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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.

The Clippers? Who are the franchise that players used to run away from because of Donald Sterling, are now getting two of the top players in the NBA this summer? It landed and it hit at kind of a perfect time.

You were able to get so many people to participate, but how much push-back did you get from the organization? Obviously, they’d like to put this behind them. What was that process like?

Oh yeah. They did. If you notice, the only person from the current Clippers who participated was Doc Rivers, and that was really more just something he decided on his own to do, and they didn’t stop him because he was such a pivotal person. And I think he had a lot to say, and he deserves the platform to say it. So he wanted to do it. They allowed him to do it, but the rest of the Clippers were like “We don’t want to have anything to do with it because we don’t really want to encourage this,” because they’ve just done everything they possibly can to move on from the Donald Sterling era, and if anything, scrub the walls, right?

They still practice at that facility. I don’t know if everybody knows this. The facility that they practice at is really nice. It’s over there in Playa Vista. But the Sterlings still own it. It was a brand new building that they developed there and built there, and I think they really like it. It’s one of their shining examples of Donald doing something right finally, towards the end of his tenure as owner. But when Shelly Sterling sold the team, Steve Ballmer was in such a position where he was just going to do whatever it took to buy the team. He didn’t get the practice facility. So they’re still there. This summer, when they wanted to upgrade it, I think Steve Ballmer paid for it, but that’s Sterling property. They still have to deal with them. They still have to negotiate with them.

There’s a lot of talk about the “plantation mentality” among owners in the past, and Adam Silver has made it a point to start calling the owners “governors” instead. Ballmer refers to himself “chairman.” What do you see as the lasting legacy of all this for the league?

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Well, I think it was the players that really felt empowered and listened to and heard by the NBA, specifically Adam Silver, when he acted as decisively as he did. I don’t know if people can understand the pressure that was on Adam from the owners. This was a really dangerous thing for other owners. What’s the line? A guy’s caught on tape saying terrible things to his mistress, in a way that he probably never thought would ever be public.

And so, I think a lot of owners realized they live in glass houses too. They have some things that they would not want ever to come out in the way that this came out. And, easier to suspend him and have the board of governors vote, but I don’t think anybody wanted to get into protracted litigation with Donald Sterling. As bad as what he said was, as bad as what he did was, they also knew that he was going to take everybody to court, and well, he did. He sues everybody. Billion dollar lawsuit against the league, he names out Silver in the lawsuit. You knew who you were taking on here. This was one of the most litigious people, and he’d ruled Los Angeles and his empire through litigation for decades. So, I don’t think a lot of owners really wanted to take that on, and that’s part of the explanation for why his power went unchecked for so long, is that people just didn’t have the stomach for it. They didn’t have the stomach for litigation where they were probably going to lose.

This pretty broad set of circumstances have to come together for Adam Silver to be able to ban him for life. It has to be the tape, it has to have come out the way it did, it has to be threat of advertisers pulling out, of players boycotting. He sort of operated by executive order in making the decision he did. I’m sure a lot of the owners now will say they’re really glad that Adam did what he did, but there was probably more people than you would realize who thought he went too far.

There are a lot of corollaries to Trump, and Sterling very much wanted to position himself as sort of a West Coast version of him. In that context, do you see this project as sort of a further indictment of the kind of racism and privilege that is so often endemic to a generation of ultra-wealthy old white men?

Yeah, I mean, Donald’s a really fascinating character, because he has this rags to riches story. He’s a Jewish guy from East L.A. whose parents are immigrants. And instead of telling the rags to riches story, he sort of runs from it, and he runs from his past and his identity, changes his name. He denies ever having come from there. When the profile is written of him where they reveal that his real last name was “Tokowitz,” he got mad at his publicist. Like, “Why did you allow that to happen? I don’t want anyone to know that that was my name.”

It’s ironic. It’s sad. It’s fascinating that he has such a shame and denial about that past, but it also informs what he does in the future. For whatever reason that he’s so ashamed of his past, he sort of takes it out on people who are just like him later in his career, right? V. Stiviano, in a lot of ways, is just like him. She comes from a very troubled past as well. She was from San Antonio, and then her family goes out to East LA. They actually go to the same high school, Roosevelt High School, that Donald and Shelly went to in East L.A. 50 years earlier. It’s an unbelievable parallel. And she’s just kind of a young woman who’s desperate for a different life, and she’s willing to go to great lengths to get that, whether it’s reality TV or dating this awful guy who’s 50 years older than her.

You look at the world that he created for himself, this power that he had over the city of Los Angeles, over his players, over their franchise, over women. The way he abused that power, the way he, instead of trying to uplift people who came from similar backgrounds to him, he raises their rents and they have to move. It’s just unbelievable, the irony in his actions, based on his back story. And that, to me, is a real central character question that I don’t even know if we answered in the podcast, to be honest. I think only Donald himself can answer and he probably is not introspective enough to answer it.

But I think that when you look at the way that people, that men, really, specifically, who have been in power the last 30, 40 years of our country’s history, especially in Los Angeles and New York, or wherever you want to say wealth and power are concentrated, you find a lot of men who get so divorced from reality, who get so deluded in their understanding of their own power, their own influence and how to use it, that we now have seen the last five, six years, incredible tales of their comeuppance. Of the people who they had abused their power with, and getting their comeuppance.

V Stiv, you don’t want to paint her the heroine. I mean, she’s the only one who calls Donald Sterling out on his racism. Listen to the tapes. She’s like “Donald, I’m black. You can’t say, why are you saying that about black people?” She’s the one who’s saying “Hey, you’re deluded. What are you saying here?”

I think one of the big questions that the podcast asks us to consider is whether Sterling actually got off easy in the end. How have your feelings evolved on that, looking back on it now?

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Well, it’s really hard to reckon with how he was able to treat his players the way he did for so many years. One incident in a locker room, where you bring your friends in to ogle your naked players when they come out of the showers should have been enough, right? That should have been enough to say “That is completely inappropriate and cannot be allowed.”

I think players would have spoken out about that. I think there would’ve been a personal conduct hearing, or the players’ union would have done something about it. It would have definitely been public. Marc Spears wrote a story at the time when he was heckling Baron Davis, and that was awful, but nothing happened to him. When you get away with behavior like that for so long, you lose touch with how wrong it is. No one’s telling you the truth.

I remember one person who worked for the Clippers at the time when it was all happening. I said “What the hell? How did this happen? How did you guys let this go on for so long?” And he goes “Look, when you’re an owner, sometimes the only people who can hold you accountable are the other owners.” And they were either worried and didn’t have stomach for that fight, worried about the slippery slope, worried about what’s in their closet as well.

I think we’ve seen a lot of them over the last five or six years, and they all have similar routes, which is a rich and powerful man abusing his power, it’s gone unchecked for long because people he was abusing that power with didn’t feel like they had a voice or an opportunity or an ability to fight back. And whether it’s through the modern media, modern technology, just a different climate in our country and our world today. We have created a way for people to stand up to it. I think that’s one of the big lessons of this story. Back to your question, did he not get enough? I don’t know. I mean, he got $2 billion, but there’s this great quote from Blake Griffin, which is “some people are so poor, all they have is their money.”

Without the Clippers, he’s just another rich guy in L.A. He doesn’t have the platform, he doesn’t have influence. He’s not a public figure anymore. People still see him around Beverly Hills with much younger women, cavorting around. It’s really gross. People send me screenshots of him out with this latest side piece, whoever he’s with, at fancy restaurants. And you’re just like, nothing’s changed except for he doesn’t have power over the Clippers anymore.

That leads me to Shelly. We get this complicated, fascinating portrait of her. Without giving too much away, she really starts off as a sympathetic character, but once you peel back the layers, it’s almost Machiavellian in terms how she both enabled him, and then eventually made sure that they’re able to hold onto their $2 billion. How much of that was a surprise to you as you were putting this story together?

Oh, no. None of it was a surprise, that’s why I was interested in the first place. I mean, she was the character that drew me in, because she’s this grandmotherly, sweet old lady. When you meet her, all the players really liked Shelly. They were like “Yeah, she was always really nice to us.” They don’t really know her, and when you first meet her, you feel the same way. She’s very “Oh honey,” you know? She’s real sweet. But I think people underestimate her because of that outward facade, like she’s just the sweet old lady. People felt sorry for her that Donald would parade the mistresses in front of her. I think they didn’t take her seriously as a businesswoman, as a character of the story, as a character in any of this.

And that’s part of the main reason why she becomes such a fascinating protagonist when it comes to how they sell the team. I still don’t know how they got him to consent to those doctors visiting him. Crazy, right?

It definitely seems orchestrated on their part. I mean, who knows how much Donald had to do with that, but the end result is clear.

I mean, one of the things that was clear in real time reporting it was how far ahead of the game Shelly and her lawyers were from Donald.

Absolutely, yes.

Every move that Donald made was two weeks late, and Shelly and her lawyers were quick, they were decisive, they were ruthless in just the way that they would get information out to TMZ or the media or whatever it was. Shelly and her lawyers outmaneuvered Donald at every turn, and by the time he finally got a couple of decent people around him who could do it, Bobby Samini’s a character in the story. Bobby wasn’t even his lawyer for a couple of weeks; he’s already been banned for life by the time Bobby comes around.

Bobby, I thought, did a pretty good job once he came in and tried to mount some kind of defense, but his fight was already over. Donald had already lost; it was already checkmate. He’d already been checkmated after he consented to those two doctors examining him and then declaring him incapacitated. I think that when you look back on the history of people who underestimated Shelly Sterling, and her ability to not only pull that together, but the ruthlessness that it took to do that.

How does V. Stiviano fit into the equation today?

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I mean, I always wondered, V’s really easy to caricature. She’s the mistress with the visors and the roller skates. The famous clip of her with Barbara Walters saying “I was his silly rabbit,” that actually, even though it’s a joke, it actually might be the perfect description of what she really was to him, because I’ve heard her on tape with him. You hear it at the end of episode five, though I’ve heard a lot more tapes of them just having these sort of lovers’ quarrels.

To this day, both V and Donald have always said that it was not a sexual relationship, that it wasn’t the physical. There’s a part of me that kind of believes them. I know it sounds easy, but, yeah.

What about the rest of the tapes? There are hundreds of them. How much of that have you gone through? Is there more story to be told? What’s the next phase?

Oh, I don’t think the story’s done. I don’t think the rest of the tapes provide more of the story, but there’s just a lot more that, when you’re doing a narrative podcast, we know a lot more than we could get into. It’s what ethically, morally, legally you go towards, and also there’s different mediums for this. Without giving away other discussions that we had, I definitely see there’s another play for this, whether it be a movie or a limited series or something like that in the future. But I think that there’s more to this, and it’s been interesting to see the reaction to it, because a lot of people, as soon as they hear the podcast, call you and start telling you stuff.

Even though you call everyone and do a lot of digging, there’s still people who will come out of the woodwork that you didn’t even know to ask, or who now, when they hear this, they go “Oh, I should’ve told you about this.” And I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with people over the years where, everybody will tell you a really uncomfortable, awful Donald Sterling story off the record. But getting them to say it with their name on it and identify it, in a documentary, is much harder. There was a lot of people around the league who have stories about him but just don’t want to get involved. But they tell us.

And so, it informs the way that you portray him as a character, but also, quite frankly, that’s what a documentary is. It’s not just what you know; it’s what you can get people to say on the record. And it’s one of the big challenges of this, but it also makes me feel confident saying that the portrait and what’s in the podcast are really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what people say about his.

The players faced so much scrutiny about their response at the time. Even Marc Spears talked about how disappointed he was that they didn’t go further and boycott the game. My suspicion is [the players] probably don’t regret their decision to play, but what feeling did you get from them now about whether they wish they would’ve done things differently?

I think talk is cheap. I think they had a chance. If they really wanted to boycott, I think they would have boycotted. I think that they liked the idea of the power move. I think now, people, when you talk to them now, like Andre Iguodala says “I think we should have boycotted, I wish we would have.” But everybody had to be united on that, and there wasn’t a united voice saying “We should boycott.” There were a lot of players who felt that way, but actually boycotting, actually walking off the court for a playoff game is a profound statement that would have had consequences that I don’t think anybody could really even imagine.

I thought Blake Griffin said this really well, which is Donald Sterling was a guy that, they didn’t play for him, they never had. They worked so hard to get themselves to this place that they felt like they had to do it; they didn’t want to give up any of that. They didn’t want to risk anything. He was a distraction.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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