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'Clipped' finds bigger questions in the scandal of ex-Clippers owner Donald Sterling

 Ed O'Neill as former LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling in <em>Clipped</em>.
Kelsey McNeal
Ed O'Neill as former LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling in Clipped.

It could be easy to dismiss a limited series about the Donald Sterling scandal today. Even when it first broke 10 years ago, after gossip site TMZ published a recording of racist comments by the onetime Los Angeles Clippers owner, the whole thing had an unsavory, tabloidy feel — kicking off a firestorm of criticism which shocked the sports world and led to a forced sale of the team.

Making the situation even more tawdry: Sterling was recorded by a younger female companion who was not his wife, leading some to assume she leaked the audio amid a power struggle with his spouse. (The woman maintained then she did not leak the tapes herself and that she and Sterling were never romantically involved; The series suggests it was at least a strong possibility.)

But FX’s Clipped digs deeper as its six episodes unfold, using Sterling’s abrasive toxicity to leverage a story about wealth, power, class, race and more — asking powerful questions about what people will accept to access money, privilege and prized accomplishments.

A team hobbled by an unpredictable owner

The story opens with the arrival in Los Angeles of coach Doc Rivers, played by the barrel-chested Laurence Fishburne as a savvy optimist — a former NBA all-star and well-regarded coach hired from Boston to shape up a team he once played for. When a fan asks why Rivers, as a championship coach, would join a franchise considered one of the worst in the league, he answers simply: “I like a challenge.”

 Laurence Fishburne as Doc Rivers.
Kelsey McNeal / FX
Laurence Fishburne as Doc Rivers.

But Rivers soon discovers his biggest challenge is the team’s owner — an eccentric real estate mogul given to treating players like prized possessions, monopolizing meetings with long, rambling monologues, and tossing off racist and sexist asides with little care for the consequences. Think a more abrasive Donald Trump with even less of a filter.

Modern Family alum Ed O’Neill inhabits Sterling as an irascible, mercurial crank, blithely unconcerned with the havoc he creates, certain his wealth and power both insulates and justifies his actions.

Based on the ESPN 30 for 30 podcast The Sterling Affairs, FX’s Clipped carefully lays out a scenario it turns upside down later in the series, with Australian actress Jacki Weaver offering a particularly crafty performance as Sterling’s long put-upon wife, Shelly. Early on, we watch with sympathy as she sees her husband of 60 years lavish expensive clothing, housing and a Ferrari on a beautiful young assistant everyone assumes is his girlfriend, V. Stiviano (Cleopatra Coleman).

Eventually, we’ll learn there is a tough calculating core beneath Shelly’s goodnaturedly scatterbrained veneer — and a reason why she and Donald have stayed married over a lifetime.

Exposing Donald Sterling’s not-so-secret racism

When Shelly tries to get her husband to drop Stiviano from their lives, gossip website TMZ publishes a recording of Donald urging his assistant to stop posting pictures of herself on social media with famous Black men like retired hoops star Earvin “Magic” Johnson. “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with Black people,” Sterling argues in an exchange that was featured on TMZ’s website.

Sterling’s questionable behavior had been a dirty secret inside the NBA for years, but the leaked audio forces Rivers and the Clippers players to decide if they will boycott games, just as the team is winning. There is already a simmering tension in professional basketball between highly talented, well paid, mostly Black players and the white owners, staffers and fans who surround them; Sterling’s recording put all those tensions on full display.

But what really interests Clipped, is how the scandal forces everyone around Sterling to face the compromises they have made to get whatever they have. Players must choose between taking a principled stand or playing to capture a historic championship. Flashbacks show Stiviano struggling to run a failing food truck business before a friend shows her how to align herself with powerful, wealthy men to pay her bills.

Later on, that same friend reminds Stiviano she’s on a clock to get real money out of Donald Sterling. “You’re 31…cream curdles,” she adds. “It’s the same as playing ball. They give you 15 years to earn, then you’ve gotta find your own revenue stream.”

 Cleopatra Coleman as V. Stiviano.
Kelsey McNeal / FX
Cleopatra Coleman as V. Stiviano.

Rivers thinks back to when he was a player on the Clippers in 1991, at the height of the scandal over Los Angeles police beating Black motorist Rodney King, wondering if his decision not to speak out back then was a mistake he is repeating by urging his players not to boycott Sterling now.

The coach’s unexpected confidant while navigating all this: actor, director and TV host LeVar Burton, who plays himself, befriending Rivers in a steam room they both frequent. Relaxing in the living room of Rivers’ lavish condo, the two men have a revealing conversation about feeling caught between the comforts of success in a white-dominated America and the consequences for successful Black people who reveal their anger over racial injustice.

“America first met me as [enslaved youth] Kunta Kinte [in the miniseries Roots]…then I read to their children and maintained the integrity of their favorite spaceship…soon, people began to think of me as safe,” Burton says, adding that he paid a financial price when he took public actions that were seen as edgy or remotely confrontational.

“So I keep the chains [from Roots] on my living room wall,” he adds. “I want [house guests] to know that while I am unquestionably their friend, I’m also absolutely filled with rage.”

Facing the reality of compromise

But even when expressed publicly, does rage like that bring lasting change? Clipped’s ending, which I won’t detail here, puts the answer seriously in doubt.

It’s tempting to compare Clipped with another prestige TV show on a dysfunctional Los Angeles-based basketball team: HBO’s series on the Lakers, Winning Time. No doubt, sports fans may criticize Clipped for having some of the same weaknesses: Circumstances tweaked to enhance drama, more flattering portrayals given to someone like Rivers (who was involved in the production as a consultant) and a heightened recreation of a scandal many already know well.

Still, Clipped aims a bit higher, teasing out a story where everyone involved is both more — and less — than they seem. Though its message about the ubiquity of compromise and the enduring power of wealth may be a bit tough to swallow.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.