A prime-time interview after a scandal can be a godsend for embattled celebrities—a mea culpa, an opportunity to reclaim public opinion, a first shot at endearing themselves enough to overshadow previous wrongdoings.
Not so for Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who appeared on Anderson Cooper 360 on Monday night for his first interview since a scandal that has cost him his reputation, his NBA affiliation, and, quite possibly, his team. Sitting down opposite Cooper with what must have been the intention to redeem himself after a tape of his racist rants hit the media two weeks ago, Sterling stumbled spectacularly.
Far from achieving even a sliver of vindication, he destroyed any chance at recovering from what has become a kamikaze-style implosion. The wild remarks Sterling made to Cooper—about Jews, African Americans, and what he sees as his sainted status in the NBA—ensure his scandal won’t be going away anytime soon.
He Was Tricked
Sterling’s attempts to pull off a repentant attitude came across unconvincingly. The voice on the leaked phone call speaking to alleged girlfriend V. Stiviano was his, he said, but he was forced or lured into saying those things he didn’t really mean, and he is not, repeat not, a racist.
“I don’t know why the girl had me say those things,” he said, blaming Stiviano for his words but refusing to refer to her by name. “I was baited. That’s not the way I talk.”
He played the vulnerable senior citizen card, claiming he was seduced into making a racist rant on technology he didn’t understand. “An 80-year-old man is kind of foolish, and I’m kind of foolish,” he said, adding that he was deluding himself about Stiviano’s feelings about him and their 50-year-old age difference (at this point he even cried momentarily).
He still seems to admire her, though while he was speaking about her humble upbringing he said, “She’s still a street person.” And of her appearance, he said, “100 men could look at her and perhaps they wouldn’t even think she’s pretty, but she’s something special.” But when pressed on the nature of their relationship—which Stiviano has characterized as platonic—Sterling clammed up. “I don’t know what you mean by intimate,” he stuttered in reply to Cooper’s question. “I don’t think a gentleman should discuss any personal items that go on with a woman.”
Also, He’s Not Racist, but Anderson Cooper Is
Grilled about whether his statements stemmed from racism or jealousy, as he has claimed, Sterling started to stumble. Alternating between expressing confusion about why he said those things—some variation of “I can’t explain some of the stupid foolish uneducated words I muttered, you get upset and you say things” and “I don’t know why I said stupid things”—he turned the tables on Cooper.
“I think you have more of a plantation mentality than I do,” he said. “You’re more of a racist than I am.”
After firing that off, he clumsily asked what a plantation mentality is.
Actually, Magic Johnson Is the Real Villain Here
Magic Johnson’s role in the scandal—he was among the men Sterling called Stiviano out for being seen with—was perhaps the most offensive part of the interview. At first, Sterling declined to talk about the basketball legend, praising his talents but calling him “irrelevant in this thing.” Then Sterling viciously turned on him, saying Johnson had deceived him with promises of help, that he supposedly wanted to buy the team, and then—
“What has he done?” he asked Cooper, but quickly cut off his answer with: “He’s got AIDS.”
“I just don’t think he’s a good example to the children of Los Angeles...that he would go do what he did and then get AIDS.”
Putting aside Johnson’s 23-year-old charitable foundation and millions, Sterling continued: “What does he do for the black people? He doesn’t do anything.” The rant quickly turned 100 percent politically incorrect when he began comparing African Americans to Jewish philanthropists. “Some of the African Americans—maybe I’ll get in trouble again—they don’t want to help anybody.”
Later he cut himself off when Cooper asked about the comparison to the Jewish community. “There’s no African-American—” he began, but faltered as he seemed to start to say “community” and awkwardly transitioned into: “I’m sorry. They all want to play golf with me. Everyone wants to be with me.”
Because Everyone Still Loves Him
Sterling seems to be convinced of his popularity with NBA players (“I contend that they love me,” he says), fans, and even the league that just issued him a lifetime ban. Here is the exchange he had with Cooper after he claimed that other NBA owners don’t agree with his forced removal (an AP survey showed the majority already plan to vote to force him to sell his club):
Sterling: “I’m not sure that’s what they want.”
Cooper: “That is what they want.”
Sterling: “Well, that’s your opinion, and that’s what the media says.
“The players don’t hate me. The sponsors don’t hate me. The fans don’t hate me. The media hates me,” he said. “People call me by the thousands and give me support.”
A recent poll found 73 percent of NBA-watching Americans supported the league’s punishment.
Of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who appeared steely-eyed and outraged at a press conference announcing Sterling’s lifetime ban and $2.5 million fine, he said, “I’m sure it’s terribly difficult for him to impose severe punishment because he knows me so well.”
(Or maybe not. In a statement Monday night, Silver said: “I just read a transcript of Donald Sterling’s interview with Anderson Cooper and while Magic Johnson doesn’t need me to, I feel compelled on behalf of the NBA family to apologize to him that he continues to be dragged into this situation and be degraded by such a malicious and personal attack. The NBA Board of Governors is continuing with its process to remove Mr. Sterling as expeditiously as possible.”)
The only endearing moment was at the end, when a solo Sterling was filmed sitting in front of his TV, glasses on, staring intently at a Clippers game he is no longer allowed to attend.
But that parting image wasn’t nearly enough to save a disastrous interview that would have left even the Olivia Pope of crisis management teams trembling in a fox hole.
“What this was to PR, the Hindenburg was for blimps,” CNN host Bill Weir quipped at the interview’s close.