Donald Sterling Biography

Business Leader (1934–)
Donald Sterling is the embattled former owner of the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers, banned for life from the league for making racist comments.


Donald Sterling was born Donald Tokowitz on April 26, 1934, in Chicago. After graduating from law school, Sterling began buying Southern California real estate, and his buy-and-hold strategy left him with large swaths throughout the area. In 1981, he bought the San Diego Clippers, moving them to Los Angeles three years later. While poor performance was the team's trademark through much of Sterling's tenure, it would pale next to the trouble that came his way in 2014. Sterling was secretly recorded making highly racist comments, and the NBA banned him for life. The league forced him to sell the team, and in August 2014 Steve Ballmer, former Microsoft CEO, bought the team for $2 billion.

Background and Education

Donald Sterling was born Donald Tokowitz on April 26, 1934, in Chicago. The son of an immigrant produce peddler, Sterling moved with his family to a poor Jewish enclave in East Los Angeles when he was two years old.

Upon graduating from high school, Sterling attended California State University, Los Angeles, and then went on to Southwestern Law School. At the age of 25, he legally changed his last name to “Sterling,” with wife Rochelle (Shelley) Sterling joining in the court petition. The couple went on to have three children.

In 1961, Sterling launched his legal career as a personal injury and divorce attorney and began investing in real estate. The California real estate market was depressed at the time, and Sterling scooped up swaths of apartments in the Los Angeles area, which eventually made him a wealthy man. 

The Clippers

In 1979, Sterling helped friend Jerry Buss buy the L.A. Lakers, with Buss telling Sterling that a basketball franchise was a great investment. The San Diego Clippers later went on the market, and Sterling bought the ailing team for about $13 million. The Clippers took to the court under Starling’s ownership for the first time in the 1981 season, but the team went 17-65 that year. Sterling moved the Clippers to L.A. in 1984 but didn’t consult with the NBA on the relocation, a mistake that earned him a $25 million league fine. Sterling sued the league for $100 million but later dropped the suit when the league reduced the relocation fine to $6 million.

The Clippers struggled to play winning basketball over the course of Sterling’s tenure, leading ESPN the Magazine to name the 2009 Clippers the worst team in professional sports. Sterling himself drew plenty of attention with accusations of racist practices following him continually, chiefly in his real estate empire and also from the team’s former general manager, Elgin Baylor.

Racist Statements and Downfall

By 2014, the Clippers finally had gained some respect in the league and were headed to the playoffs when the media broke a damning story about Sterling. An associate who may have had romantic ties with Sterling, V. Stiviano, covertly recorded the team owner making racially disparaging comments. On the recording, Sterling asks Stiviano to remove a picture of Magic Johnson from her Instagram account and told her not to bring black people to Clippers' games. 

Soon after, the NBA banned Sterling for life from the game, fined him $2.5 million and told him he must sell the team, which was then valued at more than half a billion dollars. The 80-year-old billionaire, the longest tenured owner of an NBA team franchise, said he was “set up” by Stiviano. Sterling’s wife, co-owner of the team, eventually sold the Clippers in August 2014 to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer for $2 billion.

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