Clippers owner a long-time laughing stock

Posted at 04/29/2014 7:38 PM | Updated as of 04/29/2014 7:40 PM

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling sits on the sidelines wathcing his team play the New York Knicks in their NBA basketball game in Los Angeles in this February 11, 2009 file photo. Photo by Lucy Nicholson, Reuters.

LOS ANGELES - Donald Sterling was considered a laughing-stock NBA owner and his Los Angeles Clippers a joke of a team for most of the years since he bought the club in 1981.

But no one is giggling now.

The 80-year-old billionaire is believed to have made the comments that were published Saturday by celebrity website TMZ in which he said he does not want black people at his games or his girlfriend to post pictures with black people on the Internet.

The remarks sparked a firestorm of controversy and a probe by the NBA, the results of which NBA commissioner Adam Silver is expected to announce Tuesday.

Sterling made his fortune in real estate and in part by extracting profits from the Clippers -- while largely declining to invest in high salaries to make the team better.

He is no stranger to race-related controversy.

In 2009, he paid a $2.73 million settlement to the Justice Department following a race-based rental discrimination case.

Four years earlier he paid an undisclosed amount of money in a suit alleging he tried to force non-Koreans out of apartments he owned in Los Angeles\' Koreatown neighborhood.

- Losing run -

He bought the Clippers when it was based in San Diego and moved it to Los Angeles in 1984 to compete with the more established Lakers, usually playing second fiddle to the Lakers in attention, support and on the court -- even as they shared the same arena since the 1999-2000 season.

The Clippers went 19 of their first 20 seasons in Los Angeles with only one winning season, reaching a low of 12-70 in the 1986-87 campaign.

After going 45-37 in the 1991-92 season for their first winning season since 1979 -- they however lost in the first round of the playoffs -- the Clippers did not manage another winning season until 2005-06.

In 2000, Sports Illustrated did a cover story on Sterling and the Clippers featuring fans wearing Clippers\' attire with bags on their heads upon which were written "S.O.S." and "Just Shoot Me."

The team was derisively dubbed the "Paper Clips" and the story spoke of reported budget cuts Sterling wanted such as asking then-coach Paul Silas if players really needed a trainer and could he help prepare them for games.

While Sterling could not find success on the court, he did so in real estate, his holdings including the Malibu Yacht club and numerous apartments in Beverly Hills.

Asked at the time how he endured his team\'s constant losing, Sterling told Sports Illustrated, "How do I cope with the ridicule? It\'s very hard. I\'ve suffered... the pain, the torment, the absolute torture.

"How does anyone get through a difficult experience? I\'ll tell you how. You just keep going, keep fighting, keep living. Life goes on and you hope it will improve."

There was a history of being out-bid for free agent talent and signing top draft choices only to lose them when the time came to renegotiate contract terms.

Carl Scheer, a Clippers general manager in the 1980s, told Sports Illustrated, "I don\'t know how important winning is to Donald. He seems more concerned that his books are balanced, that he runs one of the few NBA franchises with no debt, that he can bring his friends to games."

- Furniture store -

Born Donald Tokowitz in Chicago before moving to Los Angeles at age two, he changed his name while working at a furniture store to pay for law school, marrying the store owner\'s daughter.

When Sterling snapped up a real estate property from the late Lakers owner Jerry Buss, he was encouraged to consider buying an NBA team just as the Clippers, then based in San Diego, were for sale.

Away from basketball and property, Sterling\'s philanthropic achievements include 2008 and 2009 awards from the NAACP, a civil rights group for the African-American community that has now denounced him.

In recent years the Clippers\' fortunes have taken an upturn.

In 2006, they won their first playoff series, upsetting Denver in six games and pushing Phoenix to seven games before falling in round two, efforts that rewarded former NBA star player Elgin Baylor with executive of the year honors for his work with the Clippers.

Five more losing seasons followed but the arrival of Blake Griffin, the 2011 NBA Rookie of the Year, lifted the Clippers to record win totals and Pacific division titles in the past two seasons.

© 1994-2014 Agence France-Presse