As the third day of the trial that will determine the fate of the Los Angeles Clippers drew to a close, Shelly Sterling, the estranged wife of the team’s embattled owner, left the stand and approached her husband, who sat in an aisle seat in the first row.
The previous day, the two had a poignant exchange when Donald Sterling reached for his wife’s hand and pulled her closer to him. She whispered in his ear, then wiped away a tear.
But on Wednesday, after listening to Shelly Sterling testify that he had slipped in recent years, becoming more forgetful and prone to outbursts, and that she had arranged a neurological examination because she was concerned about him, Donald Sterling seethed.
“Get away from me, you pig,” Sterling shouted to her as she approached.
Shelly Sterling recoiled, returning to her seat in the third row across the aisle.
Judge Michael Levanas admonished Donald Sterling to refrain from such comments, saying, “It’s somewhat disturbing.” A few moments later, as lawyers discussed the upcoming calendar, Levanas asked them to repeat part of their discussion, saying he was distracted by Sterling’s outburst.
Sterling apologized to Levanas, but not to his wife.
“It was a shameful display by a seriously demented tyrant,” said Adam Streisand, a lawyer for Steve Ballmer, the former Microsoft chief executive who has reached an agreement with Shelly Sterling to buy the Clippers for a record $2-billion, by far the most ever paid for an NBA team. “He proved today that he absolutely has to go.”
Donald Sterling, in testimony earlier in the day in Superior Court, said he had been deceived by his wife. His lawyer, Bobby Samini, said the outburst was a result of those emotions.
“It’s a very difficult situation,” Samini said. “You’re married to somebody for 60 years. I think all of you who were in the courtroom could see he’s very moved emotionally when he sees her and when they interact. He cares for her and he loves his wife, but at the same time I think he feels betrayed and that she did not support him in his worst time. I think the expectation is that the person that you’ve been with through many, many good years and good times will be there when things get tough, and that’s not what he’s experiencing.”
The trial will determine whether Shelly Sterling can sell the Clippers without her estranged husband’s approval. If Levanas determines that Shelly Sterling complied with the rules of the family trust in having her husband removed from his position in it, it will clear the way for her to complete the deal with Ballmer.
But Levanas indicated Wednesday that the case was unlikely to be resolved by Tuesday, when the agreement between Ballmer and the Sterling trust is set to expire. However, it can be extended by 30 days.
“We’re going to need to regroup on that and see where we go from here,” Streisand said. “We have a July 15 deadline. Clearly the judge has indicated we’re not going to make that deadline. I’m going to have to talk to Mr. Ballmer.”
The outburst overshadowed what had been a milder day on the witness stand by Donald Sterling, who was often provocative under questioning Tuesday. Sterling testified along with his wife and Meril S. Platzer, one of the doctors who examined him.
Sterling’s probate specialist, Gary Ruttenberg, in a relentless, often repetitive cross-examination of Platzer, tried to put dents in the credibility of her examination of Sterling, whom she concluded was incapacitated.
The Sterling family trust requires two doctors to certify that someone is incapacitated to be removed from the trust. After Platzer’s certification, James Sparr reached a similar conclusion after he was hired to do an evaluation by Shelly Sterling’s lawyer.
When Ruttenberg repeatedly asked Platzer about whether she had followed privacy laws, she repeatedly replied, “I’m not a lawyer; I’m a doctor.”
The trust required that Sterling cooperate with a request to be examined. Both doctors have testified that Sterling was not told the purpose of the examinations.
“Cooperation has to be a two-sided street,” Ruttenberg said.
When Sterling returned to the stand, he continued to harangue Bert Fields, Shelly Sterling’s lawyer, but Fields had only a few questions before Maxwell Blecher, Sterling’s longtime lawyer, took over the questioning.
Sterling was more responsive and less combative, but he was not exactly cooperative. He and Blecher barked at each other on occasion about where the questions were headed.
With his characteristic bluster, Sterling promised that he would remain a headache for the NBA no matter the trial’s outcome.
“Make no mistake today, I will never, ever, ever sell this team,” Sterling said. “And until I die, I will be suing the NBA to make them pay for the terrible violations of antitrust that they have imposed on my family.”
Samini was adamant that Sterling had not hurt himself with his behavior, either on or off the stand. And he expressed surprise that anyone would expect differently from Sterling.
“I told you: That’s who he is,” Samini said. “He didn’t come to put on a show for you guys. That’s who he is. Sometimes he’s combative. Sometimes he’s witty. Sometimes he’s charming. Sometimes he’s funny. It’s not a vaudeville act.”
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