By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Several luminaries from sports and show business, Oprah Winfrey among them, signaled interest on Wednesday in buying the Los Angeles Clippers as the NBA set a first meeting to weigh removing Donald Sterling as owner over racist remarks attributed to him.
A day after Sterling was banned for life from the National Basketball Association, two of the league’s 29 other team owners, including the governing board’s chairman, said they expected to reach the three-fourths majority vote needed to expel Sterling fully, a move unprecedented in NBA history.
The advisory finance committee of the board scheduled a meeting on Thursday to review the next steps for forcing a sale of the Clippers, as urged on Tuesday by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, a league spokeswoman said.
Sterling, who bought the Clippers in 1981 for $13 million when the team was based in San Diego, has not indicated whether he would relinquish ownership without a fight. Experts have estimated that the franchise, which moved to Los Angeles in 1984, could now be worth as much as $800 million.
Moreover, some experts said Sterling’s fellow owners might be hesitant to support action they felt could set a precedent jeopardizing their own property rights in the future.
Still, the move to expel Sterling from the league altogether fanned speculation about potential buyers.
Winfrey’s spokeswoman, Nicole Nichols, said the talk show host turned media mogul was in talks with leading Hollywood executive David Geffen and the chief executive officer of computer technology firm Oracle Corp, Larry Ellison, to bid for the team if were to become available.
Geffen, who started two record labels and co-founded the DreamWorks film studio, has expressed interest in the Clippers in the past but never tendered an offer. Winfrey’s holdings already include stakes in a cable network and a magazine.
Geffen, whose net worth has been estimated by Forbes magazine at $6.2 billion, told sports network ESPN on Wednesday that he and Ellison would run the team, while Winfrey would be an investor.
“She thinks it would be a great thing for an important black American to own (another) franchise,” Geffen was quoted as saying. “The team deserves a better group of owners who want to win. … Larry would sooner die than fail. I would sooner die than fail. Larry’s a sportsman. We’ve talked about this for a long time. Between the three of us, we have a good shot.”
Other names floated as possible suitors include former NBA Los Angeles Lakers star Earvin “Magic” Johnson, a part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team who once had a stake in the Lakers and has built a media empire catering to African-American consumers.
“If the time is right, my partners at (investment group) Guggenheim and I will sit down to discuss it,” he told a financial conference in Beverly Hills on Wednesday. “The fans have spoken they want us to own the team, but we’ll just have to wait and see how it works out.”
Two of boxing’s biggest names, world champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. and promoter Oscar De La Hoya, have also expressed designs on the team since Tuesday.
“What better face than my face,” De La Hoya said on CNN. “I’m stepping up to the plate and I’m letting the world know that I’m obviously interested.”
POTENTIALLY LENGTHY PROCESS
Although Silver said he would seek to force a sale of the Clippers immediately, the process could take weeks.
According to NBA bylaws, Silver must present a written copy of any allegations against Sterling within three days, and Sterling would have five days to answer. A special hearing of the Board of Governors, consisting of all the owners, will be held on a date no more than 10 days after Sterling’s reply.
Sterling was stripped of his seat on the board as part of the lifetime ban imposed by Silver for the “deeply offensive and harmful” racial views Sterling was said to have expressed in audio recordings released over the weekend.
Neither Sterling nor his representatives have commented on the tapes, in which a voice said to be his is heard criticizing a female friend for “associating with black people.” In it, he asks her not to invite Johnson to Clippers games.
Silver said Tuesday that Sterling has acknowledged to the NBA that the recording was authentic but did not apologize.
News of the recordings drew outrage from players, fans, politicians – including President Barack Obama – and commercial sponsors, several of whom said they were cutting ties with the team, even after the NBA moved to remove Sterling.
The ban imposed on Tuesday prohibits Sterling from any ties with the Clippers organization or the league as a whole and bars him from ever again attending NBA games or practices.
Sterling, the longest-tenured of the NBA’s 30 owners, also was excluded from any team business or player personnel decisions and was fined $2.5 million, the league’s maximum monetary penalty.
Asked whether Sterling, 80, could end up an absentee owner if the governing board declined to force a team sale, Silver told reporters, “I fully expect to get the support I need from the other NBA owners to remove him.”
‘COLOR BLIND LEAGUE’
Early indications were that the owners would ultimately rally behind Silver.
“We run a color blind league, and this should not be tolerated,” Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive told ESPN Radio. “I would be surprised if this was not a unanimous vote.”
Glen Taylor, the owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves and interim chair of the NBA Board of Governors, said the ideal course of action would be if Sterling just agreed to a sale.
“The problems would occur if he decides that he doesn’t want to sell the team and we think that it should be sold,” Taylor told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “Then we have to make sure that we got the votes and then enforce that.”
Taylor said he had not spoken to all of the owners but was “reasonably sure” there was enough support for a forced sale and he expected there would be potential buyers.
Lawyers with expertise in sports law gave Sterling little chance of successfully suing the NBA to block a forced sale, citing league governance rules that all owners must accept.
One wild card could be Sterling’s wife, Rochelle.
Asked whether she might exercise an ownership stake in the team even if Sterling himself were removed, Silver seemed to leave the question open on Tuesday.
“There have been no discussions about other members of the Sterling family,” he said. “This ruling applies specifically to Donald Sterling and Donald Sterling’s conduct only.”
(Also contributing to this report was Larry Fine and Curtis Skinner in New York and Eric Kelsey and Ron Grover in Los Angeles. Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Grant McCool and Cynthia Osterman)