It was bizarre, memorable and sickly compelling: Donald Sterling, the beleaguered owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, viciously attacked Magic Johnson in an interview where he repeatedly insisted that he is not a racist.
Director Spike Lee characterized Sterling’s interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, which aired Monday night, as “delusional.” No matter what adjective one applies, the diatribe did nothing but intensify the uproar that erupted on April 25, when TMZ Sports released a recording of a conversation between the 80-year-old team owner and his friend, V. Stiviano, in which he disparaged African-Americans and made one racist remark after another.
Four days later, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling for life and fined him $2.5 million. It seemed like things might settle down a bit after that. But not anymore.
Here’s an account of the interview from The Associated Press:
LOS ANGELES — An interview that was supposed to be an attempt at rehabilitation instead had Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling facing fresh rebukes as he went from apologizing for recent racist remarks to slamming Magic Johnson, repeatedly bringing up the ex-NBA star’s HIV status and calling him an unfit role model for children.
“He’s got AIDS!” Sterling said loudly at one point in the interview, cutting off CNN’s Anderson Cooper as the interviewer attempted to cite Johnson’s accomplishments after Sterling asked, “What has he done, big Magic Johnson, what has he done?”
The comments earned Sterling quick condemnation from the league that was already trying to rid itself of the owner.
Commissioner Adam Silver, who gave Sterling a lifetime ban and $2.5 million fine two weeks ago, issued a statement saying, “while Magic Johnson doesn’t need me to, I feel compelled on behalf of the NBA family to apologize to him that he continues to be dragged into this situation and be degraded by such a malicious and personal attack.”
“The NBA Board of Governors is continuing with its process to remove Mr. Sterling as expeditiously as possible,” the commissioner added.
Sterling’s estranged wife, Shelley Sterling, watched her husband’s interview and told NBC’s “Today” show that he may be losing his mental faculties.
“He’s not the man I know, or I knew,” she said. “There’s something wrong. I really think, personally, he has dementia.
“I don’t think it happened overnight. I think it’s been happening, but nobody really knew the reason. I mean, he gets crazy, and yells, and screams, and hollers one moment. The next moment he’ll … talk about something else. I mean it’s like nothing makes sense.”
Johnson, who is scheduled to appear on Cooper’s show to reply on Tuesday, wrote on his Twitter account that “I’d rather be talking about these great NBA Playoffs than Donald Sterling’s interview.”
Johnson later Tweeted, “After this week, no more Sterling talk.”
Sterling changed course briefly during the interview to call Johnson “a good person,” but soon resumed his criticism.
“He acts so holy,” Sterling said. “He made love to every girl in every city in America, and he had AIDS, and when he had those AIDS, I went to my synagogue and I prayed for him, I hope he could live and be well. I didn’t criticize him. I could have. Is he an example for children?”
Cooper corrected Sterling, explaining that Johnson was HIV-positive but did not have “full-blown AIDS.”
Sterling briefly adjusted his language but not his tone.
“What kind of a guy goes to every city, has sex with every girl, then he catches HIV. Is that someone we want to respect, and tell our kids about?” Sterling said. “I think he should be ashamed of himself.”
More on the Sterling interview:
Sports lawyer Michael McCann wrote a column on Sports Illustrated’s website about the potential legal fallout from the interview. McCann said it was stunning that Sterling’s handlers would have approved it:
Cooper surprisingly revealed that Sterling was without legal counsel and public relations advisers for the interview. While “Sterling unscripted” may have been the real deal, genuineness was probably the wrong approach for someone with Sterling’s cantankerous style and cringeworthy worldview. Indeed, Sterling used the interview as much to apologize as to savagely attack Johnson and offer archaic and ignorant generalizations about race. He also referred to the 31-year-old Stiviano as a “girl” rather than a woman. This was not a man who seemed “coached” by his handlers at all. Unfortunately for Sterling, he likely scored no points with the scorers: the other 29 controlling owners of NBA teams.
In a Washington Post column, Alyssa Rosenberg wrote about the enormous impact of Johnson’s relevation in 1991 that he was HIV-positive and of how he provided a radically different image of what it meant to live with the virus — a true role model instead of an embarrassment, as Sterling described him:
That is an ugly, retrograde sentiment that shames people who contracted the virus because of their sexual history. And Sterling also profoundly misunderstands the ways in which Johnson’s HIV diagnosis actually led him to make enormous contributions. Johnson has not just been a role model to the “children of Los Angeles” Sterling said should be his focus, but also an ambassador who changed America’s understanding of his disease.
USA Today said the interview effectively killed any shred of sympathy that other NBA owners might have felt for Sterling, and it reminded people of exactly why he has to go:
Already a pariah for his vile and racist comments, it didn’t seem possible that the Los Angeles Clippers owner could further damage his own image and, by association, that of the NBA. Yet that’s exactly what he did in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper that aired Monday night, throwing gasoline on a fire the NBA had only just begun to get under control.
Despite his repeated insistence that he’s not a racist, everything else Sterling said showed him to be an ignorant and hate-filled person. He trashed Magic Johnson, claiming – wrongly – that the Lakers Hall of Famer has done nothing for the black community.
And The Wire noted that Sterling’s latest performance — in which he apologized for saying horrible things by saying even more horrible things — has inspired a new segment from Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show,” which is called “Wow, Did Not See That Coming.”
Stewart said the interview with Sterling served another purpose as well: It has reminded everyone what the Cowardly Lion looks like without makeup.