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Reflecting on Donald Sterling's Obsession With Magic Johnson | The Crossover Podcast

As an owner of the fledgling Clippers for decades, Magic Johnson represented a lot to Donald Sterling. In fact, his obsession with Magic actually played a part in his banning from the NBA.

It's been five years since NBA commissioner Adam Silver banned former Clippers owner Donald Sterling. ESPN's Romona Shelburne has documented that moment and much more in a five-part 30 For 30 podcast. She spoke with Chris Mannix of The Crossover podcast about how she viewed those days as a reporter and what she experienced in reporting out the podcast. 

(Listen to the latest Crossover podcast here. The following transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

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Chris Mannix: One of the the players in all this that obviously we didn't want to be involved at all at all this was Magic Johnson. Donald Sterling's fixation on Magic Johnson. Why was Magic Johnson such a trigger for Donald Sterling?

Ramona Shelburne: I really think it's because he's so closely associated with Jerry Buss and the Lakers, and for 30 years he owns the team that is the opposite of Showtime. It's not Showtime—we have a whole episode on this—and the jealousy and insecurity that the Lakers created for Donald Sterling and the Clippers. And people wanted to be around Jerry Buss. They wanted to come to his parties, they wanted to hang out with him. He didn't have to induce players to go over those parties and have to induce women to come to his events. He was legit. The respect he had, the clout he had around town, the celebrity around town it would came naturally whereas Donald Sterling thought he could buy it. And he could force that upon people and then had no self-consciousness to even realize that was what he was doing.

And Magic Johnson was actually really close to Jerry Buss. They looked at each other like father and son in that relationship and validation. He was a true star and Jerry Buss recognized it, knew how to treat him and it must have just been awful for Donald to have that rubbed in his face for decades and to feel like that. And so when Magic is in that picture with V Stiviano, that's the Instagram photo that set him off on the tapes. It's not just black people, it's Magic Johnson in that photo. 

And then on Anderson Cooper when he melts down it's when he starts talking about Magic Johnson, and I really think it's the Laker connection of it all. And also really this idea that Donald had of ownership over players, ownership, over stars, there is a fundamental lack of understanding where he says, 'Who makes the game? I make the game, I give them food, I give them jobs. He really thought that he did all that and he could never recognize that, 'No, it's actually the players. It's actually the stars that make the league.' And Magic, to me, is the biggest star in L.A., and probably still is. Kobe would give him a run for his money. Maybe if you're over 30 you'd say Magic. If you're under 30, you'd say Kobe. But the Lakers are the Lakers because of Magic Johnson, because of Kobe Bryant, because of Kareem, because of their stars. I think the stars transcend the brand, and I don't think Donald ever has the capacity to get that.

Mannix: Magic just kept getting dragged back and back into it from the tapes. And I want to get to that Anderson Cooper interview but that was just bonkers. I thank you for reminding me. I went back and watched that. That was just insane, it portrays Donald in an even worse light. Well, if that was even possible. What impact did that interview have on the ultimate expulsion and sale of the team? 

Shelburne: That was the final straw. The tapes come out, we don't hear anything really from Donald except that weird statement they initially put out where they were like, 'Oh, she's a gold digger and we're suing her, so that's why she leaked this. And poor Andy Roeser, they stuck his name on it, and that was really Donald talking. And that's pretty much all we heard from him for like two weeks. It was like, 'Where are you, bro? What's going on?' But it's taking way too long for you to answer for yourself, have a reaction, put any kind of explanation out there.

So finally he does this Anderson Cooper interview, and I think that because he took so long that was the only reason he still had a chance that people were coming up with a few excuses or a few lines of credibility that he could have stood on—the right to privacy argument. The slippery-slope argument that this is his private property and you shouldn't set a precedent for having to take somebodies private property. I think there were people coming up with these things because I think a lot of owners know that they don't live in glass houses, and there may be things that they don't ever want coming out or could take them down as well. Maybe not as bad as this, but if you set this precedent. And so there were a few people who were willing to listen and people want to hear what he had to say. 


And then he goes on Anderson Cooper and just completely melts down and makes it so much worse. He like just continued this bizarre attack on Magic. He says all these awful things. We were watching that Anderson Cooper interview like, 'Woah, did you see that?' He's saying like, 'What has Magic done for the black community?' Because he still thinks or he thought in that moment that him paying players like he's supposed to do is him doing something for that community. He's making money off them, whereas Magic starting a foundation is actually doing something for people in his community. With Don there's just a disconnect. He would just donate some money to the NAACP and they give him some rewards. Remember that? He was going to be honored as Man of the Year right during this crisis. I'm like, 'OK, he have you done your research? I mean, how big was that check?

There's this whole story of this shelter for the homeless that he promised to build and he took out an ad in the L.A. Times talking about how he was going to build this center for the homeless. Never did. You're just talking about this and said he was gonna do it and got positive press and then actually never wrote a check. This idea that you can just completely fake news your way into prominence and into respect around town is like pretty shameless. Right. I love that story that we have in the podcast from Sandy Banks who was a columnist of the L.A. Times, who would see these silly ads for all these years in her paper alongside news stories about housing discrimination lawsuits against Donald Sterling.

I mean, we're all supposed to be church and state. The advertising folks do what they do and let the editorial folks do what they do. But from an editorial standpoint she had an issue and she was right about it. So she went to one of those like bizarre charity events that he did. She said it's nuts. Donald Sterling, I mean poor Blake Griffin went to it with him and he was just parading him around and showing him off like a prize racehorse. And Blake in a lot of ways is is a big character in this story because Donald finally had his Magic Johnson. He had this star that he drafted first overall that had the charisma and clout and star quality. Donald could have formed a real relationship with him the way that Jerry Buss did with Magic Johnson. And instead of having a normal relationship, he just made Blake cringe at every turn.