Blackballed review: Shedding light on Donald Sterling’s Clippers in unconventional format

The newly released Quibi documentary, “Blackballed,” sheds more light on the LA Clippers and the Donald Sterling incident in an unconventional format.

In terms of quality, the newly released Blackballed is nearly on par with ESPN’s 30 for 30 series. Shedding light on the infamous Donald Sterling incident back in 2014, this Quibi sports documentary recounts how one secretly recorded tape helped derail a promising playoff run for the LA Clippers and spawned a national dialogue about the NBA, player empowerment and racism in America.

While the doc doesn’t drop any earth-shattering bombs or new revelations on what Matt Barnes calls “the worst and I would say the best thing that ever happened to the Clippers,” Blackballed‘s intrigue lies in hearing this well-known story straight from the source (something fans of The Last Dance grew intimately familiar with over its 10-episode run).

Blackballed, like The Last Dance, thrives on the personalities and anecdotes of the players, coaches and media members who were on the inside of this viral controversy. Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan, Doc Rivers, Matt Barnes and J.J. Redick all lend their perspective on what it was like to try and focus on basketball while their own owner was caught wielding some shockingly (but not surprisingly) racist opinions that turned into a national story.

The breadth of interviewees is impressive, including media personalities like Jemele Hill, Stephen A. Smith and Kenny Smith, Clippers beat writer Dan Woike and even NBA commissioner Adam Silver.

(While it’s no surprise Donald Sterling is not involved, not being able to bring in Blake Griffin or Magic Johnson is the only real disappointment on this front.)

What differentiates Blackballed from your typical sports documentary is the way it’s divided up. Quibi, the new streaming service that had a disappointing launch in April, specializes in content presented in shorter snippets of 10 minutes or less. The intent is to make each video more digestible for an on-the-go society watching videos on phones and tablets.

Running at about 90 minutes total, Blackballed‘s unconventional format means it’s comprised of 12 brief episodes that run anywhere from 6-8 minutes long, with only the first three episodes available. Each individual episode tells its own story well enough, with a clear beginning, middle and end designed to entice the viewer to queue up the next episode right away. Still, it can sometimes feel truncated as a binging experience, especially for the chapters that are shorter or directly related to the very next episode.

Most traditional sports docs are broken up by commercials and ads, but even with Quibi’s commitment to avoiding lengthy advertisements breaking up their bite-sized content, it’s not the smoothest format — especially with only three episodes available. Those who don’t have an hour and a half to spare and have to digest content in bits and pieces may appreciate these more manageable 6-8 minute episodes. Those trying to consume the whole doc in one sitting might have found it tedious even if every episode were immediately available, and the cracks in trying to assemble 12 shorter chapters into one coherent story are a little more noticeable for those who wait to binge the whole thing at once.

Minor inconveniences aside, however, Blackballed capably explores a number of topics that were hard to fully comprehend at the time — even for those who were closely following along back then. At the forefront of these is the player empowerment era and how professional athletes are using their platform now more than ever to speak out against social injustice.

“If you don’t stand for something or you don’t speak up on something, then you’re part of the problem,” Chris Paul says early on. “You’re damn near saying you’re okay with whatever’s going on.”

Tied in directly with that theme is how much more difficult it is for black athletes to voice their opinions in a country that can often feel inherently judgmental if not outright racist. The doc challenges this idea that these players should just “stick to sports.”

“We have a choice not to speak, and I tell my athletes that all the time: You don’t have to,” Doc Rivers said. “But we do have the opportunity if we want to use it, and the Donald Sterling event absolutely showed from that day forward, athletes — they’re ready to go.”

For those unfamiliar with the Sterling incident, back in 2014, one of the best Clippers teams in franchise history entered the postseason with a chance to really make some noise. Between CP3, superstar Blake Griffin and a championship-winning head coach in Rivers, the Clippers were looking to turn the “Lob City” moniker into something their more prestigious in-city rivals already had: a championship. This was a significant moment for the franchise, given how miserable it had been for decades under Sterling’s ownership.

“Whether you thought that was a curse or not, it doesn’t really matter,” Dan Woike says. “The reality of it was it was a poorly run organization. If the curse existed, bad decisions and bad ownership and bad management just poured gasoline on it.”

However, right in the middle of their first-round playoff series against a rising Golden State Warriors team, TMZ released a tape recording of Sterling saying some deplorably racist things to his girlfriend about former Lakers superstar Magic Johnson. His plantation owner mindset came to the forefront, creating a media frenzy that made it impossible for the Clippers to focus on basketball.

The team discussed the idea of boycotting and not playing at all before ultimately going with a more symbolic gesture to show they were united and playing for each other, not their despicable owner who viewed them like prized cattle. In Game 4 of that first-round series, the players united at mid-court and took off their Clippers warmups, revealing shoot-around shirts that had been turned inside out so as to avoid displaying the name of the organization. It was a silent, peaceful protest but a powerful statement.

The Clippers won that series in seven games and thought the mess had been put behind them after Silver issued a lifetime ban for the owner, but Sterling appeared in an interview with Anderson Cooper in which he denied being a racist, shed crocodile tears to try and win back public affection and wound up firing back at Magic Johnson when he was challenged on his views.

The incident reignited the controversy, making it impossible for the Clippers to focus on their second-round opponent, the Oklahoma City Thunder. All of the franchise’s past demons resurfaced, and their season ended in classic, disappointing fashion.

Those Clippers didn’t win a championship, but with Sterling banned and his wife Shelly convincing the court he suffered from dementia and was no longer fit to be an owner, the NBA franchise was quickly sold to current owner Steve Ballmer, allowing the league to move on in the wake of an eye-opening controversy, for both sports and American society in general.

“This was a crisis, but it was one of our own making,” Silver says. “This was one of our own.”

Blackballed spends a fair amount of time covering how authoritatively and decisively Adam Silver responded with his lifetime ban, as well as Sterling’s history of racism as a business mogul, incompetence as the Clippers’ owner and why he was allowed to exist in the NBA for so long.

Ultimately, the lasting impression is illuminating in terms of this era of player empowerment and how the Clippers’ protest contributed to NBA players — and black athletes in general — being more vocal in speaking out on social issues. It’s an important message on a historical event that has somehow not as well remembered as it should be, especially since all of these topics are still extremely relevant six years later.

Next: 5 things we learned in Episodes 9-10 of The Last Dance

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