Los Angeles: The NBA banned Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life and fined him the maximum $2.5 million Tuesday for "deeply offensive and harmful" racist comments that sparked a national firestorm.
Hours after NBA Commissioner Adam Silver hit Sterling with every penalty at his disposal -- including calling on other owners to force him to sell his team -- Clippers coach Glenn "Doc" Rivers welcomed the move as his players took the court against the Golden State Warriors.
"These last three or four days have been very difficult for everybody, no matter what your race," Rivers said. "I thought that was the sigh of relief we needed.
Fans holds a sign reading "Magic 4 Owner" before the start of the NBA playoff game between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors. Pic/ AFP
"Is this over? No, it's not over," Rivers added. "But it's the start of a healing process that we need."
Rivers said he felt his team had played under undeserved stress in the three days since an audio recording surfaced of 80-year-old billionaire Sterling urging his girlfriend not to publicly associate with blacks.
Clippers players staged a silent protest in Oakland on Sunday before a blowout road loss to the Warriors and Rivers said the Sterling affair had taken a toll.
The surprisingly tough sanctions earned swift praise from across basketball, with current and former stars lauding Silver's decisive action on his 88th day in the job since replacing 30-year NBA boss David Stern.
"The views expressed by Mr. Sterling are deeply offensive and harmful," Silver told a news conference in New York. "That they came from an NBA owner only heightens the damage and my personal outrage."
The punishment following a lightning-fast investigation means real estate tycoon Sterling cannot attend any National Basketball Association (NBA) games or workouts, appear at any Clippers office or facility, or make any business or personnel decisions for the club.
Silver said he will urge NBA owners to strip the team from Sterling. The market value of the team Sterling bought for $12 million in 1981 is expected to approach $600 million.
Three-quarters of the owners must vote to force Sterling to sell, and a lengthy court fight from Sterling is still possible.
"I fully expect to get the support I need from fellow NBA owners to remove him," Silver said.
- 'Painful moment' -
In the recording made public over the weekend, the man now confirmed to be Sterling told his much-younger girlfriend that he didn't want her associating with black people or attending Clippers games with black friends.
"It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you're associating with black people. Do you have to?" Sterling says, later adding, "You can sleep with (black people). You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want.
"The little I ask you is not to promote it... and not to bring them to my games."
Silver apologized to NBA coaches, players, fans and business partners, adding, "This has been a painful moment for all members of the NBA family."
The Clippers saw sponsors leave in droves on Monday, with some of the departed backers' advertising hastily covered at Staples Center for Tuesday's game.
Silver asked sponsors who cut ties with the Clippers to "judge us by our response to this incident and urged fans to continue to support Clippers players.
Indeed, fans greeted the Clippers rapturously before game five of their first-round playoff series with the Golden State Warriors.
"Hate will never win," read one sign held by a fan. "Rise above" said another while one T-shirt slogan urged "Love the Players" on the front with the back emblazoned "Hate the Owner".
Silver's prompt and decisive action drew praise from around the league.
"At the end of the day the commissioner did an incredible job of making us feel like the situation is under control," Warriors coach Mark Jackson said. "The situation will be handled."
NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson, whose photo with Sterling's girlfriend prompted the tirade that led to the owner's banishment, tweeted, "Former and current NBA players are very happy and satisfied with Commissioner Silver's ruling... we have a great leader leading our league."
Silver's few critics wondered how Sterling was tolerated so long by owners, given past court cases against him over questions of race, but Silver noted that in each instance, Sterling won the legal fight.
For the most part, the league's action against Sterling was greeted as a watershed.
Kevin Johnson, a former NBA standout acting for the players union in place of Clippers player and union president Chris Paul, said it was a defining moment in NBA history.
"I believe that today stands as one of those great moments where sports, once again, transcends, where sports provides a place for fundamental change on how our country should think and act," Johnson said.
"This is also a statement about where we are as a country. It doesn't matter if you're a professional basketball player worth millions of dollars or a man or woman who works hard for their family -- there will be zero tolerance for institutional racism, no matter how rich or powerful."