Sterling's reign of error soon got costly. The league fined him $10,000 for publicly suggesting that the Clippers lose games to enhance their draft position. He did his part by refusing to add players when injuries reduced the roster to the league-minimum eight. The Clippers came close to forfeiting a game after forward Michael Brooks had oral surgery. Brooks had to suit up, and he actually played, though his jaw was as swollen as Sterling's ego.
No draft choice could right the Clippers, and in 1984 Sterling moved them to L.A. But he failed to seek the NBA's approval for the relocation, and the league fined him $25 million. Sterling sued the league for $100 million and withdrew the suit when the league agreed to reduce his fine to $6 million.
During their first season in L.A. the Clippers won only one more game than they had in their last season in San Diego, but they averaged almost 4,000 more fans at the Sports Arena, where the Lakers had played before moving to the Forum. That still put them near the bottom of the league in home attendance. Things haven't improved; the Clippers have had the league's lowest attendance each of the last six seasons and rank 28th out of 29 teams this season. "The one thing you have to admire about Donald is that he's loyal to Los Angeles," says Tellem. "He's passed up many opportunities to sell the team or move elsewhere for a lot more money." In the mid-'90s Sterling turned down a $95 million offer to move 35 miles southeast to Anaheim, partly because he hates traffic. Not long after that an ownership group in Nashville reportedly made an overture worth almost $200 million, which Sterling also rebuffed. "I never sell anything," he says. "I'd prefer to stay in L.A. and lose money than move and make a fortune."
Ticket prices seem to confirm this. An end zone loge seat at the Staples Center for a Clippers game goes for $40; the same seat at a Lakers game fetches $60. Sitting courtside with Crystal will cost you $350; the identical seat in Jack Nicholson's row will set you back $1,150. "The Clippers are the people's team," says Steve Soboroff, who as senior adviser to Mayor Richard J. Riordan played a role in bringing them to the new arena. "Sterling has given fans who can't afford Lakers tickets a chance to see NBA basketball at a reasonable price."
Other observers aren't so charitable. Sterling's formula, according to one critic, is to inspire fans' dreams without ever fulfilling them. "At some level Sterling must be content being the losingest NBA owner ever," says David Falk, agent for Clippers power forward Maurice Taylor. "All the criticism he has gotten hasn't changed the way he runs the team one degree."
Whether because of Baylor's poor judgment or Sterling's meddling, or both, the team's draft choices have been disastrous. In 1987 the Clippers selected Reggie Williams with the fourth pick. Think they'd have been better off if they'd chosen Scottie Pippen or Reggie Miller instead? Or how about 1989, when the Clippers had the second draw and chose Danny Ferry, passing on Glen Rice? Ferry bailed immediately for Italy, and Rice became an All-Star Game MVP. One more: In 1990 the Clippers looked past Jayson Williams, Dee Brown, Tyrone Hill and Toni Kukoc and got Bo Kimble out of nearby Loyola Marymount.
Last year, when the draft didn't have enough marquee players to excite Sterling into ignorant interference, Baylor snagged the 19-year-old Odom with the fourth selection. It was the kind of thought-out risk that makes teams winners. " Donald Sterling had absolutely nothing to do with getting Odom," Baylor says testily. "That pick was mine and mine alone."
Baylor has reason to be testy. Sterling has a history of Clipping his wings, most famously in 1993 when Baylor tried to make a trade with Miami. Danny Manning, then the Clippers' star forward, had a year left on his contract and was angling to get out. Baylor made a deal with the Heat: Manning for Rice and Willie Burton. Sterling, certain he could sway Manning to stay, showed up at training camp and pleaded with him. Manning listened politely. "He's softening!" Sterling told team officials and called off the trade. Four months later, with Manning no softer, Sterling relented. The 27-year-old was swapped to Atlanta for free-agent-to-be Dominique Wilkins, who was 34. Wilkins carried the Clippers over the last half of another dismal season, then rejected Sterling's new contract offer, which was half of what Dominique had demanded. Wilkins left, and the team was left with nothing.
From a penthouse window in Sterling Plaza, the five-time Humanitarian of the Year gazes out at Los Angeles with mournful, drooping eyes that seem to have witnessed all human sadness. "Basketball is the only aspect of my life in which I haven't been a winner," he says. "I want to win badly, I really do. It hasn't happened yet, but it will. Don't you think it will?" You tell him you have no idea. "Yes, well, I think it will," he says. "It must. It simply must."
He settles into a chair behind a cluttered Louis XIV desk on which a bronze placard sits: MAY WE ALWAYS LAUGH, DANCE AND SING OUR WAY THROUGH LIFE. He meets your stare, his eyes less menacing than searching, and tells you he'd rather discuss the bright Clippers future than the blighted Clippers past. You mention Taylor—whose contract Sterling has refused to extend for six years at $71 million, the maximum allowable—and ask if Sterling thinks the player will follow through on a recent promise to bolt. " Taylor will only bolt if we want him to bolt," Sterling says without much conviction. "No player ever left the Clippers that we didn't want to." Still, you say, the Clippers again stand to get nothing for something. "I only pay superstar prices for superstar players," Sterling says, wincing at this unhappy thought. "You don't think Taylor is a superstar, do you? He's not a superstar."