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Mark Heisler ON THE NBA

A Sterling Record Is Unbroken

March 09, 2003|Mark Heisler

Donald T. Sterling

Sterling World Plaza

Beverly Hills, CA

Dear Donald,

I know how busy you are and how much you depend on your basketball people, but in case they don't know how to break the bad news, it's all happening again.

The bad old days are back. This should have been the best season you had ever had. Instead, the clock struck 12 and you turned back into ... you.

I know there's a pattern here that still eludes you, but an idiot in a coma could have predicted this debacle (as I did), which proceeded as foretold, by the numbers.

First, you don't re-sign anyone (although you had such a cash glut from last season's $10 million-plus profit, you were going around pre-paying all sorts of expenses.) Check.

This destroys morale. Check.

You have a lousy season. Check.

Your players look so bad, while padding their stats and turning on each other, you can say you were right not to sign them. Check.

Someone takes the fall. Check.

Then you start all over. Your people are again saying you'll sign your free agents, except for Michael Olowokandi, the ingrate, even if he's a 7-foot ingrate. As far as perpetuating this long-running farce, I'd rate that a big, fat check too.

In case you missed it, your general manager, Elgin Baylor, whom I know you can remember if you think long enough, just threw your coach, Alvin Gentry, over the side.

G-E-N-T-R-Y? The nice young man Larry Brown recommended, which is probably why he was hired and also why Baylor never seemed to think much of him?

Right! The one who took you from 15 wins to 39 in two seasons but still got stuck with the bill in the third, after you decided to defer all contract decisions and see what happened.

What happened was that the players, who'd had such great chemistry, turned up DOA.

Gentry's situation was so hopeless, I had hoped Baylor (your GM) would fire the coach two months ago, after Elgin went downstairs to show Alvin's players how to defend the pick-and-roll (basketball play), which signaled the end of the Gentry Era.

I know, thinking about this stuff gives you a headache, which is why you rarely do.

In a deposition for your suit against Bill Fitch, you actually testified that you didn't recognize the name of one of your coaches, Bob Weiss. Crack lawyer that you are, you know better than to fudge the truth under oath, although I'm sure you'd remember Weiss, at least if you saw a picture of him.

Of course, who can keep all your ex-coaches straight?

Weiss was here one season, 1993-94, between Brown and Fitch, and after you canned him, there was some unpleasantness about paying off his contract.

I know you remember Fitch. There was a lot of unpleasantness about paying off his contract. You gave him a two-year, $4-million extension, fired him a year later before it kicked in, then sued him for failing to look for another job, at 64.

Hey, I remember when you kept a trainer here against his wishes because he was under contract. That was Keith Jones, now in Houston, and not one of your bigger Clipper fans.

The amazing thing is, after all those awful times came this two-season interlude, with these remarkable young players.

I was talking to one of your old assistant coaches, John Hammond, now the Detroit personnel director, who was here the first season with Gentry. No, really. H-A-M-M-O-N-D.

That was 2000-01, when you started 13-33 but finished 18-18, with enough dunks by Lamar Odom, Darius Miles, Quentin Richardson and Corey Maggette to send the fans howling into the off-season.

After the last game here, a 100-80 jamfest over the Suns, Hammond and the coaches filed back to their office until someone ran up and told them to come back out, they had to see this.

Up on the press table were Odom and Miles, bare-chested, waving their jerseys over their heads, while thousands of fans stood and cheered. Clipperdom never knew a moment like it.

A season later, after Baylor (your GM) acquired Elton Brand (the stocky guy who tries so hard), you stayed in the tough West playoff race until April and sold out your last 18 games. Every last person who works for you thought, or hoped, the same thing: He must get it now.

A child could have made it work. You could have signed Olowokandi and Brand, neither of whom had asked for max deals, the other players would have fallen in line and you would have actually had a season.

And you could have done it for less than you're paying now.

Andy Roeser (your team president) challenges people to show how it could have been done. Here's how:

Olowokandi starts at $9 million, a $2.9-million raise over his current $6.1 million. Brand gets $4.9 million (his $12-million-per-season extension doesn't kick in until next season).

You trade No. 1 picks Chris Wilcox and Melvin Ely, whom you don't need, for future No. 1s, saving $3.4 million. You don't need Wang Zhi Zhi, saving $1.9 million.

Total payroll: $39.8 million vs. $42.2 million now.

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