NEW YORK (Reuters) - The NBA set in motion on Wednesday an attempt to force a sale of the Los Angeles Clippers, with Oprah Winfrey signaling interest as a potential buyer, after club owner Donald Sterling was banned for life from pro basketball for racist comments attributed to him.
At least two of the National Basketball Association’s 29 other team owners, including the governing board’s interim chairman, said they expect the necessary three-fourths majority of owners to back Sterling’s full expulsion, a move unprecedented in NBA history.
The advisory finance committee of the board scheduled a meeting on Thursday to review the next steps for removing Sterling as owner of the Clippers, as urged on Tuesday by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, a league spokeswoman said.
Sterling, who bought the Clippers in 1981 for $13 million when the team was based in San Diego, has not indicated whether he would relinquish ownership without a fight. Experts have estimated that the franchise, which moved to Los Angeles in 1984, could now be worth as much as $800 million.
Moreover, some experts said Sterling’s fellow owners might be hesitant to support action they felt might set a precedent that could jeopardize their own property rights in the future.
Still, the move to expel Sterling from the league altogether fanned speculation about potential buyers.
Winfrey’s spokeswoman, Nicole Nichols, said the talk show host turned media mogul was in talks with leading Hollywood executive David Geffen and the chief executive officer of computer technology firm Oracle Corp, Larry Ellison, to bid for the team if were to become available.
Geffen, who started two record labels and co-founded the Dreamworks film studio, has expressed interest in the Clippers in the past but never tendered an offer. Winfrey’s holdings already include stakes in a cable network and a magazine.
Geffen, whose net worth has been estimated by Forbes magazine at $6.2 billion, told sports network ESPN on Wednesday that he and Ellison would run the team, while Winfrey would be an investor.
“She thinks it would be a great thing for an important black American to own (another) franchise,” Geffen was quoted as saying.
“The team deserves a better group of owners who want to win,” he added. “Larry would sooner die than fail. I would sooner die than fail. Larry’s a sportsman. We’ve talked about this for a long time. Between the three of us, we have a good shot.”
Other names floated as possible suitors include former NBA Los Angeles Lakers star Earvin “Magic” Johnson, a part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team who once had a stake in the Lakers and has built a media empire catering to African-American consumers.
One of boxing’ s biggest names, champion Floyd Mayweather Jr., expressed his own interest in comments to reporters in Las Vegas on Tuesday.
Although Silver said he would seek to force a sale of the Clippers immediately, the process could take weeks.
According to NBA bylaws, Silver must present a written copy of any allegations against Sterling within three days, and Sterling would have five days to answer. A special hearing of the Board of Governors, consisting of all the owners, will be held on a date no more than 10 days after Sterling’s reply.
Sterling was stripped of his seat on the board as part of the lifetime ban imposed by Silver for the “deeply offensive and harmful” racial views Sterling was said to have expressed in audio recordings released over the weekend.
Neither Sterling nor his representatives have commented on the tapes, in which a voice said to be his is heard criticizing a female friend for “associating with black people.” In it, he asks her not to invite “Magic” Johnson to Clippers games.
Silver said Tuesday that Sterling has acknowledged to the NBA that the recording was authentic but did not apologize.
News of the recordings drew outrage from players, fans, politicians - including President Barack Obama - and commercial sponsors, several of whom said they were cutting ties with the team, even after the NBA moved to remove Sterling.
The ban imposed on Tuesday prohibits Sterling from any ties with the Clippers organization or the league as a whole and bars him from ever again attending NBA games or practices.
Sterling, the longest-tenured of the NBA’s 30 owners, also was excluded from any team business or player personnel decisions and was fined $2.5 million, the league’s maximum monetary penalty.
Asked whether Sterling, 80, could end up an absentee owner if the governing board declined to force a team sale, Silver told reporters, “I fully expect to get the support I need from the other NBA owners to remove him.”
‘COLOR BLIND LEAGUE’
Early indications were that the owners would ultimately rally behind Silver.
“We run a color blind league, and this should not be tolerated,” Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive told ESPN Radio. “I would be surprised if this was not a unanimous vote.”
Glen Taylor, the owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves and interim chair of the NBA Board of Governors, said the ideal course of action would be if Sterling just agreed to a sale.
“The problems would occur if he decides that he doesn’t want to sell the team and we think that it should be sold,” Taylor told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “Then we have to make sure that we got the votes and then enforce that.”
Taylor said he had not spoken to all of the owners but was “reasonably sure” there was enough support for a forced sale and he expected there would be potential buyers.
Lawyers with expertise in sports law gave Sterling little chance of successfully suing the NBA to block a forced sale, citing league governance rules that all owners must accept.
One wild card could be Sterling’s wife, Rochelle.
Asked whether she might exercise an ownership stake in the team even if Sterling himself were removed, Silver seemed to leave the question open on Tuesday.
“There have been no discussions about other members of the Sterling family,” he said. “This ruling applies specifically to Donald Sterling and Donald Sterling’s conduct only.”
(This version of the story fixes the syntax in the first sentence.)
Additional reporting by Curtis Skinner and Eric Kelsey; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing Grant McCool and Cynthia Osterman