Los Angeles Clippers

The Sterling Affairs: ESPN’s deep dive into the saga that changed everything

The Sterling Affairs, ESPN’s new podcast series, uncovers a whole new layer of depth on the Donald Sterling story, making for truly compelling listen.

“It was like being inside of a movie…you couldn’t write these characters any better than they already were.”

When Ramona Shelburne was reflecting on the events that formed the basis for The Sterling Affairs, her cinematic description hit on precisely why five years is plenty of time to let us look back and reflect.

It seems like yesterday that Shelburne, along with every media outlet from TMZ to CNN, was reporting on the Donald Sterling fiasco as it unfolded before our eyes (and on our Twitter feeds). Five years might seem a bit fresh for a retrospective, but this was no ordinary sports story. Like any great movie, the Sterling saga is timeless. From the parties involved to the decades-long lead-up to the multitude of twists, turns and betrayals, it’s only fitting that this tale played out in Hollywood. It also meant there was far more to unearth.

Shelburne, who has been reporting on Los Angeles basketball for nearly two decades, realized this better than anyone. “The rest of the world wanted to move on from it,” Shelburne told me recently as she geared up for the release of ESPN’s latest entry into their 30 for 30 series. “But it was such a fascinating story, and I always thought I would do something bigger.”

The Sterling Affairs is the culmination of that idea, a five-part podcast series that not only expands what we thought we knew about the drama that shook up the NBA in 2014 but also adds a necessary backdrop that helps us understand how the monstrous Donald Sterling came to be.

There’s a ton of new information presented here, going back decades and involving tie-ins with several new characters, the most notable of which is the late Lakers’ owner Jerry Buss. The depth of the investigation was, as Shelburne put it, “a whole new level of reporting for me.”

All of this makes the series a must-listen for any NBA fan. What brings it up a few notches, however, is its deft portrayal of the crossroads between old and new. Through Shelburne’s commentary and the various interviews, we’re taken on a journey that pitted the unstoppable forces of technology and new-age media against the (previously) immovable object of rich, white power.

A huge part of the media angle of this story covered V. Stiviano, who recorded Sterling’s comments that got him banned. Mike Walters, the founder of TheBlast.com, initially broke the story when he was with TMZ. He told me there was initially some question about whether they should even release the audio, something which he thinks has since changed — in part due to the scandal. “People are more comfortable prodding and investigating circumstances,” Walters said, adding that now, “you’re actually able to investigate things that should be investigated. When people do terrible things, it gets out there.”

Regardless of the powerful themes at play, the freshness of these events could have made putting together a compelling podcast challenging, especially since there haven’t been any new developments in the main storyline since the team was sold to Steve Balmer.

That’s what makes The Sterling Affairs such an achievement. Shelburne uses new interviews to weave together a narrative that you’ll feel like you’ve never heard before. One of the many soundbites that hit home comes from longtime Clippers play-by-play man Ralph Lawler. “People finally spoke up after a lot of prodding, and it was a lot to get it off their chest,” Shelburne recounted about the process of landing the interviews for the series. “He had previously felt it wasn’t his place to say anything, but Ralph needed to talk about this.”

Lawler is one of several notable figures to go on record about how this saga affected him, and every one is powerful. While many NBA fans know the basic outline of Sterling’s past — Elgin Baylor’s claims against his former boss, Sterling’s general reputation as a cheap, unsavory character, etc. — hearing first-hand accounts from the affected parties ups the ante considerably.

One of the more staggering of these comes from Olden Polynice, who spent a year with the Clippers in the early 1990s. Even before the events of 2014, we had all heard about Sterling’s plantation mentality and how he engaged with his black players in unsettling ways. Hearing Polynice describe one such encounter with cringe-worthy specificity is perhaps the podcast’s pinnacle.

In addition to shedding new light on the scandal itself and his shortcomings as an NBA owner, The Sterling Affairs explains how and why Sterling came to be the way he is. The podcast makes it quite clear that what unfolded that April was a culmination of decades’ worth of misdeeds, misogyny, and racism. “This was a good reminder of the power dynamics in our world,” Shelburne told me. “When you’re the person abusing that power, you’re the last to know.

Aside from Shelburne — the perfect tour guide to take us back through Donald Sterling’s House of Horrors — the other star of the pod is Sterling’s wife, Shelly. In many ways, the story is told through her eyes, which is at once both revealing and unsettling. She gives a first-hand account of everything, from how she met her husband to how she ultimately came to wrestle away control of the team from him in order to sell it. While she gives the podcast some much-needed perspective, the story’s conclusion forces us to question the source from which it came (Shelly and Donald are still very much married, despite her saying at the time that this was the final straw).

Shelburne fully realizes just how complex of a protagonist Ms. Sterling is. “I was right there with everyone five years ago. You wanted to believe in this heroic arc she had. If it was fiction, you’d end it there.  I had to get my head around that, yes, she did the right thing, but you also need to realize that change is hard, both in the first place, and to keep with.” She added that, when interviewing Shelly, she often kept her mother’s advice in mind: “You never know what is inside of another person’s marriage. Don’t try to judge it. That’s between them.”

More than anything, the tale of Donald and Shelly — “the human side of the story,” as Shelburne put it — is the reason you can’t stop listening to these pods once they start. You might not know exactly what to think of Shelly Sterling by the end, but that’s part of what makes this drama so compelling. She unquestionably came out on top in 2014; how she’s going to be viewed five years later is less simple.

Next: Building the perfect NBA roster: 2019-20 edition

In the end, for as much as Donald Sterling is a black eye that the NBA would like to forget, revisiting the circumstances that awarded and ultimately kept him in power, as well as what led to his undoing, is important for every thoughtful person to engage with, basketball fan or otherwise.

Over the course of five episodes, The Sterling Affairs will have you asking new questions based on old events and reexamining much of what you thought you knew about several topics, both in and outside the world of sports. It’ll also have Clipper fans everywhere counting their lucky stars once again (as if they haven’t done enough of that already this summer).

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