By Michael Martinez and Lindy Hall
LOS ANGELES (CNN) — Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer became the new owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday, concluding a public saga in which the league expelled one of the prior co-owners for racist comments.
The sale marks the end of co-ownership by billionaire Donald Sterling, who was ousted from the NBA and then battled his estranged wife, Shelly, in a California probate court over control of the couple’s trust, which owned the franchise.
Sterling, 80, lost that legal battle when the probate judge ruled that the deal by Shelly Sterling to sell the Clippers to Ballmer could move forward. Sterling bought the Clippers in 1981 for about $12 million and was the longest-tenured owner in the NBA.
The negotiated $2 billion sale price is a record for any professional sports franchise in North America, Shelly Sterling said. Ballmer, 58, was ranked No. 35 this year on Forbes’ annual world’s billionaires list and has a net worth of $20 billion.
Ballmer, players and coach Doc Rivers will meet fans Monday at the Staples Center in Los Angeles during the Clippers Fan Festival.
“I am humbled and honored to be the new owner of the Los Angeles Clippers,” Ballmer said in a statement. “Clipper fans are so amazing. They have remained fiercely loyal to our franchise through some extraordinary times. I will be hard core in giving the team, our great coach, staff and players the support they need to do their best work on the court.”
In April, Sterling came under fire for making racist remarks against African-Americans in comments to his companion V. Stiviano. The recorded conversation was published online.
In response, the NBA banned Sterling for life, fined him the maximum $2.5 million and moved toward terminating the Sterlings’ ownership rights in the franchise.
Under the sale, Ballmer agreed to give Shelly Sterling the title of “owner emeritus” of the team, allowing her to retain a connection to the franchise.
“I am thrilled that the Clippers now have such a wonderful new owner,” Shelly Sterling said. “I am confident that Steve will bring the city a championship team in the very near future. … I cannot wait for the new season to begin.”
The sale of the Clippers closed after “the entry of an order by a California court confirming the authority of Shelly Sterling, on behalf of the Sterling Family Trust, to sell the team,” the NBA said Tuesday.
“The NBA Board of Governors previously approved the sale and Ballmer is now the Clippers Governor,” the basketball league said.
Ballmer’s attorney, Adam Streisand, said Tuesday that Donald Sterling was expected to seek an emergency order from an appeals court to direct the probate judge to vacate his order.
“I’m confident the appellate court will agree (California probate Judge Michael) Levanas made the correct decision, and it’s all academic now, because we already have a new owner of the Clippers,” Streisand said.
Sterling and his attorneys couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.
On Ballmer’s behalf, Streisand devised a legal strategy in probate court using “a provision so rarely invoked that most probate attorneys were unaware of its existence before the Sterling case,” his law firm said in a statement.
That provision, called Section 1310(b), “authorizes the probate court to make an order to permit a trustee to carry out a transaction even if the court’s decision is appealed to a higher court if delay would cause irreparable injury or loss,” Streisand’s law firm said.
“When Ballmer contacted Streisand about the deal, Streisand says within 60 seconds he told Ballmer about 1310(b) and then presented the plan to lawyers for Shelly Sterling,” the firm said.
Shelly Sterling was able to negotiate a sale to Ballmer for $2 billion because her husband had OK’d in a letter her effort to negotiate with a buyer.
But Donald Sterling later opposed a sale of team, saying the purported letter authorized only a negotiation, not a formal sale.
Shelly Sterling became the sole trustee of the couple’s trust in May after two doctors determined that Donald Sterling was mentally incapacitated. He was diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s or other brain disease.
Sterling challenged his wife’s takeover of the trust, but Levanas ruled in Shelly Sterling’s favor, saying she acted properly in removing her husband from the trust that owned the NBA team.
The judge further ruled that the sale could go forward regardless of appeals by Donald Sterling.
Sterling has sued the league for $1 billion, claiming antitrust violations in its handling of the matter.
He also is suing his wife and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, seeking monetary damages in civil court. Court documents filed by Sterling’s attorneys call the potential deal “unlawful” and “fraudulent” and ask for an injunction to block the sale.
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