LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The trial over the $2 billion sale of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers got off to a rocky start on Monday with the team’s co-owner Donald Sterling skipping proceedings that were delayed several times by legal wrangling and courtroom gamesmanship.
The attorney for Sterling’s estranged wife, Shelly Sterling, called Sterling as the first witness in the trial, but the 80-year-old real estate billionaire, whose doctors have said he has Alzheimer’s disease, was not in court. “Mr. Sterling was supposed to be here today,” lawyer Pierce O’Donnell told Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Levanas. Levanas will decide whether Shelly Sterling, 79, acted in accordance with the family trust that owns the Clippers in ousting her husband as the controlling trustee before striking a deal to sell the franchise to former Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer for an NBA-record price. O’Donnell said Sterling, who is expected to testify during the four-day trial, was served a subpoena through his attorney earlier in the day, and his counsel said that he would be in court on Tuesday to testify.
“He was called as a ploy just to show he wasn’t there,” Donald Sterling’s attorney, Gary Ruttenberg, said outside court. Sterling’s no-show came after a federal judge rejected his attorneys’ last-minute request that the trial be moved to federal court because they accuse Shelly Sterling of violating her husband’s privacy rights by releasing his medical records.
Donald Sterling was banned for life by the NBA in April for racist remarks he made privately that were taped and published during the Clippers’ playoff run.
The real estate billionaire’s comments imploring a girlfriend not to associate with black people sparked public outrage and caused sponsors to cut ties with the team while players considered a boycott.
Donald Sterling’s attorneys say he was misled by his wife into submitting to medical examinations that determined he had early-stage Alzheimer’s disease and could not handle business affairs.
The physicians’ findings handed sole control of the franchise to Shelly Sterling, according a provision in the family trust.
Neurologist Meril Platzer, who examined Sterling at his home and was of the opinion he has Alzheimer’s, testified on Monday that Shelly Sterling contacted her out of concern for Sterling and the doctor was not aware of trust provisions until later.
The sale to Ballmer has been tentatively approved by the league but must be voted on by other team owners. The vote is scheduled for July 15 - the same day Ballmer can back out of the deal if it is not approved.
The NBA has said it could seize the Clippers from the Sterlings and put the franchise up for auction if the deal is not approved by Sept. 15.
Sterling, who has owned the Clippers for 33 years, has also sued the NBA and its commissioner, Adam Silver, for $1 billion in damages.
Editing by Mary Milliken, Bernard Orr and Cynthia Osterman