By Eric Kelsey
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – The National Basketball Association was navigating uncharted and possibly treacherous waters, first when it banned Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life for racist remarks and then when it demanded the team be sold by September.
A court has thrown the league a big life preserver by clearing the way for the 80-year-old real estate billionaire’ s estranged wife to complete the $2 billion sale of the franchise to former Microsoft Corp chief executive Steve Ballmer.
Although the notoriously litigious Donald Sterling has threatened to sue the NBA until the day he dies, legal experts say Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Levanas has done them a favor by getting rid of Sterling without a bruising battle.
“This was, in Mafia parlance, a clean hit,” said Daniel Wallach, a Florida litigator who has represented professional sports franchises and has followed the case.
“The NBA would have faced an uncertain legal terrain after Donald would bring a lawsuit to challenge the league’s decision to strip him of the franchise,” he added.
The NBA and its commissioner Adam Silver still face civil lawsuits in California and U.S. courts from Sterling, who says the league’s actions relied on illegal evidence and violated corporate law in their attempt to have the team sold.
But the likelihood of his clawing back the team practically disappeared with Monday’s ruling in favor of Sterling’s wife, Shelly Sterling.
“His remedy at this point will be limited to money damages,” said Gabe Feldman, the director of Tulane University’s sports law program.
“The NBA’s greatest fear that a judge will be able to block the sale of the team seems to be eliminated by this latest ruling,” Feldman added.
Sterling’s federal lawsuit against the league and Silver asks for at least $1 billion in damages, a figure Sterling said he would increase to $9 billion. The NBA has struck a deal with Shelly Sterling, 79, to indemnify the league from any damages.
“It just seems that the NBA took a really hard-line position on him,” Sterling’s attorney Bobby Samini said following the verdict.
“This is one stage of a long war,” Samini said.
The publication of Sterling’s taped racist comments privately imploring a woman friend not to associate with black people, sparked public outrage and embarrassed the league.
The majority of NBA players are black, and Clippers interim CEO Richard Parsons said in court that sponsors were ready to sever ties, head coach Doc Rivers could quit and players would refuse to play if Sterling was still owner.
Players and Rivers have remained quiet in the wake of the verdict, while fans of the so-called Clipper Nation celebrated on social media the closing of an ugly chapter for the long-time league doormat turned playoff contender.
“In the end, it all worked out very well for the league,” Feldman said. “They got to make a positive statement, they got Donald Sterling out of the league and did it with minimal damage.”
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)