Commentary

Donald Sterling: Right to heckle?

Updated: December 15, 2010, 1:41 PM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

A giant tip of the cap to Donald Sterling for reminding me, with his courtside shout-outs to Baron Davis, of my essential thought about him. I love the idea of Sterling acting like a fan. This is primarily because I want so desperately for him to become one.

[+] EnlargeDonald Sterling and Baron Davis
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesBaron Davis is accepting big checks. Does he deserve verbal abuse from owner Donald Sterling, too?

Unfortunately for the L.A. Clippers, Sterling continues to be an owner, and what a rancid, rancid owner he is. Two plus-.500 seasons in nearly 30 years of stewardship attest to the leaden hand with which Sterling "guides" his franchise. You can't get this guy out of the NBA quickly enough. He is the standard for sub-mediocrity against which all other griping, losing owners will ever be judged -- and that is taking in some remarkably foul territory.

Consequently, Sterling's gutter-sniping at Davis, the underperforming, under-conditioned guard with the $65 million contract, has to be placed in the context that this is Donald T. Sterling doing the carping, and not some, you know … actual decent owner.

And that's genuinely too bad. An owner heckling his own player during a game that his team is theoretically trying to win ought to be a more interesting story than this one.

If it wasn't Donald T., in fact, I'd be rushing forward to give the man credit for advancing player-owner relations to the modern age, where immediate feedback is everything. Why go through the trouble of letting your Tweeps know what you think of Baron Davis when you can drop a couple of one-liners on him right there during the game?

According to multiple reports, the first of those by Yahoo! Sports, this is precisely what Sterling has been up to. The owner has berated the man to whom he is paying $13 million per season with such gems as "Why are you in the game?" and "You're out of shape!" not to mention the always classic "Why did you take that shot?" (Note to self: Get Sterling to a Heckling 101 seminar, stat.)

[+] EnlargeBaron Davis
Noah Graham/Getty ImagesBaron Davis played one game for the Clippers in November.

The Los Angeles Times amplified the story by quoting center Chris Kaman as saying he has been on the receiving end of Sterling's taunts as well, and citing a source who said Sterling told Davis, among other things, "You're terrible! You can't shoot 3s. Why do you shoot 3s?"

Allow me to state for the record that, were those words coming from just about any other fan in the Staples Center, you'd at least have to give the person points for accuracy -- which is something Davis lacks. Davis, here in his NBA dotage at age 31, is shooting a career-low 14.8 percent from 3-point range and just 32.6 percent overall, awful numbers by any standard.

He also reported to the Clippers' camp this year out of shape, and he subsequently injured his knee and hamstring, which didn't exactly thrill first-year coach Vinny Del Negro. Del Negro, though, has found a few more subtle ways to communicate his message that Davis needs to take his job seriously than to stand at courtside and call the guard a fat toad.

George Steinbrenner did that, by the way. He once used the words "fat pussy toad" (as in pus-filled) to describe a pitcher, Hideki Irabu, whom Steinbrenner felt was stealing his millions as an out-of-shape ballplayer. Of course, Steinbrenner had a long history of taking on his own players, famously deriding Dave Winfield as "Mr. May" at one point, and of calling reporters to rant about Yankees who he felt were letting him down. (Steinbrenner also once hired a lowlife named Howie Spira to dig up dirt on Winfield, an act that got the owner banned from baseball for two years. No rush to sainthood for Big George.)

But Steinbrenner didn't do it on the field during a game. Even fan/owner Mark Cuban, who noted in the wake of the Sterling news that he has frustratedly ripped into a few Mavericks players over the years in private, reserves his courtside vitriol for the refs and, ever so occasionally, the mom of an opposing player (see Martin, Kenyon). There just isn't much precedent for an owner getting into it with one of his own guys during a game.

Baron Davis
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesJump shots have not been Baron Davis' strong point this season.

Again: If this were some other owner, an interesting discussion might ensue. Is not the guy paying the bills entitled to show his displeasure in real time? It's at least a little refreshing -- isn't it? -- anytime fans see an owner sitting courtside rather than ensconced out of view in one of the luxury suites upstairs. And Cuban is the working example of a mega-millionaire who, through the simple and repeated step of acting like a true fan during games, can come to be thought of as one of us rather than one of them.

All worthy topics, certainly. They're just lost on this story, because it's Donald T. Sterling we're talking about.

It's maddening that Sterling may actually be right, even a little bit. Davis is out of shape, or at least he was. Davis shouldn't launch 3-pointers, or so this season's statistics suggest. And Davis most certainly is not delivering $65 million worth of NBA performance to a Clippers franchise that absolutely needs the best he can give every night.

If Donald T. had even a couple of times demonstrated the slightest interest in building a winner, he could make all those arguments to an open-eared fan base. Alas, all we've got here is a huge case of Pot versus Kettle. And all I can do is hope for the day when Sterling is the rich guy buying that courtside seat rather than the rich guy selling it.

Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His work "Six Good Innings" was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2009 by Booklist. His next book, "The Voodoo Wave," will be released in August 2011 by W.W. Norton. Reach him at mark@markkreidler.com.

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