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Does Donald Sterling plan to let his wife sell the Los Angeles Clippers? Or will he fight?
The answer is both, according to people familiar with the thinking. As the clock ticks toward Tuesday's vote to terminate his ownership, the situation has become a high-stakes game of chicken between Sterling and the NBA as well as a rich rendition of "good cop, bad cop" -- Shelly Sterling in the role of the amicable negotiator and her husband playing the harsh antagonist.
The story line seems to change by the day.
Last week, Donald Sterling signed an agreement with his wife that authorized her to sell the team on his behalf, including his 50% share.
It was a surprise gambit. By getting her controversial husband out of the picture and willingly selling the team, Shelly Sterling hoped to avoid a forced sale by the NBA and be allowed to keep a minority stake in the franchise owned by her family since 1981.
But then came an apparent reversal by Donald Sterling, after the NBA made clear it wanted the Sterlings completely out.
"Present position is no sale," Donald Sterling's attorney, Max Blecher, told USA TODAY Sports late Tuesday, hours after Sterling sent the NBA a 32-page response to the league's charges.
Sterling instead said he planned to fight the NBA's attempt to force a sale, acknowledging he made racially charged comments that were "uneducated" and "hurtful" but saying it should not matter. The comments were made in private and illegally recorded, Sterling said, and did not break any league rules.
"If he was going to consider selling his team (on his terms) and the NBA won't have it, his choice is to do what the NBA tells him to do or take action," said Stuart Slotnick, a New York attorney who is not involved in the case.
Each side carries risk, including for the NBA, which asserts that its constitution gives it ironclad power to terminate the Sterlings' ownership based on charges that Donald Sterling's speech damaged league business.
By threatening to fight, Donald Sterling puts pressure on the NBA, which prefers to avoid a messy fight in the courts. By proceeding down a separate track to sell the team, possibly even naming a prospective buyer in the next few days, the family is trying to keep control of negotiations.
A person familiar with the situation told USA TODAY Sports the "no sale" talk from Donald Sterling is believed to be posturing. Last week's letter to the NBA from Donald Sterling was clear, said the person, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly. It gave Shelly Sterling the power to negotiate a sale and said her husband "agrees to a sale of his interest in the Los Angeles Clippers," according to the May 22 letter, obtained by USA TODAY Sports.
Meanwhile, Shelly Sterling has proceeded to find a buyer in advance of Tuesday's de facto deadline. That's when league owners are scheduled to vote on whether to terminate the Sterlings' ownership. If three-quarters of the league owners vote yes, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver temporarily takes over the team, which would be sold by the league, with the proceeds going to the Sterlings.
Sterling's threat to fight gives him leverage while his wife works to sell the team -- with his blessing in writing. Even though the league believes it has the power to terminate the ownership of both Sterlings, it risks a drawn-out fight if Donald Sterling sues the NBA and a civil judge finds enough merit in Sterling's arguments. In his response to the league, among Sterling's assertions is that the audio on which the NBA based its action was illegally recorded under California law and cannot be used against him in any proceeding.
If the case proceeds, his asking price in settlement talks could be steep. Sterling noted in his response that his family would have to pay "an enormous but avoidable capital gains tax" by selling the team now instead of passing it on to their children. After buying the Clippers for about $12 million in 1981, the team could be sold for more than $1 billion now, triggering a tax hit of more than $300million.
Yet the Sterlings risk wasting time and money on a fight they might ultimately lose. With last week's agreement, the Sterlings signaled a possible middle ground between them and the league. Whether they can get there might depend on who blinks first.