Spike Lee, Donald Sterling and Doing the Right Thing

Spike Lee at the NBA press conference about LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

Mookie: “C'mon, what. What?”
Da Mayor: “Always do the right thing.”
Mookie: “That's it?”
Da Mayor: “That's it.
Mookie: “I got it, I'm gone.”
Do the Right Thing (1989)

The moment, more than any thus far in 2014, proclaimed, “Made in America.”

NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s Tuesday afternoon press conference to announce the banishment of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling included just about every fundamental ingredient of the modern American zeitgeist except kale: celebrity, sports, racism, sex appeal, outrage, money, awards, rebukes over the outrage, wiretapping (at least in spirit) and Mark Cuban. Oh, and lawyers.

It’s a wonder that it did not appear exclusively on Netflix.

As ESPN’s cameras first showed us the room for the 2 p.m. midtown Manhattan press conference, there was filmmaker Spike Lee seated in the second row. Never mind that this would be the worst seat Lee has had for an NBA-related event in decades, this was a surreal cameo for the Brooklyn, N.Y.–born director, who was seated (almost) front and center for the most historic race-related verdict since the O.J. Simpson trial. Mookie himself, nearly 25 years after the release of Do the Right Thing, bearing witness to a landmark moment at the crossroads of race and sport in American culture.

Buggin’ Out: Yo, Sal, we're gonna boycott your fat pasta ass.”
Sal: “You're gonna boycott me? You haven't got the balls to boycott me. Here, here's your boycott, up your ass. You've got a boycott.”

The spark was ignited last Friday evening, when Sterling’s heinous words to his “archivist,” V. Stiviano, first became public. By Tuesday, a windy and unseasonably cold day in New York City, the conflagration threatened to consume the NBA.

The players for all six teams scheduled to compete that night in first-round playoff games were discussing a boycott. How serious any of these players, most of them millionaires and most of them also African-American, were about seeing through with that plan, we shall never know.

The Golden State Warriors apparently had discussed walking off the court at the Staples Center just as the referee tossed the ball skyward for the opening tip. That 12-man march, televised nationally on TNT, would have lived forever. Instead, Silver, arriving 15 minutes late to his own press conference and looking like someone had taken the farmer from American Gothic on a shopping excursion to Brooks Brothers, strode to the podium.

Sal: “The only ass-kicking that's gonna be done around here is gonna be done by me.”

After a brief introduction outlining Sterling’s “hateful opinions” and confirming that, after an investigation, the voice heard on the tape was that of Donald Sterling, Silver dropped the hammer: “Effective immediately, I am banning Mr. Sterling for life from any association with the Clippers organization or the NBA.”

Silver’s voice seemed to raise an octave or at least to crack slightly, when he said “for life.” He had briefly paused, unintentionally. It was as if even he could not quite believe the severity of the penalty that he was meting out. It was a suspension of disbelief.

Da Mayor: “Doctor, those that’ll tell don’t know. And those that know won’t tell.”

The ballroom was jammed with journalists. Serious men and women from serious publications and networks: Time, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, The New York Times, etc. It was left to Lisa Guerrero of Inside Edition, of all outlets, to pose the most provocative question: “The word you used specifically was outrage, that you are personally outraged. Yet many people...have known for years that this man is a racist slumlord and the NBA hasn’t done anything until today. Can you please answer why?”

The answer, as Silver and Sterling, both of them attorneys, know, is lawyers. When in 1984 Sterling moved the Clippers from San Diego to Los Angeles without seeking league approval, then-commissioner David Stern (attorney) fined the franchise $25 million. Instead of payment, Sterling countersued the NBA for $100 million, and the two sides eventually settled on having the oleaginous owner pony up just $6 million.

If that’s the best the NBA could do vs. Sterling in a case of blatant breach of league bylaws, how did it ever expect to oust him from ownership without a smoking gun...or smoking tapes?

Sterling has been involved in nearly half a dozen housing discrimination or employment discrimination lawsuits this century. He has never lost a case, either winning or paying a sizeable settlement fee. Sterling settled with the United States Justice Department in 2005 for a record amount in a housing discrimination lawsuit, $2.73 million. Money makes evidence disappear.

This week, Sterling was poised to collect a Lifetime Achievement award from the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP—his second in the past five years. And even after his odious words were released into the webosphere, the NAACP chapter president, Leon Perkins, still didn’t want a divorce from Sterling. "God teaches us to forgive, and the way I look at it, after a sustained period of proof to the African-American community that those words don't reflect his heart, I think there's room for forgiveness,” Perkins said. “We are negotiating with [Sterling] about giving more moneys [sic] to African-American students at UCLA, and so we are in preliminary discussions.”

Money buys silence. Money buys complicity.

Sal: Do your friends put money in your pocket, Pino? Food on your table, they pay your rent, a roof over your head? They're not your friends. If they were your friends, they wouldn't laugh at you.”

Like the owner of Sal’s Pizzeria in Do the Right Thing—who, to be fair, seemed far more tolerant of minorities than the Clippers’ billionaire owner—Donald Sterling seemed to believe that since his wealth was a source of jobs for minorities, his bigotry was irrelevant. His words: “I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them?”

And so, as Sterling’s words made the NBA playoffs themselves a below-the-fold story, players, fans and NBA officials began buggin’ out.

Buggin’ Out: Who told you to walk on my side of the block, who told you to be in my neighborhood?”
Clifton: “I own this brownstone.”
Buggin' Out: “Who told you to buy a brownstone on my block, in my neighborhood, on my side of the street? Yo, what you wanna live in a Black neighborhood for, anyway? Why don’t you go back to Massachusetts?”
Clifton: “I was born in Brooklyn!”

It was left to Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban to ask a sane question in the midst of the hysteria. Cuban, a self-made billionaire, wondered what the limits are on the consequences of free speech. “He’s obviously racist, he’s obviously bigoted,” said Cuban. “In no uncertain terms am I supporting what Donald Sterling said, or his position. But in this country, people are allowed to be morons. If we're taking something somebody said in their home and we're trying to turn it into something that leads to you being forced to divest property in any way, shape or form, that's not the United States of America.”

Author Joyce Carol Oates also chimed in. “Am I the only person in U.S. surprised that a private conversation (no matter how ugly) can be the basis for such public recrimination?” Oates asked at the world’s watercooler, also known as Twitter. “This era of ever-vigilant social media & NSA surveillance may one day be seen as the end of 'free speech' in America. Happened so quickly.”

True. But slavery predated the First Amendment by more than a century, and while it was eradicated in the 1860s, this country is still evolving in how we deal with the scars it left behind. Recall what Oscars host Ellen Degeneres said in her opening monologue at the Academy Awards just two months ago: “Tonight, there are so many different possibilities. Possibility number one: 12 Years a Slave wins best picture. Possibility number two: You’re all racists!”

It was a joke, obviously, but funny because it was rooted in an uncomfortable truth. Flashpoints such as the Sterling fiasco compel all of us to confront the fact that the scars linger. And that, while this is a civil society for most, the anger lingers just below the surface for many. On Tuesday Adam Silver had a unique opportunity to do the right thing, and he took it.

Radio Raheem: “The story of life is this: static. One hand is always fighting the other hand, and the left hand is kicking much ass. I mean, it looks like the right hand, Love, is finished. But hold on, stop the presses, the right hand is coming back. Yeah, he got the left hand on the ropes, now, that's right. Ooh, it's a devastating right and Hate is hurt, he's down. Left-Hand Hate KOed by Love.”

A quarter-century ago, the man seated in the second row of Silver’s press conference basically wrote the script for the passion play we all just witnessed. Which may be both impressive and a little depressing. But this is America, and the national discussion on racism will continue, assisted strangely enough by our obsession with sports, to evolve.

And that’s the double-truth, Ruth.