(Adds NBA reaction, legal expert comment)
By Eric Kelsey
LOS ANGELES, July 28 The record $2 billion sale of pro basketball's Los Angeles Clippers to former Microsoft Corp chief executive Steve Ballmer can proceed over the objections of co-owner Donald Sterling, a judge tentatively ruled on Monday.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Levanas said the deal, brokered by Sterling's estranged wife, Shelly Sterling, was permissible and could be consummated even if Sterling, who has been banned for life from the NBA for racist remarks, chose to appeal.
"She had every good reason to believe that Donald agreed to the sale of the team," Levanas said.
The ruling was a major victory for the NBA and Shelly Sterling, who had asked the probate judge to confirm her as the trustee of the family trust that owns the Clippers after having her 80-year-old husband removed when neurologists deemed him to have early Alzheimer's disease and was unable to handle business affairs.
Shelly Sterling, 79, cried after the ruling in the emotionally charged nine-day trial and told reporters outside the courtroom "either way we'd win. I am just doing what I had to do."
She said she believed Donald Sterling's ban from the NBA would be lifted.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling after derogatory remarks he made about black people in private to a woman friend were recorded and then published. Sterling had vowed to block the sale he initially blessed because he said his wife improperly removed him as a trustee of the family trust that owns the Clippers.
The NBA, looking to close a chapter that brought shame to the basketball league and outraged fans, said it was "pleased" with the court's decision.
"We look forward to the transaction closing as soon as possible," NBA spokesman Mike Bass said in a statement.
The judge said his tentative ruling would take formal effect when he issues it in writing in coming weeks.
Ed McCaffery, a professor of law at University of Southern California, said Donald Sterling will likely appeal the ruling, but is highly unlikely to be able to derail the timetable of the sale.
"He can appeal as much as he likes, but the Clippers are going to be sold to Ballmer," McCaffery said.
Donald Sterling, who has owned the Clippers for 33 years, has also sued the NBA, the league commissioner and his wife, contending the team was illegally taken from him.
Bradley Shear, a sports attorney, called the ruling a "complete and total" victory for Shelly Sterling, but not a surprising one, as she was extremely careful in how she used the rules of the family trust to have Sterling removed as a trustee. (Additional reporting by Tim Reid; Writing by Mary Milliken; Editing by Grant McCool)