How a Mayor and a Labor Union Helped Oust Donald Sterling

Sacramento’s Kevin Johnson goes into what the NBA players association has gone through since the Clippers owner’s racist comments leaked.

Former NBA players Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Roger Mason, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers Steve Nash, and Norm Nixon address the media during the press conference in response to the NBA decision on Donald Sterling ownership at Los Angeles City Hall on April 29, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.
National Journal
Matt Berman
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Matt Berman
May 1, 2014, 1 a.m.

A room in Los Angeles erup­ted when NBA Com­mis­sion­er Adam Sil­ver an­nounced his de­cision this week to ban Clip­pers own­er Don­ald Ster­ling from the league for life fol­low­ing Ster­ling’s leaked, ra­cist com­ments.

What happened in that room, where Sac­ra­mento May­or Kev­in John­son was joined by cur­rent and former NBA play­ers, was just one as­pect of the in­cred­ibly fast-mov­ing, mul­ti­fa­ceted re­sponse to Ster­ling’s re­marks, which had been re­leased by TMZ just days be­fore. And while Sil­ver de­serves the bulk of the cred­it for deal­ing a swift, severe pun­ish­ment, what John­son was able to do with the Na­tion­al Bas­ket­ball Play­ers As­so­ci­ation shows just how power­ful col­lect­ive ac­tion can be.

In the ab­s­cence of an ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or, John­son, a former NBA all-star with the Phoenix Suns, had been asked by the NBPA to ad­voc­ate for the or­gan­iz­a­tion dur­ing the Ster­ling epis­ode. And after the re­cord­ing leaked, he was in near-con­stant con­tact with Sil­ver. They spoke three times on Sat­urday, then met on Sunday and again on Monday. “I was rep­res­ent­ing what the play­ers wanted to see have hap­pen,” he told Na­tion­al Journ­al.

So, what ex­actly was that? “They wanted an im­me­di­ate in­vest­ig­a­tion, they wanted the play­ers’ voices heard, they didn’t want to be pass­ive par­ti­cipants, they wanted to have a seat at the table and be able to have a dia­logue. And I was their rep­res­ent­at­ive to do that,” John­son said. “And then they wanted the max­im­um al­low­able pun­ish­ment un­der the NBA’s bylaws, and ul­ti­mately there must be a change in own­er­ship.”

On Tues­day, be­fore Sil­ver made his an­nounce­ment lay­ing out just what the league would do, John­son says he and the NBPA were “hope­ful.” But the as­so­ci­ation wasn’t plan­ning on any­thing im­me­di­ately drastic if Sil­ver’s de­cision didn’t go their way. “I nev­er brought up the word ‘boy­cott’ in any dis­cus­sion,” John­son said, sug­gest­ing that the Golden State War­ri­ors’ re­por­ted plan to boy­cott Tues­day night’s play­off game against the Clip­pers if Sil­ver’s re­sponse was deemed in­ad­equate wasn’t part of a lar­ger NBPA ef­fort.

Sil­ver, John­son said, “did not make the de­cision he made be­cause of any threat. He made the de­cision he made be­cause it was the right thing to do.”

And when John­son and the play­ers he was with — in­clud­ing re­peat NBA MVPs Kareem Ab­dul-Jab­bar and Steve Nash — heard that de­cision on Tues­day, it was more than they had hoped for. “We’re sit­ting there just like wait­ing for what he would say, and … Com­mis­sion­er Sil­ver said, ‘There’s no place for this in our game. There should be zero tol­er­ance. We are in­sti­tut­ing, I am in­sti­tut­ing a life­time ban,’ and every­body in the room just star­ted cheer­ing.”

While John­son says the com­mis­sion­er came to this de­cision on his own ac­cord, John­son be­lieves the play­ers in­flu­enced the drive to push out Ster­ling. “I thought what was so awe­some,” he said, “was that our play­ers, around this league, im­me­di­ately spoke out through so­cial me­dia, from the biggest stars to every­day play­ers. They wer­en’t afraid, they came out strong, and they came out power­ful.”

This ex­ample isn’t just a big deal for NBA play­ers — it’s a big deal for work­er rights. NBA play­ers are ob­vi­ously not the only people out there who have had to work for someone op­press­ive or ra­cist. John­son and the NBPA aren’t the only ones to real­ize that. “It’s an NBA thing, but every­one who goes to work should feel like they’re ap­pre­ci­ated,” former play­er and cur­rent ana­lyst Charles Barkley said on TNT’s In­side the NBA Tues­day night. “I hope that not just the NBA, but every per­son who gets hu­mi­li­ated at work, that they all stand to­geth­er.”

For the NBA, it’s something to build on. “I’m proud of the play­ers,” John­son said. “They stood up, they spoke up, they took ac­tion. And I think this is a gal­van­iz­ing mo­ment for the Play­ers As­so­ci­ation to build on be­cause this brought them to­geth­er in a real way.”

The Ster­ling case could set a pre­ced­ent not just for how the NBPA func­tions, but for how one of the coun­try’s largest sports leagues re­spond to fu­ture pre­ju­dice — wheth­er ra­cism, ho­mo­pho­bia, or sex­ism. “I think what Com­mis­sion­er Sil­ver was do­ing, is say­ing, there’s no place for bigotry, there’s no place for in­sti­tu­tion­al ra­cism,” John­son said. “And we’re go­ing to have to look at things go­ing for­ward on a case-by-case basis, in my opin­ion.”

Then there’s the oth­er un­der-the-radar story of the last few days: the may­or of Sac­ra­mento him­self. Aside from his work with the NBPA and as may­or, John­son now heads the U.S. Con­fer­ence of May­ors. He is, in short, a guy with a whole lot go­ing on. For his part, John­son’s not too sure what comes next for him, after his cur­rent may­or­al term ex­pires in 2016. He’s “very much con­sid­er­ing” run­ning for a third term, he says.

But it’s hard to ig­nore John­son’s grow­ing na­tion­al pro­file. And a politi­cian can only stay in Sac­ra­mento, a city with a “weak may­or” sys­tem, for so long. Well, at least be­fore he or she starts look­ing at the gov­ernor’s of­fice.

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