Few people are envious of Mrs. Donald Sterling this week, despite her claim on half of her estranged husband’s estimated $1.8 billion fortune.
Born Rochelle Stein, 80-year-old Shelly Sterling remains something of an enigma. Is she simply another in a long line of the L.A. Clippers owner’s victims? Or has she played a role, as some people say, in his questionable business practices over the years? Is she truly horrified by the racist comments made by Donald Sterling during a private conversation with his mistress, V. Stiviano, that were released last weekend? Or, despite everything, does she still support him?
On April 29, NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced that Donald Sterling was banned from the league for life, a harsher reaction than many people expected following the outcry over his racist remarks in which he admonished his mistress for being seen with black people at Clippers games. He was also fined $2.5 million and the commissioner said that he plans to take action to force the billionaire to sell the team.
Donald Sterling is no longer allowed to attend any NBA games or enter any Clippers facility, but that ban does not extend to his wife. That very night, Shelly Sterling attended the playoffs game. She was dressed head-to-toe in black, possibly in support of the players who have been wearing black socks and armbands since the recording was released over the weekend. There is speculation about whether she might be able to take over the reins of the Clippers from her husband if Silver is unable to force a sale.
While many people have expressed sympathy for Shelly Sterling, she has also been accused of making racist statements in the past. In court documents from 2009, a tenant at a Sterling-owned apartment building in Los Angeles claimed that she called him a “black mother***|er.” In another document, a manager at one of the Sterlings’ buildings described a visit she made to the property in which she allegedly expressed her dislike for “certain ethnic groups” and said that “the building was filthy because of the Latinos.” A few years earlier, Sterling was accused of posing as a health inspector in order to gain access to a tenant’s apartment.
Sterling is in the process of suing her husband’s mistress for allegedly embezzling millions from the couple’s joint holdings over the past four years. It may be this action that led to the release of the recording of Donald Sterling’s conversation with Stiviano.
On April 27, Shelly denounced her husband in a statement to TMZ: “Our family is devastated by the racist comments made by my estranged husband. My children and I do not share these despicable views or prejudices.” She also expressed her solidarity with the Clippers. “We will not let one man’s small-mindedness poison the spirit of the fans and accomplishments of the team in the city we love. We are doing everything in our power to stand by and support our Clippers team.”
And yet, despite those strong words, Shelly and Donald were seen together that very night coming out of a steak restaurant in downtown Los Angeles. When a photographer asked the Clippers owner whether he was a racist, he remained silent, but Shelly Sterling screamed, “Of course not!”
Rochelle Stein married Donald Tokowitz in 1955. He reportedly changed his name to Sterling several years later when he was a young law student. The couple had two sons and a daughter.
Their oldest son, Scott Sterling, was arrested in 1999 when he shot a longtime friend with a shotgun at the Sterlings’ Beverly Hills mansion. Then, early last year, Scott was found dead from an apparent drug overdose at the age of 32. Sterling’s friends have said that the grieving mother was incensed when her husband turned to Stiviano for comfort.
While the Sterlings are one of the wealthiest Jewish couples in southern California and have made donations to many organizations, they have not been very involved in the region’s Jewish life.
“I have never experienced Donald Sterling to be engaged in the Jewish community in any way, beyond his small gifts,” Jay Sanderson, President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, told the Forward earlier this week. “The leadership of our community is deeply disturbed by his comments.”
Despite questions about Shelly Sterling’s past behavior, several people in the Clippers family have publicly voiced their support. Following the April 29 playoffs game, Clippers coach Doc Rivers told Yahoo News that he felt for Sterling. “It’s a tough one for Shelly,” Rivers said following the team’s 113-103 victory over the Golden State Warriors. “You have compassion for her. I kept hearing about the girlfriend. I kept thinking, ‘Shelly is the wife.’ You know what I mean?”
Former Clippers star Ron Harper, who played for the team for five years before leaving in 1994, echoed Rivers’ comments. “The only bad part is I know how much his wife loves the team,” Harper told the New York Post. “It’s probably going to hurt her more than him.”
This story "Who Is Shelly Sterling — Blameless Victim or Enabler of Hubby's Racism?" was written by Danny Miller.