David Aldridge was sitting in Yoshi's, a jazz and sushi bar in Jack London Square, on April 25, 2014, when his producer, Alvin Whitney, scrolled his phone and saw something that needed the veteran reporter's immediate attention.
"Did you see this thing from TMZ?" Whitney asked.
The two were in Oakland for the 2014 Western Conference first-round playoff series between the Warriors and the Clippers, where, one day before, LA had beaten Golden State 98-96 to go up two games to one.
The “thing” on Whitney's phone was audio of Clippers owner Donald Sterling making heated racist statements to his mistress, V. Stiviano, about her associating with African-Americans at Clippers home games, including taking a picture with Basketball Hall of Fame guard Magic Johnson.
Yoshi's provided a sanctuary for Aldridge and Whitney to get away from the game, and enjoy live jazz and Japanese food. Instead, they found themselves immersed in perhaps the most bizarre week in the last 30 years in the NBA.
More than words
Clippers owner Donald Sterling (right) made racist comments to his mistress, V. Stiviano, sparking a scandal that rocked the NBA during the 2014 playoffs.
Six days prior to that night at Yoshi's, the Warriors and the Clippers started what surely was to be an intriguing matchup. The teams split their regular-season series 2-2, including a Christmas matchup that featured numerous technical fouls and the ejections of Draymond Green and Blake Griffin.
Golden State entered the playoffs sixth in the Western Conference, having won 51 games under coach Mark Jackson. LA, possessing a core of Griffin, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan, had championship aspirations, despite finishing third in the West under coach Doc Rivers.
"Kind of almost like a little brother situation," former Clippers forward Matt Barnes said. "They were talented as f**k, and it was only a matter of time before they were going to explode. We always had battles with those guys. ... Our whole team was just a little bit older. So we kind of were able to keep a little bit of a handle on them."
"They had a lot of hype, obviously," Warriors guard Stephen Curry said. "With Lob City, CP, Blake, DeAndre. We were the up-and-comers. Neither one of us had really won anything, so it was kind of interesting that it was intense and high profile as it was."
Added Warriors forward Draymond Green: "We knew we was capable of beating that team. We knew they weren't much better than us, and we knew we stacked up very well against them. Learned they had a little more experience than us — CP was a little older and stuff. J.J. Redick was a little older than Klay [Thompson]. Blake Griffin was a little bit older than myself and Harrison [Barnes]. ... We felt like we stacked up great against them. We felt like we could beat 'em.”
The beginning of the series didn't disappoint, as Golden State took Game 1 109-105 behind 22 points from Thompson and a 20-point, 13-rebound performance from David Lee. The Clippers returned the favor two nights later, blowing out the Warriors 138-98 behind 35 points from Griffin and setting the stage for the drama that awaited in the Bay Area.
Aldridge knew full and well about Sterling's past. He knew about the housing discrimination suit filed by the Housing Rights Center of Los Angeles on behalf of 18 tenants. The case, which was settled for $4.9 million, alleged Sterling said "black people smell and attract vermin" and "Hispanics just smoke and hang around the building,” and that he would only rent to Koreans because "they will pay the rent and live in whatever conditions I give them."
Aldridge knew about the 2006 suit from U.S. Department of Justice, settled for $2.7 million, that alleged Sterling refused to rent to non-Koreans in his Koreatown complex and African-Americans in his Beverly Hills properties. And Aldridge knew about the 2009 suit, brought against the Clippers by former executive Elgin Baylor, which was ruled in favor of Sterling, despite allegations from Baylor that Sterling said "poor black boys from the South and a white head coach."
"I mean, people act like we didn't write about this,” Aldridge said. “We all wrote about this multiple times, about the lawsuits, about the housing lawsuits, and I remember talking to people and the league were all like, 'Aren’t you going to do something about this guy?’ And they're like, ‘Well, we can't really do anything.’
“I believe at the time it was the largest housing discrimination lawsuit in the history of the United States, and nothing happened! Nothing happened to him, so you kind of feel like, well, they're not going to do anything with him.”
Then Sterling was heard on the audio tapes with his mistress, criticizing her enjoying the company of African-Americans around him.
"It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people," Sterling said on the nine-minute tape. "Do you have to?
"You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want," Sterling added. "The little I ask you is not to promote it on that ... and not to bring them to my games."
As Sterling's words traveled throughout the league's consciousness, teams in an overwhelmingly black league were affected.
"I was really interested to see what the reaction was going to be," Warriors forward Andre Iguodala. "Because we've all known who he was before, and none of us was surprised."
Added Green: "I don't remember where I was. But I remember all that s**t playing out, and it was just crazy. Everybody's in this space like, ‘Yo, what do we do?’
Making sense of it all
Clippers coach Doc Rivers fields questions about team owner Donald Sterling's racist comments before Game 4 against the Warriors at Oracle Arena. "It was hell," Rivers said of that time.
News of Sterling's comments trickled into the Clippers' group chat at their team hotel in San Francisco. It quickly brought up a question around the team and from the outside world: Should a team with NBA Finals aspirations play for a racist owner?
"Me and Chris Paul went back and forth a lot," Barnes said. "We kind of discussed everything that went on with that team, and how we approached and spoke to our teammates.
“It was just outsiders [asking if the teams should play]. It was social media, it was people that are suggesting it on talk shows," Barnes added. "Suggesting s**t that we should do. But everyone always has the answer of what to do until they're actually in the situation. We had discussed not playing, but then we also realized, we're in the NBA playoffs right now, man. So sitting out a game, who knows what that would happen?
The next morning, Rivers gathered the Clippers for breakfast, leaving the decision to play in the player's hands. At practice at the University of San Francisco hours later, Rivers was the only person from the organization to speak in front of a large contingent of reporters, beat writers and entertainment journalists flown in for comment.
"It was hell," Rivers said. “It was the worst thing I've ever gone through in my 20 years as coach. I felt like the entire organization and franchise had been let down. I thought we were a joke.
"It was embarrassing for anybody who had to wear that logo. So it was my job, unfortunately, to try and put things back together in 16 hours. It should have taken us out of that series."
For Rivers, who'd been a part of the NBA since 1983 as both a player and a coach, things were tricky. He was an African-American man speaking on behalf of, and running, an organization owned by a racist owner in the middle of perhaps his team’s best shot at winning a championship.
"It was a lot of confliction," Rivers said. "I had to try and be the voice for our players. I was so concerned someone would say something and it became the story, instead of the story being focused on what happened."
After 48 hours of discussion — and without resolution from the NBA, which was investigating the audio — the Clippers took the court at Oracle Arena in silent protest, dropping their team-issued warmups at center court, while wearing their shooting shirts inside out. Hours later, they were blasted 118-97 by the Warriors, evening the series at two games apiece, with the series shifting back to Southern California.
Silver steps up
Clippers fans made known their feelings about team owner Donald Sterling before Game 5 against the Warriors at Staples Center.
Throughout the 1900s, Los Angeles was fertile ground for uprisings stemming from disagreements with race. During the early part of the century, redlining laws were passed to prevent African-Americans from renting and owning property in certain parts of town. In 1965, following the police beating of Marquette Frye, five days of rioting broke out in Watts, resulting in 34 deaths and $40 million in property damage. Nearly 30 years later, riots broke out again following the police beating of Rodney King.
Heading to LA, Aldridge, his Turner broadcast crew and the league at large was uncertain what would happen before Game 5. Would LA go up in riots again? Would police presence be needed at Staples Center? Would Aldridge have to put himself in harm's way reporting on the events?
"I remember our breakfast meeting before Game 5 was, 'OK, this is what's going to happen if there's tear gas,' " Aldridge remembered.
While the league awaited commissioner Adam Silver's verdict and Aldridge awaited the turnout, Rivers was reconciling his new role as de-facto team president. Most of the Clippers' in-game staff had quit in the wake of Sterling's comments.
"It created a windfall of crap,” Rivers said. “I always said I shouldn't have to deal with it. I had to pick out the shirts at the arena the next day because everyone had quit."
Meanwhile, Aldridge was coming to grips with how the series was affecting his family's view more than 3,000 miles away on the East Coast. On the eve of Game 5, his wife informed him that his 7-year-old son had asked if his father would be welcomed at Staples Center since he's a black man. The next morning, Aldridge asked his producer if he could use that anecdote on air.
"I said, 'Look, I've got to say something before this game. I have to say something, because this is real now, this is impacting me, my family, and if it's impacting us, it's impacting these players, it's impacting everyone in this league,' " Aldridge said.
The Turner crew agreed, giving Aldridge a couple of minutes for a live monologue. But once on the court, he struggled to get out the words.
"I realized about 20 seconds in I was starting to choke up, and I was like, 'David, you have to finish this now. You can't start crying on the air. You have to finish!' " Aldridge said. “Because the game’s about to start, and so I think I managed to pull myself together.
“I didn't do it to draw attention to me. That wasn't the reason. I did it because I felt like it had to be said, that this was impacting people on a much different level than your garden-variety something-happened-during-a-series, somebody pulled a hamstring and they're out, or this guy broke his hand and he's out. That's not what this was. This was different, this was visceral. It was impacting everybody."
His words almost weren't aired, as the league waited Silver's announcement leading up to the game. If the commissioner’s words weren't satisfactory to the players, dire consequences were on the way.
"I remember everybody talking like if Adam Silver don't come down with a tough enough post and we don't think it's right, we're not playing tonight," Green said.
Added Iguodala: "If it came to it, I think we were ready. We were willing and ready."
Five hours before Game 5, Silver walked up a podium in a New York ballroom and banned Sterling from the NBA for life, much to the players’ satisfaction. That eventually led to Sterling selling the Clippers to tech tycoon Steve Ballmer, who still owns the franchise today.
"You just felt like he took a stab against the bulls**t," Green said of Silver's ruling. “And us players, we appreciate that."
The fall before the rise
Then-Warriors coach Mark Jackson embraces point guard Stephen Curry during the waning seconds of Game 7. Jackson was fired three days later.
As the teams prepped for Game 7, it seemed the Warriors were preparing for the eventual dismissal of coach Mark Jackson. While Jackson, hired in 2012, had transformed the team, Curry, Thompson, Green, Iguodala and Lee into playoff mainstays, frustrations with the coach continued to mount within the front office.
Months earlier, Jackson had forced a "reassignment" of assistant coach Brian Scalabrine, and he reportedly hadn’t talked to assistant Mike Malone, who left to coach the Sacramento Kings, for months. During Game 1 of the series, television cameras even caught Warriors owner Joe Lacob, sitting behind Jackson at the scorer's table, rolling his eyes at his coach.
Still, even with the writing on the wall, Jackson had his players’ attention.
"We just wanted to win because we thought we could beat that team,” Green said. “Mark Jackson wasn't speaking on, ‘Hey, this is about my job.’ We wasn't speaking on, ‘Hey, we can save Coach Jackson.’ We just thought we could beat them. And that's what we wanted to do."
Prior to Game 7, Jackson remained defiant, wearing an all-black suit and calling the game his “funeral.” And the Warriors almost saved his job for another series, cutting the Clippers’ lead to two with 13 seconds remaining on a Green 3-pointer. However, the Warriors lost the game — and the series — despite 33 points from Curry and 24 points from Green.
Three days later, Jackson was fired, but the Warriors were just beginning to blossom. Curry averaged 23 points and 8.4 assists on just 44 percent shooting from the field with Paul guarding him most of the series, leaving a lasting impression.
"He beat the s**t out of him," Green said. "He was grabbing him. At that time, he really had no respect as far as like in the NBA. Steph wasn't really Steph as of yet. So you can grab him and get away with it. If you had a bigger name, it was OK. Even in 2014, the freedom of movement rule wasn't like it is now. So you could literally grab and ... on top of the freedom of movement not being the way it is today and having a bigger name, you could just grab em' and get away with it.
“At the time, Steph and Klay was viewed as the light-skinned guys that shoot threes. So everybody's game plan was to just bully them. Nobody was shooting threes like that at that time. So after that series, Steph got a lot stronger, he started getting to the hole more and more."
Green averaged 11.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in a breakout series. Following Game 7, he had a proclamation for Nike rep Adrian Stelly.
"I said "Stales, they done f****d up!", Green said. "I could be good in this league, and they let me figure that out. They done f****d up."
Little did the rest of the NBA know, but the Warriors were ready to take the league by storm. The next season, they won the NBA title under new coach Steve Kerr. The season after that, they won a league-record 73 games. The year after that, they signed Kevin Durant and then reeled off two more titles. Meanwhile, the Clippers -- even with Griffin, Paul and Jordan -- couldn't get past the second round together.
"I think it just had us hungry for more," Thompson said of the series loss. “We were kind of regressing, not getting past that first round like the year before. It just kept us hungry really. That's why I buried it deep in my memory.”
Photos by The Associated Press