Nearly one year ago, I flew from Los Angeles to San Antonio for the Western Conference finals. Because we were traveling for television duties, I happened to be sitting in first class, in an aisle seat, one row behind the immortal Donald Sterling. This wasn’t a big plane — not quite a puddle jumper, but the next level up. Low roof, tight aisle, little baggage space, tiny windows. One of those planes where it feels like everyone is on top of each other. So I felt like I won the sports columnist lottery. One row behind Sterling? This would write itself!
The man delivered almost immediately. He didn’t want to sit in the first row and he didn’t want to sit in a window seat. Donald Sterling wanted to switch seats. Like, right now. He asked the flight attendant to move him. She politely declined. He quickly pulled the “Whaddya mean I can’t switch seats?” routine. The man sitting to my right jumped up, hopped into the aisle and loudly conferred with Sterling. He glanced at me, then at Sterling, then back to me again. Was this his bodyguard? His handler? I couldn’t tell.
“Hey,” he asked me. “Would you mind switching seats with him?”
I could barely conceal my excitement. This was great. Someone was asking me to do a favor for Donald Sterling.
“I like the aisle,” I told Sterling’s guy. “I’m gonna stay here.”
The guy grimaced, ultimately squeezing past me and cramming into his window seat. His name was Mo. I couldn’t tell if he was angry at me or Sterling, but the possibility of Mo stabbing me in the neck with a pencil was suddenly in play. Meanwhile, Sterling was already laying into his second flight attendant about being stuck in a window seat. There was a distinctive, gravelly whine to his voice, no different from what you heard on those audio tapes. He wasn’t overtly hostile, more disappointed and confused. He couldn’t believe that SHE wouldn’t help HIM. Reading between the lines, you could practically hear it in his voice:
Don’t you know who I am? I’m Donald Sterling! You’re making a big mistake! I AM A VERY IMPORTANT MAN!
Sterling’s female assistant stood in the aisle, navigating the situation with the same pleading, semi-terrified look that parents have when their child might melt down in public. (Believe me, I know that look.) The poor flight attendant found herself apologizing profusely, like this was all her fault. I’m sorry, I really am … we don’t have another aisle seat. We hadn’t even taken off yet and Sterling was wearing down both flight attendants. Was this what it was like to work for him? Would he just be complaining constantly about the temperature of sodas, the lady who cleaned his office, the point guard they just signed … would it just never end?
At some point, I realized that his assistant happened to be stuck in coach, which was a big part of the problem — and funny in itself, that he didn’t spring for a first-class ticket for her — because he couldn’t survive on his own. She kept barging into first class to check on Sterling. And I kept wondering if I had her pegged wrong. Was this really his assistant? Was this his girlfriend? And if this was his girlfriend, why wasn’t she sitting with him? She was under 35 years old and extremely doting, but she’d had a ton of plastic surgery already and looked a little felinelike. How many assistants have had extensive work done? What the hell was going on here?
What I didn’t know at the time: This lady was about 11 months away from having a VERY famous Instagram account. Yup … V. Stiviano.
Right before we took off, I quickly typed a “here’s what’s happened so far” email report to three buddies, just in case Mo stabbed me in the neck with a jagged Dasani bottle during the flight. Once we were in the air, Sterling offered his Wall Street Journal to the guy sitting next to him. When the guy turned it down, Sterling abrasively snapped, “What’s the matter, you don’t want to learn about the news?!?”
And then, something incredible happened — THE GUY TOOK THE NEWSPAPER! Sterling bullied him into reading it!
Maybe this is what Sterling does, I remember thinking. Maybe he just wears people down. Like a one-man Stockholm syndrome. We hit our altitude and the flight attendants started getting our food and drink orders. Sterling reacted like they were explaining the amnesty clause to him. His assistant/girlfriend/handler/lackey/whatever-she-was barged back into our aisle and stayed there. She was breaking all existing first-class/coach barriers and it just didn’t matter. She told the flight attendants that she had brought Sterling soup, so no, he wouldn’t be needing any food. Huge disappointment. I really wanted to hear him complain about airplane food.
She went back and grabbed a MASSIVE plastic bowl of soup. I love soup and I could never eat this much soup in one sitting. We’re talking 32 liters of soup. Sterling started eating the soup and flirting with the flight attendants, who suddenly adored him and laughed at his jokes. Like someone flipped a switch. What happened??? Even Mo seemed happier. I was sitting there thinking, What the hell was in that soup? Was it minestrone doused with Molly? And how can I get some?
Sterling told the flight attendants that he was heading to San Antonio for a basketball game, then admitted that he’d never been to San Antonio and asked what was “fun.” One of them mentioned a bar she liked.
“I don’t mean a bar!” Sterling growled. “Bars aren’t fun. I want fun!”
I missed the next part of this conversation after spending the next few minutes trying to figure out what “fun” meant. A nightclub? A strip joint? A brothel? A Satanic ritual? But everything was chummier now. Donald Sterling was holding court. He was slimy and oily and greasy and gross and weird and strangely charming. At one point, his assistant told everyone that Sterling owns his own plane but decided to fly commercial instead because “he likes United.” (Yeah, right.) Sterling followed by mumbling something incoherent that vaguely resembled a joke. Everyone laughed reflexively. He had these ladies in the palm of his hand. Naturally, he tried to set one up with Mo. Who knew Donald Sterling could be a good wingman? Mo’s a handsome guy. Mo doesn’t have a problem meeting women, all the ladies love Mo. He was hooking up Mo like CP3 hooking up Blake. For the last hour of that San Antonio flight, everyone loved Donald Sterling. For once.
Nobody loved him last night. You kept hearing Clippers players and coaches described as “victims” these past few days, but nobody mentioned the embattled Clippers employees — the ones who spent years and years living through his petty slights and tirades, his insufferable stinginess, and the ongoing humiliation of working for an unlikable human being. On Monday afternoon, with sponsors pulling out left and right and fans angrily canceling their season tickets, I called a friend who works for them to make sure he was OK. He wasn’t OK. He was devastated. Everyone in that office was devastated.
“We’re sitting here feeling like WE did something wrong,” he said. “That’s the worst part. You have people yelling at you, ‘How can you work for that guy?’ and you can’t even come up with an answer. There’s no answer.”
Neither of us was totally surprised, of course. I have spent an unusual amount of time with people who work for the Clippers. I have gotten drunk with them, played basketball with them and eaten many meals with them. Sterling’s creepy shadow loomed over every conversation. He cheaped out with everyone and everything. Eventually, they learned to work around his array of faults the same way family members work around an alcoholic father or an abusive uncle. Even when the team’s fortunes flipped these last few years — thanks to the Griffin lottery and the Paul trade — every Clippers employee waited for Sterling to screw things up.
It finally happened last weekend, right as Dallas and Memphis were giving the Spurs and Thunder everything they could handle. Clippers fans went to bed on Friday night wondering if they were one week away from stealing home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. They woke up on Saturday listening to TMZ tapes and wondering what the hell happened. Sterling reared his ugly head at the worst possible time. Maybe that’s how this had to end. Maybe you never totally escape your baggage
We’ll remember April 29, 2014, as the day the NBA finally banned an owner for life. We’ll also remember it as the first post-Sterling game, a fresh start for everyone who ever loved the Clippers. They pulled away in the fourth thanks to DeAndre Jordan uncharacteristically draining a cluster of free throws. With Sterling finally gone, the charity stripe has emerged as the kinder, less frightening, less intrusive Achilles heel of this Clippers season.
Nobody trusts Blake or DeAndre in a big moment there. But it’s better than Sterling sitting there, that’s for sure. Jordan kept sinking those damned free throws as the crowd chanted “Dee Jay! Dee Jay! Dee Jay!” He sealed the game by accidentally banking one off the backboard, because of course he did. Everyone laughed and cheered and laughed some more. Even DeAndre laughed. The Clippers were finally getting some lucky breaks. It wasn’t a coincidence.
BILL SIMMONS is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland.