘master’— it dates back to slavery … we just took the words and we continued to put it to use.”
While the 76ers’ and Clippers’ steps to move away from the symbolism of slavery are amicable, they don’t get at the root of the issue. The NBA doesn’t have an owner problem, it has an owner mentality problem, which isn’t just limited to the 30 proverbial heads of state of each franchise. Some fans, executives, coaches and player agents view the players and their bodies as property of NBA Inc., there to be plundered, prodded and powerless.
When asked if an owner mentality in the league was what led to the courtside confrontation Wednesday night, Lowry said the following: “Yeah, not everyone, not all of them. But certain ones, yes. And I can say for sure that guy makes me feel like that. Mark Stevens, whoever his name is, makes me feel like he’s one of those guys.”
The NBA fancies itself as the most progressive sports league in North America, yet its treatment of its black players, from the archaic draft process to suppressing rules and fines, flies in the face of that entire argument. With the advent of catchy concepts such as “Moreyball” and “The Process,” players, 70 percent of whom are black, became less human beings and more assets, stripped of all agency and power.
This mentality starts with the NBA draft, where prospects are essentially auctioned off to the highest bidder, or in this case, the lowest. It’s no surprise Sterling wanted the No. 1 pick so badly. Players are forced to live and play in cities even if they don’t want to. And when teams are done with them, they can be shipped off at a moment’s notice. When these same players dare to decide to play where they want, they are branded disloyal, ungrateful even. Comic sans, anyone?
The league’s fight against tampering, on its face, is about parity for all 30 teams. But what it’s really about is property ownership. An NBA contract ties a player to a team, thus making the player the property of the owner, who is threatened when an opposing player attempts to recruit a player on the team. And when the owners couldn’t keep their players from leaving, via free agency at least, they created an incentive to bribe players into staying, figuring young black men couldn’t turn down the extra tens of millions of dollars. But even these so-called “supermax” contracts haven’t completely worked.
What’s at the center of owner mentality, though, is controlling player power. Outside of a few outliers (see: Robertson, Oscar), NBA players have mostly operated at the whim of owners since the beginning of professional basketball. But along came James in 2010, deciding where he wanted to play and with whom he wanted to play with. Since “The Decision,” the NBA has appeared to have devolved into a fight over who is at the helm of the league’s ship: players or owners.
Countless basketball people have complained about the amount of power NBA players now have. Phil Jackson’s “posse” comment in 2016 overshadows his overall critique of James’ supposed power within the Miami Heat organization. It was anonymous executives who complained about James’ supposed tampering with Anthony Davis this season. Davis, it’s been said, shouldn’t be in the position to demand a trade from the New Orleans Pelicans. NBA owners may not fear the inmates running the prison, as some of their NFL counterparts apparently do, but they still want the prisoners.
The owners, unsurprisingly, disagree with that characterization. Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, once said that the NBA was more progressive than the NFL. Yet still, Cuban’s ears were the first to perk up after Green’s comments, telling ESPN that Green “owes the NBA an apology” because NBA owners take care of their employees and their families. The players are well-fed, you see. (Andre Iguodala, Green’s teammate, responded to Cuban: “He’s not able to understand what it’s like to be an African American and certain terms being thrown around and how we feel about them.”)
But there’s an antidote for this owner mentality. Players deserve more freedom of movement, and not just on the court: more no-trade clauses, fewer drafts. Tampering fines should be abolished; if a player decides to leave solely because he was compared to Michael Jordan, he was never staying. Both the Warriors and the NBA took steps toward balancing the player-owner scale by banishing Stevens, a minority investor since 2013, for the rest of the Finals and for the entire 2019-20 season, respectively. (The NBA also fined Stevens $500,000.)
But if semantics is a starting point, that is adequate for players like Lowry.
“We call it the Board of Governors,” he said of the term “owner” during media availability. “But people in the world would call it the ownership. It should be changed.”