JEFF PEARLMAN

Coming October 2022: "The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson"

The Eccentric Donald Sterling

With the addition of Doc Rivers and the apparent return of Chris Paul, the Los Angeles Clippers are—along with the Brooklyn Nets—the hottest NBA franchise this offseason. It almost allows people to believe that Donald Sterling, the team’s longtime crazy owner, is righteous in his pursuits.

Which makes me think of Paul Phipps.

Those who really, really, really follow the NBA might remember Phipps as the Clippers’ general manager back from October, 1982 until April, 1984. He was a well-regarded executive; a nice man with genuine credibility and an eye for talent. I interviewed him several months ago for a book about the NBA in the 1980s. He told me a story about Sterling that didn’t make the final pages, but stands out nonetheless.

According to Phipps, during his time with the team he conducted a search for a head coach to replace the fired Paul Silas. “We needed someone different,” Phipps told me, “and one of the first guys we talked to was Rollie Massimino.” At the time, Massimino was coaching Villanova, and was known as a guy on the rise. “He flew in, and Pete Babcock (the director of player personnel) and I were impressed. He was very organized, he had a great philosophy, we liked his approach to practice. When we got done with him, he had to fly from San Diego to Los Angeles, then Los Angeles back to Philly. Don told us he’d like to meet with him. Oh, boy.” Sterling told Phipps he’d sit down with Massimino at the gate inside Los Angeles International Airport. “We told Rollie he’s a bit eccentric,” Phipps said. “He’ll probably have his shirt open and six gold chains sticking out.

“Don,” Phipps continued, “liked to have other women outside his marriage. There was one blonde girl in particular who was his friend.”

Anyhow, according to Phipps, Massimino boarded the jet, and when he landed in Los Angeles he exited the walkway and spotted Sterling. “They met,” said Phipps, “and between 3 and 4 in the morning my phone rings.” It was an irate Massimino. “I’m sorry,” he told Phipps, “but I’d never work for that son of a bitch. Ever.”

Phipps, half asleep, sat up on his bed and asked what went wrong. “Here’s this guy,” Massimino said, “and he has this blonde bimbo with him, they have a bottle of champagne, they’re tanked. And Don looks at me and he says, ‘I wanna know why you think you can coach these niggers.'”

Massimino told Phipps he began screaming at Sterling and swore he’d rather die than become coach of the Clippers. “That,” said Phipps, “was life with Donald Sterling.”