OAKLAND, Calif. -- He was the constant cloud hanging over this star-crossed franchise, which, seemingly, finally had those stars lined up perfectly.
Everybody in the Los Angeles Clippers organization knew what kind of person owner Donald Sterling is.
They had all attended his infamous white parties in Malibu, Calif., where he would be the only one in all black, parading around hired models and asking his players if they liked what they saw.
They had all seen him waltzing into the locker room after a big win with his cronies and pointing at different players getting dressed as if they were high-priced cars in his garage.
Perhaps most importantly, they all had a computer and access to the Internet.
"Have you ever typed his name into Google?" a longtime Clippers employee told me when asked about Sterling. "The first word that pops up next to his name is 'racist.' That didn't happen this week. It's been the first word that pops up after his name for years."
Indeed, as early as November 2009, Sterling agreed to pay a record $2.725 million to settle allegations that he discriminated against African-Americans, Hispanics and families with children at several apartment buildings he owns in and around Los Angeles.
But there was this false sense of hope that maybe those days were behind Sterling and the Clippers. Blake Griffin burst onto the scene in 2010 and raised the profile of the franchise, and by 2011, Chris Paul had come to town and made them certifiable contenders.
During that time, Sterling stopped making his parties mandatory team activities. He stopped strolling into the postgame locker room and kept his name out of lawsuits claiming he was a racist. Sterling couldn't erase the past, but he was, for the first time, staying out of the way of his franchise's success.
It was easy sometimes to forget that they were still owned by Sterling and that Sterling was still, well, Sterling.
That was until late Friday night, when TMZ released an audio recording purportedly of Sterling making racist remarks to his girlfriend, V. Stiviano.
Sterling is married, and his wife, Rochelle, is not only a constant presence at games, but is pictured alongside him in the team media guide and called "Mrs. Donald T." But everyone knew about Stiviano. She, too, was a constant presence at games, parading her friends courtside and inside the media room, where Sterling and his cronies would hold court postgame.
The last time Sterling was seen in the Clippers' locker room after a game was last season, after the team won its franchise-best 11th straight game (it would go on to win 17), and he led them in a cringe-inducing "Hip-hip-hooray!" chant. Afterward, several players rolled their eyes and laughed. A couple pretended to vomit. As players laughed behind his back, Sterling and Stiviano congratulated some of the players on their win.
"You're going to stay here forever, right?" Sterling asked Jamal Crawford, who had signed a four-year, $25 million deal in the offseason. "I love having you here. Thank you so much."
"He'll stay," Stiviano said. "I'll make sure he stays."
It was an odd scene, but nothing out of the ordinary for the players, who knew Sterling was an odd man. But he was more than just that. Lost amid the Clippers' winning streak that week was Sterling's being ordered to pay $17.3 million to a woman who lost most of her belongings in a fire at one of his buildings. The lawsuit centered more on Sterling's being a slumlord than a racist, but the impact it had on the team and the response from the league was just as minimal and soon forgotten.
Again, that was before Friday, which changed everything.
All the rumors and stories and secondhand tales players and coaches had heard about Sterling, but tried to forget as they went about their lives, hit them upside the head when the TMZ story was released and a recording of Sterling's alleged racist rants to Stiviano were online.
Players and coaches were livid. Their phones would not stop ringing and vibrating as they received calls and texts from family, friends and others around the NBA. They were willing to tolerate Sterling from a distance. None of them were ever playing "for him," but now they're in a position in which they would have to play on "in spite of him."
Coach Doc Rivers, who played for Sterling for one season before "escaping," blindly thought things had changed when he returned to the team as the coach and executive vice president of player personnel last June. Of all the factors he considered when leaving the Boston Celtics for Los Angeles, Sterling's track record of housing discrimination never played a big role.
"It wasn't, honestly," Rivers said. "I knew the past outside of that. Really didn't know a lot about that, to be honest, and probably should have, I guess. "
Rivers was, and still is, so furious about the comments that his future with the team outside of this playoff run is now in question despite signing a three-year, $21 million deal with the team last year.
"Don't know yet," Rivers said when asked if there were things he needed to hear from Sterling to continue working for him. "I'm just going to leave it at that."
Rivers gathered the team together at its hotel for a 45-minute meeting during which everything, including boycotting Sunday's Game 4, was discussed. It was a chance for the players to voice their frustrations and anger among themselves before practice. They agreed that Rivers would handle all questions about Sterling publicly. Paul, who is the National Basketball Players Association president, also called Sacramento Mayor (and former three-time NBA All-Star) Kevin Johnson and asked him to help him with the union and speak on behalf of the players as he focused on basketball.
There was never a question that the players were going to have some kind of protest, but there was some debate as to what exactly it should be. Rivers was against doing anything and wanted the focus to be on the game, but left that up to the team captains -- Paul, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. By Sunday morning, they had decided on a couple of simple gestures that wouldn't get in the way of the game or distract them from the job at hand.
They gathered at center court before the game, took off their Clippers warm-up shirts and left them there. They then warmed up wearing inside-out, red shooting shirts that did not display the Clippers name or logo. And during the game, players wore black arm or wrist bands and black socks.
"I knew about it," Rivers said. "I didn't voice my opinion. I wasn't thrilled about it, to be honest, but if that's what they want to do, that's what they want to do."
It didn't have much impact on the game. The Golden State Warriors went up by 20 points in the first quarter and won 118-97, tying the series up at 2-2 heading back to Los Angeles.
The Clippers had one of the best home-court advantages in the league this season, but no one in the Clippers' locker room knows what to expect when they return to Staples Center on Tuesday.
"I would be lying if I said I wasn't nervous about what it is going to be like," Paul said. "Our fans have been amazing all season long, and, obviously, I hope that it will be the same. You just never know. They've been amazing, and we wouldn't be where we are without them. But it's tough."
Rivers wasn't even sure what to expect from the crowd in Game 5, saying he would "understand" if some fans won't want to attend Clippers games as long as Sterling is the owner.
"I don't know," Rivers said. "We're going home now, and, usually, that would mean we're going to our safe haven. And I don't even know if that's true, to be honest."