Steve Ballmer was as surprised as anyone when the call came in. Donald Sterling had spent months doing whatever he could to derail Ballmer's $2 billion purchase of the Los Angeles Clippers ... and then he wanted to meet. About what, he wouldn't say. But amid a hail of lawsuits, medical assessments and threats, the man was calling on the afternoon of Sunday, July 20, and asking Ballmer to fly in from Seattle for a face-to-face meeting in Los Angeles the next afternoon.
Ballmer had no insight into the topic. A settlement? A renegotiation of the sale terms? A deal with the NBA that would allow Sterling some dignity at the end of one of the ugliest chapters in NBA history?
As a former Microsoft CEO, Ballmer had dealt with many an eccentric billionaire -- men who eschew normal laws of decorum and decision-making. Men who operate as if there are not rules of time and space.
There is no guidebook in dealing with men like this. You just show up and see what happens.
So Ballmer rolled with it. He hopped on a plane, and made his way to the meeting, even when the location was changed from a Beverly Hills hotel to Sterling's nearby residence. When they finally met, Ballmer tried his best to establish a rapport with the man who had made a hobby of erecting expensive obstacles to Ballmer's purchase of the Clippers.
As the meeting unfolded, it emerged that Sterling liked Ballmer. He found him classy and sincere. Under different circumstances, Sterling might have been fine with selling his franchise to him, or at least doing some business.
But this had gone too far, gotten too personal and too ugly for there to be a harmonious resolution.
And harmonious resolutions aren't Sterling's thing. Why had Ballmer flown from Seattle? So that Sterling could make an offer they both knew Ballmer could never accept: letting Sterling's wife Shelly keep a significant portion of the team.
The NBA's lawyers had been crystal clear on this point: The entire franchise had to be sold and scrubbed fresh by a new owner. Shelly Sterling and Ballmer had worked out an arrangement through which she could maintain an arm's-length association with the team. She had the option of using some proceeds from the sale, 10 percent of the franchise's cost, to start a charity. There was no need for Donald to broker a new deal, Shelly and everyone else involved was fine with the initial terms of the sale.
But this wasn't about money or terms or percentages. It was about control. Donald Sterling had always bought it, kept it and needed it. And now in his weakest, most vulnerable moment, all of his control had been taken from him. It was frightening.
And new. Sterling's tenure as an NBA owner had long been about subjugating anyone who'd stray into his way -- coaches, players, executives and employees, among others -- to his strange ways and whims for over three decades. He moved the team from San Diego without league permission. He acted in ways that got him sued by various employees and business associates, but he managed to keep finding people who would do his bidding.
Until now. Nobody had to bend to his will anymore. Nobody had to do as he said or even listen to him. Nobody thought he mattered anymore.
So with one last bit of leverage to play as the probate court trial wrapped up, Sterling's only remaining play was to make everyone squirm.
The only way this was ever going to end was how it finally did in a courtroom Monday afternoon, when Judge Michael Levanas found for Shelly on all three counts and issued what lawyers call an appeal-proof ruling.
Sure, Donald Sterling will fight it. He'll litigate the federal lawsuit and state court lawsuit. He'll fight until there are no more courtrooms to fight in, and then he'll take it out into the alley.
It was this worldview, maybe even more than the racially insensitive comments that started this scandal, that landed him in this sad predicament.
Sterling saw the Clippers as property. They were his to sell or buy or hold, not anyone else's. They were a thing, not a team. A possession, not a privilege.
Perhaps that's because he bought the team so many years ago, when the league was desperate for stable ownership and anyone with a bankroll and a mild interest in the game would do.
Perhaps he just sees the world that way, as a thing to bend as he will.
Either way, the disconnect was clear. Sterling thought being owner of the Clippers meant the franchise actually belonged to him. That he controlled its players and coaches and staff. That people had to answer to him and do as he said.
That's what he's fighting for. His power. His control. His property. That's what mattered to him, not the money from a sale. On this point, the NBA's case is far from airtight. He is exiting the NBA unwillingly over comments he made to an ex-mistress who may or may not have been coercing him. But whatever merits there may be to Sterling's case are lost in a barrage of offensive habits, history and personal attacks.
He has been so obsessed about himself and his rights that he has neglected to bring any allies along.
Nor did he realize how few allies he has had. Sterling never saw the fans or the players or the staffers who wanted him out. He never understood the degree to which his actions were affecting them or his family. He didn't know that a Culture of Donald alienated almost everyone around him. Evidently, he didn't care, either.
The meeting with Ballmer last Monday was the last, best chance for Donald Sterling to walk away with a shred of conciliation, or dignity. A settlement would have resurrected some shred of decorum. Even disgraced Dodgers owner Frank McCourt scored a photo op with Magic Johnson before exiting the stage. That was Sterling's option, but he had no use for it.
Ballmer left the meeting after about an hour and a half and flew back to Seattle. Sterling instructed his lawyers to file a new lawsuit in the morning, this time alleging just about the only thing left to allege, that the shares of the corporation that owns the Clippers are in his name. It's a legal document that independent experts call laughable, and was a waste of time for everyone involved.
Except for Sterling, that is. It was exactly as he wanted it. The only power he had left.