Behind the Scenes

Does Donald Sterling Have Dementia? And Does That Make Him Any Less of a Racist?

Donald Sterling’s shocking comments and unexpected decision to give in to NBA demands raises a question: Is something else behind the Clippers owner’s behavior?

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty

According to reports from multiple media outlets, Donald Sterling has agreed to allow his wife, Shelly, to negotiate a forced sale of the Los Angeles Clippers.

It’s an absolutely shocking turn of events, and something he swore he’d never do. Donald Sterling is many things, but he’s never been one to back down from a fight. His wife recently offered one reason behind his decision to acquiesce: He’s suffering from dementia.

And while that might explain away some of his seemingly incoherent recent behavior—in particular his disastrous interview with Anderson Cooper—it doesn’t explain away his racist bullshit.

ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne outlined how, behind the scenes, “Shelly Sterling and her lawyers have been negotiating with the NBA since her husband was banned for life by Commissioner Adam Silver on April 29. While the league has yet to formally accept this arrangement, sources said if she is willing to sell the team in its entirety, this could bring a startlingly quick end to what appeared to be a protracted legal battle.”

As recently as last week, Sterling’s lawyer, Maxwell Belcher, sent a letter to the league that indicated not only was Sterling not going to pay the $2.5 million fine, but that his client had done nothing wrong and the issue “will be adjudicated.”

The hiring of Belcher itself was a strong indicator that the famously litigious Sterling was determined to go to court. Belcher was the lead attorney when the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum successfully sued the NFL for antitrust violations, a nine-year ordeal that resulted in a settlement of $19.6 million in 1987.

But as Shelburne explained, “A source said that over the course of this week, Sterling has rethought his position and formally agreed to allow Shelly—an alternate governor of the team—to negotiate a sale.”

A report from TMZ Sports added, “We’re told Shelly realizes the NBA wants the team sold, but she has significantly more leverage and credibility with the league than Donald. Her endgame is simple—she won’t object to the sale, but SHE wants to call the shots.”

To date, the league has not accepted Mrs. Sterling’s offer, and the lifetime ban that Silver imposed on her husband is still in place. NBA spokesman Mike Bass issued the league’s official response: “We continue to follow the process set forth in the NBA Constitution regarding termination of the current ownership interests in the Los Angeles Clippers and are proceeding toward a hearing on this matter on June 3.”

However, sources told USA Today that Mrs. Sterling is using this as a maneuver to try to hold on to a minority share of the Clippers.

There’s absolutely zero chance that the league will let that happen. Commissioner Silver has made it clear that, should three-fourths of the owners vote to force a sale, the ruling would apply to the entirety of the Clippers’ ownership, including Mrs. Sterling.

In addition, as Michael McCann of Sports Illustrated outlined, “The league does not want the Sterlings involved with the NBA. The league also has wide discretion to reject new owners, including for reasons of moral character. Shelly Sterling’s ties to her husband in the housing lawsuits could be grounds alone for the NBA to reject her.”

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The question that then remains is: If the threat of an ugly, drawn-out legal battle won’t keep the Sterlings in the drivers’ seat, and no amount of behind-closed-doors maneuvering won’t help either, what caused Sterling to change his so-called mind?

Well, it’s possible that this is just about money.

My estimate that Sterling might charge $1 billion for the Clippers appears to have fallen woefully short. According to Grantland Editor in Chief Bill Simmons, the price tag may have doubled.

“[The] NBA spent the past few days painstakingly explaining to Sterling just how much money he’d lose by suing to keep the Clips.” Simmons tweeted. “[The] NBA’s hope was that Sterling would add up the insane legal costs + lost sponsor revenue + costs of being a social pariah, then back down. … not to mention, if Sterling sells right now, he’d be selling high (with multiple big $$$$$ suitors).” [sic]

Simmons also named slew of new, potential buyers. Joining the candidates that we’ve previously listed are Rick Caruso, who lost out on a prior bid to purchase the Los Angeles Dodgers; Patrick Soon-Shiong, who owns 4 percent of the Los Angeles Lakers; and even a surprise late entrant in former Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, who may be assembling a group of Chinese investors.

So yes, we shouldn’t discount the effect this will have on the Sterling’s bottom line, but in light of everything we know about his personal history, I think it’s worth returning to Mrs. Sterling’s recent assertion that Donald Sterling is suffering from dementia.

In an interview with Barbara Walters, Mrs. Sterling said “I really think personally he has dementia.”

“Why would he bring Magic Johnson into the issue about what’s happening now?” she said. “I mean, that’s why I felt pity because he couldn’t get all the dots together. He couldn’t connect the dots.… I felt bad for him. Because he’s not the man I know. Or I knew. There’s something wrong.”

There’s no set science as far as making a diagnosis of this kind, and Mrs. Sterling and I are in no way medical professionals, but in viewing his public behavior, it’s a conclusion that has merit.

ABC News also asked Dr. Igor Galynker, the associate chairman of research at Mt. Sinai Beth Israel in New York City and the author of several papers on dementia, to weigh in. “The most universal sign of early dementia is not memory loss, but personality change. Two basic characteristics not related to memory are apathy and indifference or callousness. People become withdrawn and disinterested in other people to the point of being rude.”

Let me make one thing perfectly clear: None of this should in any way be seen as an attempt to exonerate or explain away Donald Sterling’s racist behavior both in the past month or throughout the course of his life. He has been a vile bigot for decades and he’s a vile bigot now; it's just that he may be in a place where he doesn't care if he says prejudicial things out loud and/or is no longer aware how it will be received.

But this is man who has fought countless legal battles, who has been said to relish nothing more than the prospect of duking it out in court when the odds were totally stacked against him. No one expected that he’d fold, even if the 29 other billionaires that own NBA teams cornered him in a smoke-filled back room somewhere and explained in no uncertain terms that they’d make his life an absolute living hell.

As recently as May 4th, Steve Soboroff, one of the driving forces behind the building of Staples Center in Los Angeles, described what he expected Sterling to do.

”Knowing him, I would think the first thing is, ‘How do I fight it? What is the legal strategy here?’” Soboroff said. “Sterling has never sold anything. I don’t even think he sells his used cars.”

This morning’s news, while possibly the smartest thing Sterling’s done in months, could easily be seen as evidence of stark changes in mood and personality that are early warning signs for dementia—within the context of Sterling’s established behavioral patterns.

If you’ve ever had a relative or loved one suffer from this disease, you know what a living nightmare it can be. It’s almost enough to make you pity Donald Sterling for an instant, and then you quickly remember that he’s Donald Sterling.

The best thing about all of this is that he’ll be gone from the NBA—and it looks like it’ll happen sooner than anyone could’ve anticipated. That’s good news for the players, the fans and definitely the league itself.