Sterling, who declined to speak to SI, is clearly enjoying the cult success of his young, exciting team, which is on the verge of providing him with his second winning season in 21 years of ownership. Roeser says the Clippers will be willing to embark on a new, high-spending course because a club-record 17 sellouts at the Staples Center have provided the franchise with more revenue than it ever realized at the Sports Arena. Last June, Sterling told the Los Angeles Times of his desire to keep his club intact. "I'm not going to screw this up," he said.
Imagine how jaws would drop around the league in July if Sterling quickly tied up his front line of Brand and Olowokandi. Many NBA insiders would say there's a better chance of seeing Santa Claus. As for Olowokandi, he's focusing on the benefits that job security would bring him and his teammates. "I know people say money isn't the answer to everything," he says, "but in this situation I think its quite the answer. People would just play to win."
Yao Ming's NBA Plans
Eyes of Shanghai On the Lottery
When the NBA holds its draft lottery on May 19 in Secaucus, N.J., some of the most interested observers will be in Shanghai. That day the Shanghai Sharks will learn which teams are positioned to choose their star center, 7'6" Yao Ming, who's likely to go first or second. If the Sharks don't care for the lottery's results, they may not let Yao out of his contract, which they can renew indefinitely.
"The Sharks aren't going to let him go until the status of the lottery is determined," says Erik Zhang, a distant relative of Yao's who's serving as a liaison between the Yao family and the Sharks. "Let's say that the Sharks believe they can't have a trustworthy relationship with the team that's likely to draft him, or it's not a desirable team. Either case may prevent him from entering the NBA."
According to Zhang, the Sharks intend to claim a share of Yao's income, both on and off the court. They also want to develop a relationship with Yao's NBA team that would provide advice on players, coaching and marketing to the Shanghai team. To maximize Yao's commercial exposure and ease his transition to the NBA, the Sharks would prefer that he play for a major-market team based in a city with a large Chinese population, like New York, Chicago or Golden State. (Each of those teams has sent a scout to China.) A source close to the negotiations says that the Sharks would like to keep Yao from the Cavaliers and the Grizzlies, losing teams in small markets, but won't say whether Cleveland's or Memphis's picking him would be a deal-breaker.
Because he turns 22 this year (on Sept. 12), Yao is eligible to be drafted in June whether or not the Sharks allow him to submit his name to the NBA. Still, teams may be unwilling to risk a high pick on him if his availability is uncertain. At the moment the person closest to the situation is the 27-year-old Zhang, who's pursuing his MBA at Columbia. He says Yao won't hire an American agent until the Sharks release him from his contract.
On Monday, Zhang met in New York with NBA officials, who pledged to help develop players and coaches in China. Says Zhang, "I will tell the Sharks that the NBA is extending an olive branch to them and to Chinese basketball."
Play of the Week
The Rockets trailed 95-88 at Minnesota with 1:02 remaining when Steve Francis drove for a basket and beefed to the refs that he had been fouled. His complaints earned him a technical foul—and gave Houston a lift. After the Timberwolves' Chauncey Billups missed the technical free throw, the Rockets forced three turnovers and blocked a Kevin Garnet! shot on their way to a 96-95 victory. "That was the first time in my career a technical foul motivated me to play harder," said Francis, whose free throw sealed the win. Said Minnesota coach Flip Saunders of his team's fifth straight loss, "We almost had to do everything wrong for them to come back and win. Which we did."