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Silver makes Sterling pay dearly

All I can say is, “Hi-yo Silver!”

Last week, I imagine most casual sports fans weren’t even aware of Adam Silver. They had a vague notion that David Stern had stepped aside as NBA commissioner, but most people would have struggled to name the lawyer who took over for Stern this past Feb. 1.

But everyone knows Silver’s name now. The new commissioner stunned the sports world on Tuesday by banning Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life and fining him $2.5 million for racist comments that were recorded last fall in a conversation with his former girlfriend.

Silver, a New York City native who turned 52 last Friday, was swift and decisive in his rebuke of the league’s longest-standing owner. He gave Sterling the harshest penalty ever issued by the NBA and promised to do everything in his power to force him to sell the Clippers.

In one stunning press conference, Silver announced himself as the league’s new sheriff and separated himself from his predecessor, Stern, who guided the NBA from its lowest depths to its current level of prosperity but was often seen as soft on the major issues.

Just a day or two earlier, Silver had said he would proceed with restraint and wait for the investigation to play out. He said Sterling deserved due process. But once the new commish established that the recording was genuine, he wasted no time dropping the hammer on Sterling and banning him from all league activities.

It was a crowning moment for Silver, who was instantly lauded by some of the biggest names in basketball and the African-American community. That includes former Lakers great Magic Johnson, who was a target of Sterling’s racial venom on the infamous recording.

Evidently, Sterling became upset when his friend, one V. Stiviano, posted a photo of herself with Johnson on Instagram. Sterling said it troubled him that the woman would “broadcast” that she was “associating with black people.”

You can listen to the entire tape if you like. But that’s the gist. Sterling was essentially saying, “Go ahead and hang out with those black people all you like, honey, but I don’t want my friends seeing you flaunt it in public.”

My God, the man owns an NBA team! Of course, it was far from the first such indiscretion by Sterling. In 2006, he was sued by the U.S. Justice Department for refusing to rent to blacks and Latinos. He paid a $2.765 million fine for that one. He has been sued for sexual harassment by former employees.

Sterling, 80, has battled civil rights violations and accusations of racial discrimination through his business career. Elgin Baylor, the Clippers’ former general manager, sued him for age and race discrimination. Baylor accused Sterling of promoting a “southern plantation” mentality with the Clippers and claimed that Sterling made racially condescending comments about his players.

The NBA – and most of the national media – didn’t make a big deal of it until now. Stern allowed the problem to fester for years. It was an unspoken disgrace that a man with Sterling’s bigoted history could be the longest-tenured owner in the league with the highest percentage of African-Americans.

But once the recording showed up on the gossip site TMZ, Sterling’s dark side was there for all to see. Now, just two months into the new job, Silver had the crisis of a career on his hands.

The biggest names in the NBA were lining up in protest. Magic Johnson said Sterling shouldn’t own a team. Kobe Bryant vented his outrage. So did Charles Barkley, Michael Jordan and LeBron James. There were calls for a boycott of playoff games.

Before their playoff game at Golden State on Sunday, the Clippers turned their jerseys inside out during warm-ups and wore black armbands and socks. James and the Miami Heat staged a similar protest before their game on Monday.

With his players on the verge of revolt, Silver had to act swiftly and decisively. He was in touch with the other 29 NBA owners. Several of the owners had denounced Sterling in harsh terms. The commissioner knows they will be united behind him in the move to force Sterling to sell the team.

Still, it was a bold and powerful move, and Silver should be applauded for it. As any NBA coach could tell you, it’s hard to succeed if the players aren’t behind you.

Kevin Johnson, who serves as a liaison for the Players Association, said he was proud of the league. Johnson said Silver “is not only the owners’ commissioner, he’s the players’ commissioner.”

The players should be proud, too. Athletes are rightly criticized for not taking political stands nowadays, but the NBA players showed unity and resolve. We talk of living in a “post-racial” society, but there are too many examples that show how far we have yet to go.

A league in which three-quarters of the players are African-American cannot for one more instant tolerate an owner who laughed in the face of racial equality. Silver knew he had to take a bold, uncompromising stand, and fast.

The Clippers hosted Game Five of their playoff series with the Warriors on Tuesday night. Apparently, the players didn’t watch Silver’s press conference. They were at the morning shootaround. The series is tied at two games apiece, and they wanted to focus on the task ahead.

That’s as it should be. One of the regrettable things about Sterling/Silver is that it overshadowed an amazing first round of playoffs. It’ll be good to get back to the games. Thankfully, at last, Donald Sterling isn’t welcome.