Ramona Shelburne On ‘The Sterling Affairs’ And Just How Much Story Is Left To Tell

The Los Angeles Clippers are the hottest team in the NBA. A wild, improbable offseason instantly transformed them into one of the top contenders in the West, and like the Lob City era that preceded them, they’re threatening to seize the mantle as the prestige team in L.A.

Under all that gloss, it’s easy to forget that the organization is just five years removed from a scandal that was pulled straight from the tabloids and had major implications for both the franchise and the league as a whole. In 2014, an audio recording surfaced of then-Clippers owner Donald Sterling making racist comments during a phone conversation with his mistress. Commissioner Adam Silver, in arguably the defining moment of his tenure, acted quickly and decisively and made the unprecedented move to ban him from the NBA for life and force him to sell the team.

That saga is now the subject of the new 30 for 30 podcast, The Sterling Affairs, created and hosted by Ramona Shelburne. Over the course of five episodes, Shelburne weaves a complex and fascinating account of one of the NBA’s watershed moments, which signaled a turning point in how the league deals with improprieties at the highest level. Whether it highlights the major inflection point in the scandal that everyone recalls, or whether it zeroes in on more under-the-radar figures — Shelburne believes then-Players Association president Kevin Johnson and interim Clippers CEO Dick Parsons “didn’t always get the credit they deserve” for the impact they had on providing a sense of stability — no stone is left unturned.

With all the thrill and intrigue of a true crime drama, The Sterling Affairs lends itself perfectly to the podcast form. Shelburne, who has a background in radio, says Serial and Slow Burn were major influences and that the decision to create a podcast was at least partly due to all the logistical obstacles that would’ve slowed the production of a documentary feature.

We spoke with Shelburne last week about how the podcast came together and the many challenges involved in juggling all the different narrative threads, dealing with push-back from the organization, and arranging the disparate pieces into a compelling story. The podcast is available here or via the podcast app on your phone.

What was the impulse behind revisiting this story now?

[It’s been a] two or three year process. So, when we started doing it, it wasn’t anything specific that was happening in the world that made me say “I’ve got to do this right now.” It was more like, I felt in 2014 that it was just bigger than what I was reporting on at the time. It just felt like I was living in a movie or TV show or whatever you wanted to call it. And I think I always knew I was going to do something more with this, whether it was a book or a movie or this 30 for 30. I think I always knew it just needed so much more and everything. I cover the league day to day, so I track where we’ve come and where we’re going.

I think it’s sort of timeless. It just happened to come out right now, after one of the most incredible summers that we’ve all seen in terms of player movement, where two of the top free agents, or not even free agents, two of the top players in the NBA — Paul George, Kawhi Leonard — decide not only do we not want to be where we are, but we want to go to the Clippers.