For fans of the Los Angeles Clippers—which admittedly, is a relatively new concept—April 25, 2014, is a day that will live on in infamy.
Donald Sterling, who had spent decades oscillating between openly discriminating against black and brown tenants and being universally reviled as the worst owner in professional sports, had been caught on tape saying some incredibly vile, racist ass shit about NBA great Magic Johnson—and the timing couldn’t have been any worse.
The Clippers had just narrowly escaped the Golden State Warriors with an impressive 98-96 victory during the first round of the NBA playoffs, and instead of preparing for whatever onslaught that Steph Curry would inevitably unleash in response, the team had far more important matters at hand.
“People want to know the response to an evil action almost as much as they care about the evil action,” Clippers head coach Doc Rivers says during the opening sequence of Blackballed. “The people who are persecuted shouldn’t have to answer, but that’s not the way it is.”
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To that end, Blackballed, which premiered on Quibi, Monday, chronicles this debacle and its standing as one of the biggest scandals in the history of professional sports. Sterling would eventually receive a lifetime ban from the NBA and be forced to sell the Clippers for $2 billion—a far cry from the $12.5 million he spent to purchase the team in 1981—but it’s the outrage and uncertainty that occurred in between the tape’s revelation and Sterling’s exile that this documentary captures masterfully.
“It’s like the most Clippers thing ever,” producer Will Packer told The Root. “They finally have the opportunity [to compete for an NBA championship] and some crazy shit like this pops off. It was interesting even for me behind the scenes. It was really enlightening.”
Packer’s insistence that this was “the most Clippers thing ever” can’t be understated. In his 33 years as an NBA owner, Sterling’s Clippers only produced two winning seasons, trotted out an endless parade of failed lottery picks and were marred by ugly accusation after ugly accusation. This context is important because as Blackballed notes, with the players facing immense public pressure to stand up against the same guy who wrote their checks, they had to choose between continuing their pursuit of an ever-elusive NBA title or refusing to play and walking away from the opportunity entirely.
“[Chris Paul] and the guys were stuck in a situation that had nothing to do with them,” Packer explained. “All they wanted to do was go out and play the Golden State Warriors. And now everybody’s looking at them like, ‘What are you going to do?’”
But according to Matt Barnes, who was in the eye of the storm as a member of the Clippers that season, public pressure was merely an afterthought.
“I don’t think public opinion factored in at all,” Barnes said. “I mean, I think this is a decision we were going to stand with the guys who got us there. The team had been shit for forever and we finally felt like with that Lob City era we had a real chance to compete for a title. So when [the story about the leaked tape] broke, it was like, ‘Damn. What do we do?’”
He continued, “Not to say we didn’t hear and see everything that was said and what everyone would’ve done if they were in our situation, but we wanted to make a unified decision to let people know we weren’t standing with [Sterling] and we don’t agree with it. [...] Although we definitely contemplated not playing, we chose to play and chose to do that demonstration we had at the very beginning.”
Prior to Game 4, the team converged in the middle of the court and staged a silent protest. They discarded their warmup shirts to reveal inside-out shooting shirts with the Clippers’ name and logo obscured. And once the game began, they wore black socks and black arm and wrist bands.
Their defiance was loud and clear.
They weren’t the fists that track and field stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos thrust into the air at the 1968 Olympics—or the knee that Colin Kaepernick took for police brutality during the national anthem—but it was a statement nonetheless; an extraordinary rebuke of a man whose sovereignty could no longer take refuge in the NBA.
“It was a crazy day-and-a-half leading up to that,” Barnes said. “We were pretty much focused on everything but basketball.”
“If this had happened in some second-tier market, how would it have been handled? Would it have been swept under the rug like so many other injustices and slights are because that’s what you do when you can? If you’re a powerful institution, you just try to act like it didn’t happen. But in Los Angeles? No way,” Packer said. “In literally the city that’s got more lights and cameras than any other. There was no way this was getting swept under the rug. And that actually helped [...] to make sure that action was going to be taken.”
He continued, “Obviously the Clippers were thrust into this. They didn’t ask for it, but it’s a precursor for so much of what you see now. [...] Athletes now are routinely using their voice to speak out about social issues. This was one of those watershed moments that pre-dated a lot of what we see today.”
In 2020, professional athletes openly addressing racial inequality and other social issues isn’t just commonplace, it’s an expectation. Players like LeBron James and Colin Kaepernick have led the charge and use their platforms to empower their peers to follow suit, but it’s important to remember the Clippers’ place in history, which Blackballed challenges us to never forget.
“I think sports fans will have a new appreciation for the position these players were put in and in and how far they were willing to go,” director Michael Jacobs told The Root. “It takes a ton of strength. [...] And my hope is that audiences of all stripes just have a greater appreciation for these men as people and for the position they were put in. And then ultimately let’s continue to talk about race. Let’s continue to have that conversation in this country because we still have a ton of work to do and these issues are not going away.”
Blackballed is available now on Quibi.