Donald Sterling Is Worth $4 Billion — How Did the Disgraced NBA Team Owner Get so Wealthy?

Donald Sterling went from being a lawyer to a slumlord to the owner of the Clippers to being a virulent racist.

Jennifer Tisdale - Author

Jun. 4 2024, Published 5:55 p.m. ET

Donald Sterling on sidelines during Game 7 vs Phoenix Suns, Phoenix, AZ May 22, 2006
Source: Getty Images

Donald Sterling

There are some people in the world who have an almost unhealthy obsession with the rich. By that I don't mean becoming rich, though that's in there too, but rather what are the wealthy doing. Obviously social media has given the ultra rich the opportunity to pull back the curtain from time to time so that the plebes see a life filled with opulence. Because it's such a strange existence, we can't stop ourselves from looking. It's like staring at a car accident, if said accident was covered in diamonds.

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There is another level to money that is far beyond the reaches of most individuals, and we're talking about billionaires. For the most part, we have no idea what they're doing and there is probably a good or bad reason for that. For example, former LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling is a multi-billionaire who was essentially fired from owning a team after his racist remarks surfaced by way of a secret recording. Secret! How did somebody like that get so darn rich? Here's what we know.

Donald Sterling arrives at Beijing Capital International Airport before the first leg of the 2012 NBA China games
Source: Getty Images
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How did Donald Sterling get so rich?

According to Forbes, Donald — who is worth $4 billion — "built a fortune largely by buying down-at-the-heels apartment buildings in Los Angeles." His real name is Donal Tokowitz, which he changed because as he apparently told one friend, "You have to name yourself after something that’s really good, that people have confidence in. People want to know that you’re the best," per Los Angeles Magazine (via The Nation). For a while, he was.

Growing up in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles as the son of an immigrant produce peddler, Donald began working quite young. He was a box boy at a local grocery store and had a real knack for saving money. Eventually he graduated college and went on to attend law school at Southwestern School of Law. While there, he sold furniture to pay for his education.

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Being a lawyer really suited Donald but he set his sights high. As his friend told The Nation, Donald didn't have much growing up which meant "acquiring great wealth is a crusade. He’s psychologically predisposed to hoarding." In his case, he wanted to hoard money. When he had enough saved up, Donald started buying and flipping property around Los Angeles.

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In 1981 he paid nearly $13 million for the then–San Diego Clippers, $10 million of which was on layaway. The message Donald sent to fans was one of excitement around building up the team. In 1982, Sports Illustrated referred to Donald's time as an owner thus far as the Reign of Error, which included a campaign to boost ticket sales that featured his face on various billboards. At this time, his net worth was estimated to be about $300 million.

When did Donald Sterling move the Clippers to Los Angeles?

In 1984, Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss convinced his friend to move the San Diego Clippers to Tinseltown. The Nation reported that this little maneuver cost Donald $6 million in fines because he did not receive approval from the league first. Per the outlet, he made money by "dumping contracts, pocketing television revenue, and collecting his share of the NBA’s luxury tax," then saved money by doing outlandish things like taping up the players before games which is what a trainer should do.

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Jerry Buss, local real estate millionaire, has reached agreement in principle to purchase the Los Angeles Lakers, Kings, and the forum from Jack Kent Cooke
Source: Getty Images

Jerry Buss

As of the time of this writing, the Clippers have never won league or conference titles. While Donald was their owner, he was also being sued by the Justice Department for allegedly "developing his own racial quota system to decide who gets the privilege of renting his properties," per The Nation. That lawsuit was settled in November 2009 to the tune of $2.73 million. He's actually been sued multiple times for similar reasons and has paid millions of dollars in settlements.

In April 2014, Donald was recorded saying racist remarks by his then mistress V. Stiviano and was fined $2.5 million by the league. The recording was also leaked to TMZ which ultimately led to the scandalous team owner being pushed out. He sold the Clippers in August of that year to Microsoft cofounder Steve Ballmer for $2 billion, per Forbes.

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