Sterlings May Negotiate Clippers Sale; Ballmer Expected to Bid

Stephen Dunn

Perhaps wary of a lengthy legal battle, Donald Sterling has reportedly authorized his wife to negotiate a sale of the Los Angeles Clippers. Steve Ballmer is expected to be one of the bidders, though not to move the team to Seattle.

Edited by Joanna Nesgoda

News comes this morning that Donald Sterling might have finally capitulated to the sale of the Los Angeles Clippers. The 29 other NBA owners were likely to unanimously vote to force the sale during a meeting scheduled for June 3. Sterling has reportedly given permission for his wife and Clippers co-owner Shelly Sterling to negotiate the sale. A number of suitors have been mentioned publicly in the last few weeks, including former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

In the past few weeks, Shelly Sterling has been quietly negotiating with the NBA in an effort to retain at least 50% ownership of the team, if not to take over controlling interest from her husband. The NBA, however, has been adamant about selling off the full 100% ownership shared by the Sterlings. It's unclear if Shelly Sterling continues her defiant pursuit to hold onto the team, or if she, too, has relented and decided that the writing is on the wall and a sale would be best for everyone. A lengthy legal battle has been expected, with Donald Sterling believed to have been considering a suit filed under antitrust protection and Shelly Sterling believed to have been willing to fight her own legal battle over shared community property as per California marital law. The team ownership being held in a family trust has also proven to be a legal point of contention, with analysts weighing in on uncertainty as to how that could affect any action on the part of the NBA to remove the Sterlings as owners.

One aspect that is clear is that Donald Sterling, controlling owner of the team, cannot unilaterally sign over his controlling interest to Shelly. The NBA would have to approve such a course of action, just as it would approve a transfer of ownership in a traditional sale. The NBA has been quite clear that they would not offer such approval. Sterling allowing his wife to negotiate a sale of the team skirts that issue, but if Shelly brokers a sale of the full 100 percent of the team ownership, the NBA likely would not be bothered by such an arrangement. Anything less than a full sale, though, will bring the league's Board of Governors to continue with its process of removal and transfer of ownership.

What This Means for Seattle

Ever since news broke of a possible sale of the Clippers, there has been speculation and outright demand from fans and from members of the media that the team be sold to the Chris Hansen-Steve Ballmer-led group that has been trying to secure a franchise to return to Seattle as the SuperSonics. Pictures of Ballmer sitting and chatting with NBA commissioner Adam Silver at a Clippers-Oklahoma City Thunder playoff game surfaced two weeks ago, leading to contemplation that he was interested in pursuing the Los Angeles team. Last week, Ballmer revealed to the Wall Street Journal that he is open to exploring any opportunity at NBA team ownership that becomes available, possibly including the Clippers. Though many have been rabid with the thought that he could purchase the team and potentially move it to Seattle, Ballmer shot holes in this idea when he stated his belief that buying the Clippers necessitated keeping the team in L.A.

Seattle fans should be prepared for Ballmer to make a bid for the team. We should also be prepared for the possibility that if he were to win the sale, he would become an owner in the second largest market in the country with very little reason to consider moving the team. The NBA, who have been committed to franchise stability with their last few franchise sales, would likely require that any group purchasing the team do so with the intention of keeping the team there.

If the former Microsoft exec were to become an owner anywhere outside of Seattle, that would change the complexion of the efforts to revive the Sonics. Some predict it would be the death knell for such efforts, as Ballmer is seen as the "deep pockets" investor behind both a team purchase and the private funding for the SoDo arena. Some believe Chris Hansen is a shrewd businessperson who can recruit alternative investors to join in his pursuits. Indeed, there are existing unnamed contributors to the potential ownership group who have purposely remained out of the spotlight, and the financial make-up of the group is not publicly transparent. In any case, alternatives can and would be considered.

All depends, though, on a sale of the Clippers, whose expected sale value will directly influence future team sales and any potential expansion fees. What was expected to be a protracted process could be resolved much quicker than anyone had anticipated, if today's news bares true. The story continues to develop.

UPDATE

The NBA issued the following statement via spokesman Mike Bass on Friday:

"We continue to follow the process set forth in the NBA Constitution regarding termination of the current ownership interests in the Los Angeles Clippers and are proceeding toward a hearing on this matter on June 3."

SI.com legal analyst and friend to the site Michael McCann weighs in on the Sterling news and the NBA's response, offering that what might seem like concession on Donald Sterling's part could just be the next move in the intended legal wrangling to get around his NBA ban and keep the team in the family.

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