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Worst Sports Owners Tournament: Basketball Round 1

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By Scott Henry (@4QuartersRadio)

If your team has an owner or owners who treat the fans with respect, be grateful.

If your team has an owner who spends within his/her/their means, but can still improve the team, enjoy it.

If your team has an owner who is capable of dealing with the team’s home city in a respectful, civil, and productive manner, don’t take that for granted.

After all, you could have ended up with one of these schmucks.

Welcome to Day 3 of the WSOT. The Worst Sports Owners Tournament brings together 32 of the worst owners in the history of sport for a no-holds barred battle to the death, which you, the faithful reader, can decide. If you think a cheap owner is worse than one who picks up his team and hauls it off to some other city, here’s your chance to voice that opinion. If you’re reluctant to get behind your team on the field when the owner is a criminal off it, vote them up right here and remind everyone just how big a scumbag your team’s boss was/is.

The tournament will roll through three weeks, and the votes will be decided between Athlon’s editorial staff, the comments you post below each piece, and comments on the Facebook pages of Athlon Sports and 4 Quarters Radio. Remember, you’re voting for the owners whose crimes against sport, humanity, and/or nature were the most egregious. We’ll offer anecdotal evidence of each owner’s evil/incompetence, and if you’ve got more, feel free to throw it in.

Here’s the schedule:

Monday, Week 1: Baseball Round 1
Tuesday, Week 1: Football Round 1
Thursday, Week 1: Basketball Round 1
Friday, Week 1: Hockey/Soccer Round 1

Monday, Week 2: Baseball/Hockey/Soccer Round 2
Thursday, Week 2: Football/Basketball Round 2

Monday, Week 3: Quarterfinals
Wednesday, Week 3: Semifinals
Friday, Week 3: Final

All in all, our little tourney isn't too different from the World Series of Poker. There's stacks of cash, gaudy jewelry, and the occasional tantrum involved, but at least there are no epileptic seizures from staring at Greg Rayner's shades.

Today, it's the NBA's turn to have some of its black sheep sheared. From wheelers and dealers to franchise movers to the occasional sexual predator, the Association's had a little bit of everything in its owner's boxes. Read on.

Worst Basketball Owners Bracket:

(1) Donald Sterling (San Diego/Los Angeles Clippers, 1981-present)
vs.
(8) Joe & Gavin Maloof (Sacramento Kings, 1999-present)

California is home to perhaps the best-run team in basketball, the Los Angeles Lakers. As if karma demands a payback, the state’s other two clubs are in perpetual chaos. The owners of one are dying to bolt from the state’s capital to Southern California, and the owner of the other would be cheerfully run out of town if enough people bothered to care about his woeful team.

When they were in their 20’s, the Maloof brothers were seen sitting courtside at the NBA Finals. Their dad had been the owner of the Houston Rockets, but he died the year before the Rockets played for the championship and Gavin had installed himself as president. He was 24 at the time. Family squabbles forced the Rockets to be sold in 1982, but the brothers were constantly anxious to get back in. Taking over the Kings in 1999, one of the league’s perennial failures became a contender, coming one game away from the 2002 NBA Finals in one of the more controversial series in recent memory.

Since then, the multimillionaire owners of the Palms casino have sought help from the city of Sacramento, in much the same way that bank robbers “seek” cash from their financial institution of choice. An August 2006 agreement would have seen the Maloofs paying only $72 million of a reported $542M package to build a replacement for the building formerly known as Arco Arena II. That package would have even called for taxpayers to pay for any cost overages. A month later, the brothers were walking away over the size of parking lots, retail surroundings, and final control over arena design. Measures were still put onto Sacramento municipal election ballots, and rejected with the same kind of zeal that would have gone into shooting down a statue of Richard Chase, the “Vampire of Sacramento.”

Bound as it was to Las Vegas, the Maloofs’ fortune took a major hit in the economic downturn, so much so that they’ve been forced to “recapitalize” their investment in the Palms. (Read: half of the casino’s been repossessed, except the creditors paid for what they took.) They’re using the cash as a lifeline to keep the Kings in Sacramento for one more year, while making it read like a tremendously magnanimous civic-minded gesture.

They’re anxious to pick up stakes and move to Anaheim, where they would share the Honda Center with the Ducks. Even then, the Maloofs demanded that Anaheim pony up for the NBA’s relocation fee and assorted other debts that they had incurred. Ducks owner Henry Samueli was first in line to splash the cash, likely seeking to make it back in tenant rent. For the Maloofs’ minds, it’d be better than holding down the aged Power Balance Pavilion, a name that was obviously settled on when Shamwow Center and Shake Weight Stadium were taken. Never mind the fact that the Lakers and Clippers aren’t the slightest bit pleased at the notion of sharing their market with yet another team.

While the Kings wouldn’t be a bug on the Lakers’ windshield, the Clippers have something to lose. Namely, the 12 fans they still have left after the insanely chaotic reign of Donald Sterling.

In his book “The Game,” former Montreal Canadiens goalie Ken Dryden claims that sports entrepreneurs buy teams for the celebrity of it, the ego-stroking that comes with the fans’ attention, good or bad. Donald Sterling fancied himself a celebrity from day one. When he first purchased the San Diego Clippers, he plastered his own face on billboards all over town, believing that fans came to games to bow to the owner as opposed to watching the players. Considering their biggest stars were Freeman Williams and Swen Nater, it’s not that big a stretch, but still.

Before that first season was even over, Sterling was getting hammered with a $10,000 fine from the NBA for musing out loud that it wouldn’t be so bad if the team lost enough games to “earn” the first pick in the draft, with which they could select Ralph Sampson. Deferred contract payments, including monies due people like John Havlicek and Dave Cowens, went unpaid due to Sterling’s complete ignorance of who those men were. Of course, who knew what his excuse was for not paying Paul Silas, since Silas was actually the coach of the Clippers at the time.

He’d never claimed to know much of anything about basketball, so it made sense that he would appoint someone who knew even less about the game as an assistant GM. Patricia Simmons was a model and “companion” of Sterling’s who was hired to an executive position and stationed in Silas’s office while he was gone on an NBA goodwill trip to China. Silas found his belongings stacked in the hallway.

As insanely rich as Sterling was and is, he often seems as willing to spend money on his team as the Pope would be to spend money on hookers. During his first season, he brought to Silas an unusual line of questioning, wondering if the players really needed a trainer. After all, being an ex-player, the coach could surely tape them up before games, couldn’t he? Training camp expenses for the second year were cut from around $50,000 to around $100. (Perhaps, camp was going to be conducted at the local YMCA? If so, would the team have to vacate for a seniors’ yoga class?) The team budget for scouting dropped to around $1,000, medical was cut to $100, and advertising was trimmed to $9,000, a 95% cut from its previous $200,000.

Occasionally, team hotels didn’t get paid, so what hope did the players have? More on them in Round 2, if Sterling knocks off the Maloofs.

(4) James Dolan (New York Knicks, 1994-present)
vs.
(5) Howard Schultz (Seattle SuperSonics, 2001-2006)

Egos run rampant in the owner’s offices of professional sports teams. In the offices of these two men, the egos aren’t a part of their story, they are the story. James Dolan’s reign with the Knicks has been marked by doing whatever it is he damn well pleases. Meanwhile, Howard Schultz bailed on the Sonics the moment someone let him know that he couldn’t do whatever he wanted.

Dolan has had a case of battered-woman syndrome that would put any shrink’s kids through their own med school career. His smiling tormentor has been Basketball Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas. Thomas made the kinds of personnel moves that would make Redskins owner Dan Snyder smile, but made other observers shake their heads and Knicks fans order another shot. Names like Penny Hardaway, Stephon Marbury, Vin Baker, Maurice Taylor and Steve Francis may have been solid acquisitions during the 1990’s, but by the time Thomas was hired, there was no tread left on anyone’s tires.

Multiple first-round picks were traded for a player whose career was in doubt from a potentially fatal heart condition, and while Eddy Curry had three fair-to-middling seasons as a Knick, the traded picks turned into budding stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Joakim Noah.

Dolan’s leash on Isiah was exceedingly long in the face of both mounting losses (141-241 record with Isiah as Knicks VP) and legal/PR insanity. When the team began showing signs of life in 2006-07, contending for the final playoff spot in the East at 29-34, Isiah got a big extension to keep coaching the Knicks. The team then bottomed out and lost 15 of their last 19. Isiah was getting paid big to lose, but even that’s better than his predecessor Larry Brown, who bailed on the club after a power struggle with Isiah during his first season in charge. Brown got paid $28 million for one year of coaching after Dolan bought him out.

Flushing money on players and coaches is one thing, but when you’re flushing cash for legal fees, changes may need to be made. Dolan didn’t really get the memo. The memo that he did get came in the form of a sexual harassment complaint by team marketing executive Anucha Browne Sanders. She had accused Thomas of inappropriate touching and calling her a “ho” when she shot down his advances. Rather than even examine the complaint, Dolan simply canned Sanders without bothering to consult his legal team. Two years later, Dolan was settling a lawsuit for $11.6 million, money that could have easily been spent to buy out another coach or failed player. The scary part for Knicks fans is that Isiah still pops up every now and then, allegedly having Dolan's ear even to this day. A re-hiring could occur any day, once Isiah stops pretending to coach at Florida International.

The last time Howard Schultz was connected to the Seattle SuperSonics, he was in the midst of legal proceedings himself. He was dropping a lawsuit that he had filed against Oklahoma City businessman Clay Bennett, to whom Schultz had sold the Sonics two years prior. Schultz claimed he wanted the team back once Bennett announced that the club was moving to Oklahoma City. Anyone who had watched Schultz over the last few years of his team ownership had to scoff at the idea that he wanted any more to do with the NBA.

Schultz was an excitable new owner during his first season, easily visible and jumping around like he was mainlining his own Starbucks coffee when the team was winning. They weren’t the power that they had been in the 1990’s, but they made the playoffs, at least. Schultz still had an instant dislike for his team’s best player, point guard Gary Payton, and Payton thumbed his nose at the boss by skipping the first day of training camp in 2002. By the end of the 2002-03 season, Payton was in Milwaukee.

Schultz also didn’t care for the way Rashard Lewis handled contract negotiations. Lewis sat across the table from the owner, but never spoke, never looked at Schultz, never raised the baseball cap from over his eyes. Lewis’s agents did all the talking, which bothered Schultz to no end. Still, Lewis got over $60 million in a seven-year deal, enough money that he never had to bother caring about basketball again.