He hardly ever follows it, however. He tends to throw everything into committee, where there's rarely a consensus. "Front-office meetings are like the Israeli Knesset," Tellem reports. "There are usually more opinions than people in the room."
To Scheer, "the most frustrating part of being G.M. was the lost opportunities. Sterling didn't trust his own basketball judgment and wasn't prepared to accept mine. I'd call him about a trade I wanted to pursue, and he'd say, 'Let me get back to you.' He'd never get back to me. So nothing would happen."
In the NBA success on the court demands a readiness to pounce and a willingness to spend. The Clippers payroll—$26.3 million—is the third-lowest in the league and roughly half that of the Lakers. "If you've got a bad team, you'd better have a low payroll, so you'll be able to sign free agents under the cap and get better," says Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf. "Donald is in a great position if he spends wisely."
So far Sterling has shown no interest in spending, period. "Cash is the root of all evil, and Sterling likes to hold on to his," says Harper. "He won't hand it out to a player unless he thinks the player has earned it. Well, that's not how things work in today's NBA. Like it or not, an owner has to overcompensate his players."
Harper was the Clippers' second-highest scorer during the semi-glory years of 1990-91 and '92-93, the only seasons besides 1996-97 that the team has made the playoffs. Even if all the star power the Clippers could muster at courtside was Billy Crystal, they seemed to be turning a corner. Then the other starters and coach Larry Brown left. "Suddenly it was just me," Harper says. "I was the last man standing on a ship that was going down."
Harper signed for one year at $4 million in '93, becoming one of the few big-ticket free agents in Clippers history to re-up. In a league rife with eight-figure salaries, $4 million—a sum that some teams dole out to a backup center—remains the most Sterling has paid a player. The Clippers tried to re-re-up Harper in '94 by offering him a five-year deal for $16 million. The Bulls offered him five years at $20 million. "Sterling's people tried to convince me their offer was better," Harper says. "I told them, 'It sounds $4 million worse.' Finally they told me, 'O.K., go ahead, have fun.' And I told them, 'I will.' " Harper laughs raucously and says, "I got three championship rings in Chicago, so I can't be mad."
Many people believe that Sterling is playing a different game from the rest of the NBA owners. "I don't know how important winning is to Donald," says Scheer. "He seems more concerned mat his books are balanced, that he runs one of the few NBA franchises with no debt, that he can bring his friends to games." Those friends—a mix of Friars Clubbers and Merv Era celebs—show up en masse at Sterling's Malibu White Party, the extravagant tented barbecue-and-bubbly beach bash he often throws at his second home, a neo-Tudor oceanfront bungalow. The party is so named because guests are encouraged to dress all in white, as in The Great Gatsby. "Sterling's agenda is as much social as professional," says Los Angeles Times sportswriter Mark Heisler. "He loves the status that owning even a bad team confers."
He also enjoys the publicity he's received as a philanthropist. Southern California charities routinely fete Sterling as their Humanitarian of the Year. Since 1997, the title has been accorded him by the Vista Del Mar Orphanage, the Special Olympics, the Los Angeles Yeshiva, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation and the L.A. Police Historical Society. Not that every charity has found it easy to separate Sterling from his swag. Linda McCoy-Murray recognized that last summer when she phoned him to help sponsor a golf tournament in honor of her late husband, venerated L.A. Times sports columnist Jim Murray. Every pro franchise in California, according to McCoy-Murray had forked over at least $5,000 to her foundation, which provides journalism scholarships. Every pro franchise, that is, except the Clippers, which had memorialized Murray on the final page of last season's media guide. Sterling offered McCoy-Murray two season passes. "You know, that's wonderful," she remembers telling him. "but we're trying to endow a college scholarship fund. We could really use cash."
Sterling, she says, replied, "Those two tickets have a face value of $4,000!"
"Fine," she said. "We can use the tickets for our silent auction. But would you also consider donating $5,000?"