Sterling’s race case a movie of our age
An unwritten American novel is playing out in Los Angeles. It’s about rich, whiny racist Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. And it’s about his cooing kitty-cat of a girlfriend, who infuriated him by bringing black people to his games.
It will make an even better American movie, with an inside look at the obscene money of the NBA, a league of mostly white owners, little round guys, making a profit by selling the exploits of a league of mostly black men, tall guys who can bounce a ball and jump higher than anybody.
A movie that shows NBA owners and the NAACP ignoring Sterling’s history for years. That willful ignorance tells us more about our nation than those stilted “conversations on race” that we have from time to time. It also tells us more than those ridiculous recordings of Sterling and the girlfriend that have fed the 24-hour news cycle for days.
If you’re following the saga, you know that after the recordings became public over the weekend, the NBA hit Sterling on Tuesday with a lifetime ban and fined him $2.5 million.
But even if you haven’t clicked on a story or watched TV or listened to the radio, if you’re an American, you know the back story. It’s race in America. And it’s showtime.
Those of us a certain age can’t help but carry the baggage of race. White, black, brown, we’ve all been scarred by it, by the denials and the rage and the sadness of it. We know this ugly liturgy in all of its acts.
There is the reveal, the public outrage and what Kareem Abdul-Jabbar called “the newest popular sport of Extreme Finger Wagging.” Then comes public sanction and phony reconciliation and the bright new day.
And some excitable TV talking head will say, as one chattered Tuesday after NBA commissioner Adam Silver pronounced sentence, that it means a new day in America.
A new day in America? Why? Because some chicken-fat geezer was led to the public relations gallows by a tawdry girlfriend who kept whispering, “I love you, honey”? No. That doesn’t make it a new day.
Because to believe it’s a new day means you’re willing to ignore years of old days that led to this: That the NBA knew this man, knew his racism, heard about it, read about it, lawsuits full of it, for years.
And that the NAACP knew him, too, and what he said about minorities, though it didn’t stop the NAACP Los Angeles chapter from deciding to give him a second lifetime achievement award, magically announced just before this scandal broke.
What, exactly, compelled the NAACP to give him another award? For the chump change the white guy dropped on the black group? For a few tickets? For access to players?
“I thought to myself, ‘A second lifetime award?'” Alice Huffman, president of the California branch of the NAACP, told ESPN. “‘That’s kind of unusual. He hasn’t died and come back to life. He already has one lifetime award. Why the second one?’ And then this story broke.”
So it’s not a new day in America. It’s just another day. That doesn’t mean Hollywood shouldn’t make the movie and make it fast. The main characters have a thing for reinventing themselves.
Sterling was born Donald Tokowitz in Chicago in 1934, moved to California, got rich and changed his name as an adult. The girlfriend was born Maria Vanessa Perez in Los Angeles in 1982, and changed her name in 2010 to V. Stiviano.
They’re types, both of them, as are race hustlers like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson who ran to the microphones as soon as they could.
But a couple generations from now, America might not even recognize some of these characters. They might be seen as living in some odd period piece, the way we look at actors walking in a Gilded Age New York with gas-lit streets and fine carriage horses. Or perhaps future generations will see them the way we see people of Krypton living in that glass bottle of Superman’s, a culture trapped, isolated, almost toy-like.
So the time for the movie is now, because we know them now, as we know ourselves.
The lead character of course, is Sterling. And that crazy girlfriend, a praying mantis in heels and bling, the she-witch cooing “I love you honey” on tape as she leads him into national disgrace.
The fool was obviously jealous of Magic Johnson, unnerved that his kitty-cat posted a photo of herself with the aging NBA star, causing his friends to call him and embarrass his pride.
“It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people,” he said in the now-famous recording. “Do you have to? … You can sleep with them. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that … and not to bring them to my games.”
He whines throughout, and sighs and whines some more. He used the NAACP and they used him, and he used that slinky girl for as long as he could.
There is no fool like an old fool, especially one that is both jealous and pathetic, a user being used. And now he’s all used up, except at a theater near you.
(John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune who also hosts a radio show on WLS-AM. His e-mail address is: [email protected], and his Twitter handle is @john_kass.)