For all his loyalty and magnanimity, Sterling is as eccentric as the next multimillionaire. (When Sterling moved the Clippers to L.A. in 1984, Alan Rothenberg, then the team president, said about his boss, "You're going to call him the Howard Hughes of the NBA.") In the living room of his Greco-American-South mansion in Beverly Hills, Sterling once conducted a get-acquainted meeting with a top draft pick and his agent Bob Guccione—style, wearing nothing but a bathrobe open to his navel. While entertaining friends at restaurants, he sometimes suggests entrees for others to order but doesn't get anything for himself. "The idea," says Michael Selsman, his former publicist, "is to make his guests share with him."
When it comes to pinching pennies, Sterling is an embarrassment of riches. Old NBA hands still talk about how he reportedly tried to cut costs during his first season by asking coach Paul Silas if the players really needed a trainer and if Silas would mind taping them before games. Sterling is also said to have proposed to trim the team budget for his second season by slashing training-camp expenses from more than $50,000 to about $100, scouting from more than $20,000 to about $1,000, advertising from more than $200,000 to less than $9,000 and medical expenses from about $10,000 to $100. (Sterling says he doesn't remember this, but Clippers executive vice president Andy Roeser, who wasn't around at the time, says, "None of these cuts were ever proposed.") Sterling saved money last season by not hiring a new coach until the six-month lockout was over. "Let's put it this way," says Ray Melchiorre, the team trainer from '96 to '99. "Going without a coach didn't make the Clippers any worse."
Sterling played his quintessential cheap trick in San Diego in 1981, just after he bought the team. As a goodwill gesture, he invited prominent lawyers and real estate agents to have lunch, meet the players and enter a foul-shooting contest: Win and take home a $1,000 prize. Among the attendees was lawyer Michael Spilger, captain of San Diego State's 1969-70 basketball team. Spilger made nine of 10, only to be told the offer had been rescinded. The new prize was five days and four nights in Puerto Rico. "There was one catch," says Spilger. "The deal didn't include airfare, transportation or food. I'd have to pay my own way." So Spilger told Sterling he'd take the $1,000. He remembers Sterling countering, "How about double or nothing?"
"No thanks, I'll take the $1,000."
Next, according to Spilger, Sterling asked if he'd settle for two season tickets, and Spilger said, "I already have some." So Sterling promised him that the team's promotions department would work things out. Two weeks later, Spilger got a letter congratulating him for winning the top prize: Three days and two nights in Las Vegas. Unpaid but unbowed, Spilger sued the Clippers for fraud. At the home opener in '82, a team official tracked him down and offered a compromise: a $1,000 donation to his favorite charity. "I'll see you in court," said Spilger. Two days later—and more than a year after he sank his free throws—he got his money.
The Clippers' rebuilding program is in its third decade. They are lottery regulars, and Sterling has held at least two lottery parties at his Beverly Hills estate. The galas were the highlight of the Clippers' season. Sterling has often prepped for his parties by placing newspaper ads for "hostesses" interested in meeting "celebrities and sports stars." Prospective hostesses have been interviewed in the owner's office suite. One former Clippers coach recalls dropping in on Sterling during a cattle call. "The whole floor reeked of perfume," he says. "There were about 50 women all dolled up and waiting outside Donald's office, and another 50 waiting outside the building. The chosen few got to dress scantily, mingle with C-list actors and serve wine in plastic cups."
Sterling has been the one constant through the years, so it's easy to blame the team's failure on him. "The truth is," says Carl Scheer, the team's general manager from 1984 to '86, "there have been a lot of bad decisions by people who've worked for him, including me."
Those decisions have ranged from bad draft picks to bad trades to bad contract negotiations that radiated bad vibes. "Being a Clipper can be real tough," says retired point guard Pooh Richardson, who toughed it out with the Clippers from 1994 to '99. "It's almost a given that you won't win and that the team won't hold on to its best players." Indeed, not one of Sterling's nine lottery picks before 1998 re-signed with the team. Typically, the Clippers draft a promising player, nurture him and then watch him bail as soon as he's a free agent, spreading their lottery legacy throughout the league.
"To have a decent team you need to keep a core of players together and let them grow," says Los Angeles Lakers guard Ron Harper, a survivor of five Clippers campaigns. "Sterling doesn't do that. He's not a builder, he's a meddler."
Actually, Sterling doesn't so much meddle as delay. He hedges. He vacillates. He agonizes. "Most NBA owners are distant and aloof and give only the pretense of being in control," says player agent Arn Tellem, general counsel of the Clippers from 1983 to '89. "Donald is so angst-ridden and vulnerable, you just want to hug him. He's constantly seeking the advice of others."