In the Eerie silence of the empty foyer of Sterling Plaza, you can almost hear the grunts of the Hollywood tycoons who made and broke stars as casually as they lit and crushed out their cigars. MGM cofounder Louis B. Mayer built this Art Deco landmark in Beverly Hills 70 years ago, when the silents were turning to talkies.
The seven-story edifice, which boasts bronze-plated elevators, marble-lined corridors and formal parlors, could have been created by the set designer of Top Hat.
For more than a decade, the most opulent office space in 90210 has remained virtually unoccupied. The building's sole tenant is its landlord, Donald Sterling, whose billion-dollar real estate empire occupies the sixth and seventh floors. "Some people think I'm eccentric for keeping Sterling Plaza to myself," Sterling says. "I like riding up and down the elevators alone. It's a luxury I've earned."
With its sleek, gold-trimmed exterior and mostly vacant interior, Sterling Plaza neatly parallels another of Sterling's trophy properties: the Los Angeles Clippers. During his 18 years as owner—the first three in San Diego and the last 15 in glimmering L.A.—the franchise has been little more than a punch line for Sunset Strip comics. Under Sterling the Paper Clips have had exactly one winning season and have lost more than twice as many games as they have won. In the 1997-98 and '98-99 seasons the perennial cellar dwellers won a combined 26 games, and this season, despite a snazzy new arena (the Staples Center) and a snazzy new rookie ( forward Lamar Odom), they haven't done much better (14-62 at week's end). So hapless is Sterling's team that after it beat the Toronto Raptors in an October exhibition game, Raptors forward Antonio Davis called a team meeting. "When you lose to the Clippers," he explained later, "it's time to stand up and say something."
Sterling, a spectacularly successful real estate baron who owns the Malibu Yacht Club, the Beverly Comstock Hotel and nearly half the apartments in Beverly Hills, speaks plaintively of his spectacularly unsuccessful team. "How do I handle losing year after year?" he says. "How do I cope with the ridicule? Let me ask you something: How would you cope with the ridicule?" Sterling has a way of lobbing people's questions back at them. He seems to do it not so much because he wants to elude hard questions but because he wants to know other people's answers.
"How do I cope?" he repeats. "It's very hard. I've suffered. Oh, how I've suffered. Do you know what it is to truly suffer?"
"Yes, I suppose I do," says the 63-year-old Sterling. "The pain, the torment, the absolute torture! How do the owners of the Chicago Cubs get through it? How does anyone get through a difficult experience? I'll tell you how. You just keep going, keep fighting, keep living. Life goes on, and you hope it will improve."
It's fitting that Sterling set up shop in the House That Mayer Built. He seems benign and avuncular, but he has the furtive, feral charm of an old-time movie mogul. "I try to be warm and ingratiating with people and make them feel important," he says. "I never met anyone I didn't like. I'm very open, very honest, very caring."
Of course, the moguls of yesteryear were neither open nor caring. They were difficult, and Sterling has a similar reputation. Few Sterling hirelings utter a word—much less a discouraging one—about their boss. Chris Ford, who coached the Clippers from 1998 until he was fired in February, declines to comment on Sterling. Jim Todd, the man who replaced Ford, says only, " Elgin [Baylor] and Mr. Sterling have always been very supportive of me." Baylor, the Clippers' general manager, who has known Sterling for 15 years, limits his remarks to a terse, "He's always treated me great." Even Bill Walton, the team's outspoken TV color man, is mute on the subject of Sterling. About the only Sterling employee willing to go public is Lynn Lewis. "As an employer, he's tremendously loyal, magnanimous and compassionate," says Lewis, a Sterling assistant since 1994. "He's always ready to talk to you, to hear you out, to stand behind you. He treats everyone like family." Lewis ought to know. She is Sterling's kid sister.