Donald Sterling

Illustration by Robert Carter / For The Times

By Nathan Fenno, Kim Christensen, James Rainey
August 2, 2014

Inside the pillared estate on North Beverly Drive, after a television interview that lasted an hour and 20 minutes, Donald Sterling hoisted himself out of his chair. The Clippers owner and real estate mogul took a few steps before his knees buckled and he stumbled toward the living room floor.

Two people on either side kept the 80-year-old billionaire from falling, witnesses recalled.

It had been a rough day.

When the CNN crew arrived at his home at 10:45 that morning in May, Sterling greeted everyone with a handshake and lighthearted basketball banter. His interview with Anderson Cooper was to last five minutes with a simple mission, a confidant said. Apologize. Beg forgiveness for his recorded remarks about African Americans. Apologize again.

Some Sterling advisors who were supposed to be on hand to supervise his attempt at redemption didn’t show. Two of his acquaintances were there but remained in the background.

Sterling appeared on national television with the top buttons of his dress shirt undone as usual and an ample belly oozing over dark slacks. He cried and expressed remorse, then suddenly launched a scathing attack on former Laker Magic Johnson.

“Well, what kind of a guy goes to every city, has sex with every girl, then he catches HIV…? I think he should be ashamed of himself,” Sterling told Cooper. “But what does he do for the black people? He doesn’t do anything.”

The disgraced owner had never been known as a master of contrition, but his rant at one of the beloved figures in American sports made things even worse.

For decades, Sterling’s business savvy, intermittent charm and charitable contributions had insulated him from the consequences of his eccentric behavior. No longer.

Sterling had worked hard to create his own reality, spending millions on newspaper ads promoting his real estate empire, his charity work and himself — even as his Clippers were perennial losers and he was accused in lawsuits of discriminating against minority tenants whose rent payments helped make him rich.

“I think he has always lived in his own world,” said Bruce McNall, the former L.A. Kings owner and a longtime Sterling friend. “He created a world of his own for whatever reasons, and has lived in that world.”


Donald Samuel Tokowitz was born in Chicago in 1934, the son of Russian immigrants. The family moved to California when he was a child.

Raised in Boyle Heights, then a predominantly Jewish neighborhood east of downtown Los Angeles, Sterling was a class president and gymnast at Roosevelt High School. He later married his high school sweetheart, Rochelle “Shelly” Stein.

He began to reinvent himself at 25 when he changed his last name to Sterling. In a court petition in 1959, Donald and Shelly said Tokowitz was difficult to pronounce and that changing it to Sterling would benefit them in business dealings.

Sterling graduated from Southwestern Law School and was admitted to the California bar in 1961. He practiced divorce and personal-injury law and soon began accumulating apartment buildings in Beverly Hills. He and his wife now own more than 150 properties, mostly in Los Angeles County, that are home to about 20,000 tenants.

Sterling, the son of a vegetable peddler, was not shy about trumpeting his transformation. In his penthouse office in Beverly Hills, Sterling often showed visitors a Louis XIV desk, paintings by Rembrandt and Renoir and centuries-old Chinese antiques. He eagerly dropped celebrity names, bragging that he bought properties from Elizabeth Taylor and John Wayne, and once boasted of plans to buy an NFL franchise.

After Sterling bought the San Diego Clippers in 1981, his picture popped up on billboards around town.

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