A Los Angeles judge has tentatively approved the most expensive sale of an NBA basketball team in history. Co-owner Donald Sterling, at the helm for 33 years, had opposed the sale brokered by his estranged wife.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Levanas on Monday ruled that Steve Ballmer's $2-billion (1.5-billion-euro) purchase of the Los Angeles Clippers could go ahead, despite the objections of co-owner Donald Sterling.
Sterling's estranged wife Shelly Sterling brokered the deal with the former Microsoft CEO after her ex-husband was banned by the NBA for racist remarks leaked on website TMZ.com. Donald Sterling initially blessed the deal but later filed legal objections, saying he was duped into submitting to the medical exams that led to his removal from the family trust controlling the basketball team. Physicians concluded that Sterling, 80, has early Alzheimer's disease.
"She [Shelly Sterling] had every good reason to believe that Donald agreed to the sale of the team," Judge Michael Levanas said in a tentative ruling that will take formal effect when he issues it in writing in the coming weeks.
Shelly Sterling burst into tears at the verdict: "I can't believe it's over. I feel good," she said. Donald Sterling's attorney Max Blecher said that he was "deeply disappointed" with the ruling.
Pierce O'Donnell, Shelly Sterling's attorney, had argued during the nine-day trial that his client followed the trust's procedures for Donald Sterling's medical testing, also calling witnesses to defend the sale price secured for Los Angeles' second NBA franchise, after the more successful LA Lakers.
The opposing legal team argued that the $2-billion price tag was not the optimal sale price, despite it dwarfing this year's sale of the Milwaukee Bucks for $550 million, previously the league record for the NBA.
Shelly Sterling's representatives submitted financial data for the franchise to support the sale price brokered with Ballmer, also calling interim Clippers CEO Richard "Dick" Parsons as a witness to support the deal.
"If Steve [Ballmer] goes away, I don't know how you get to that number again," Parsons said.
NBA welcomes ruling
Parsons also testified during the trial that coach Doc Rivers, key players and around half a dozen sponsors were all ready to jump ship unless Donald Sterling was removed from the hierarchy. Opposing lawyers countered that Rivers and key players like Chris Paul should have taken to the stand themselves.
The NBA, seeking to bring an embarrassing chapter to a close, said it was "pleased" with Monday's ruling.
"We look forward to the transaction closing as soon as possible," NBA spokesman Mike Bass said in a statement. The NBA had set an August 15 deadline, with scope for a one-month extension, for the deal to be completed - threatening to seize control of the team and sell it if the Ballmer deal remained in limbo.
David Sterling purchased the LA Clippers in 1981 for $12 million; he was the league's longest-serving franchise owner.
Steve Ballmer, still on the Microsoft board of directors, stepped down as CEO of the software giant earlier this year. Ranked 32 in Forbes' 2014 list of the 400 wealthiest Americans, the 58-year-old is a longstanding fan of basketball.
In the past NBA regular season, the Clippers finished third overall in the Western Conference, comfortably qualifying for the Playoffs. In the end-of-season knockout championship, the Los Angeles team fell to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Semifinals.
msh/lw (AFP, AP, Reuters)
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