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Cancel Culture Target #1: Will The Real Donald Sterling Please Stand Up?

The following excerpt is from an explosive and inspiring new memoir, The Bastard of Beverly Hills, from JIA Publishing Group, available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and wherever fine books are sold.

That hideous beast. It murdered my best friend one New Year’s Eve, leaving his bruised, punctured corpse to rot all week on the floor of a Malibu drug den. He died steps from the same sandy beach where, as blood brothers with matching bowl cuts and our third-grade imaginations, we’d once frolicked morning to night, burying treasures at the foot of a rocky cove. The aroma of embers crackling in a nearby bonfire signaled it was time for supper.

Now I’m haunted by a different scent. A stench, really. One that lingered like a fume well after Scotty’s interment. It was a day of reckoning, an unearthly event that, ever since, has served as a line of demarcation between the rebellious child I was and the man I’d have to become.

His funeral was the day I quit smoking. I marked the date with a sharpie across the cellophane on my last pack. Each year, around the time of his death, I pull it out, recalling battles we fought against that monster as troubled kids. The smell of the stale tobacco inside still reminds me of our friendship and the precise moment of our fates’ divergence.

My son was just an infant when Scotty passed. As I chain-smoked on the balcony, waiting for my wife, Abby, I could hear the boy wheezing. I never lit up in our apartment, but the carbon monoxide often seeped into the nursery like a ghost.

The sitter arrived. I put out my cigarette in a dirty tin ashtray on the ledge.

“We should go,” I muttered to Abby, forgetting to lock the sliding glass door behind me.

“Is this okay?” she asked softly, adjusting the neckline of her black collared dress.

I nodded but didn’t much care.

A genteel, midwest girl, Abby usually knew the right look for any occasion. I’d taken her suggestion and worn the skinny tie and charcoal suit that hadn’t been out of the dry-cleaning plastic since our wedding. We were exhausted like all new parents. The crow’s feet around my blue eyes were evidence of sleepless nights and a spate of recent arguments.

As we rode an elevator to the garage, she held back her auburn hair so I could refasten the clasp on the pendant I’d gifted her when we started dating. It always seemed to come loose.

We drove to the cemetery without saying a word.

She parked her silver Mazda behind a line of fancy cars as I checked my voicemail. Eleanor, my mother, had left instructions on where to find her and Dad once we’d arrived. I was the only one of her children there — my two older sisters unwilling to travel.

Paparazzi were camped outside the chapel that brisk morning. As I walked past, one mumbled to another, “I think it’s Ed Norton.”

“Nah, too short,” the other quipped.

I winced at the comparison, coughing as we ascended the front stoop, proceeding through the white Tuscan columns at the entrance and down the sanctuary’s middle aisle. A sunbeam pierced the stained glass and fell upon my friend’s closed casket. It froze me in my tracks, a morbid centerpiece radiating with lifelessness. I felt the gravity of the coffin bearing down on the bier as if, at any moment, it might collapse under its own weight and tumble down the altar.

Somebody nudged me, and I kept moving.

I sat a few rows back with my father, Ray, and opened the program. The mortuary’s template had been edited with an outdated photo of Scotty looking uncomfortable in a polyester button-down. On the next page was the twenty-third Psalm. I read the first few lines.

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.

I folded the pamphlet and tucked it into a breast pocket.

Glancing to my side, I noticed the distinct striped suspenders of Larry King, a talk show host and friend of the grieving Sterling family. His arms and legs were crossed as he inspected me through his horn-rimmed glasses.

“How-ya-doin’?” he asked in a thick Brooklyn accent, greeting me warmly and extending a clammy handshake.

I’d met the interviewer once before, while home from college one summer and clerking at a bookstore. He’d popped in to see if we were carrying his latest title. I didn’t bother to bring that up, and he wouldn’t have recognized me anyhow.

But as surreal as it felt sitting next to him at the funeral that day, it couldn’t compare to the disturbing sequence of events about to unfold as we laid my dear friend to rest.

The author with Sterling’s youngest son, Scotty, circa 1983.

Piecing together my scattered thoughts and feelings around Scotty’s death had taken a back seat to relationships, children, and a career. Those are all gifts he wasn’t afforded. And you can probably find plenty of folks who either loathed or loved the guy but will never find anyone who understood his anguish the way I did. Our bond was forged in the striking similarities of our upbringing — given up by reckless mothers and placed with eccentric families living right across the street from one another. Through the years, my ship would navigate rough seas while Scotty’s would sink into an abyss. His lot became a pit of despair from which, like the Hebrew, Joseph, he couldn’t climb out.

A sunbeam pierced the stained glass and fell upon my friend’s closed casket. It froze me in my tracks, a morbid centerpiece radiating with lifelessness. I felt the gravity of the coffin bearing down on the bier as if, at any moment, it might collapse under its own weight and tumble down the altar.

The last time I’d seen him was three months before his funeral, outside my parents’ house on Beverly Drive, the morning of my son’s bris. The street was quiet except for the passing hum of motorists and wild parrots squawking in the swaying palm trees.

He’d borrowed my lighter, and we stood shoulder to shoulder on the uneven sidewalk, catching up on better times. His hair had been buzzed, and his pupils were dilated. He mentioned he’d been working out, but his clothes were too big for his frame.

“Congrats, Bucky,” he said in a raspy voice, his hands shaking as he wiped the drip from his nose.

Scotty must have been the only person who still called me by that handle.

He stared down past Sunset Boulevard at his parents’ walled mansion on the corner. I hadn’t seen him in a while but sensed his need to be closer and confide. That fork in the road where we’d separated was miles behind us. He was backtracking, desperately trying to find signs pointing the way home. A home he wished looked more like mine.

“Auntie Ellie told me you found out about your adoption.”

That’s what everybody called my mom, Auntie Ellie.

I took a short drag and admitted, “Couple of years ago, but yeah.”

“Cool, cool,” he replied, blowing a plume toward the empty sky.

His motive surfaced as he ruminated on repressed emotions, seemingly eager to learn about his own ordeal but overwhelmed by the prospect of investigating it. Unlike me, Scotty had known he wasn’t his parents’ biological son from early on but was discouraged from seeking answers. Out of fear or shame, he’d avoided openly expressing any desire to know a family separate from the one that raised him. Yet, seeing how the discovery was transforming me made him reconsider.

I regret not helping him take the next step.

But now that I’m exhuming Scotty’s spirit, I owe it to both of us to set the record straight about our adoptions in the manner he would have wanted and deserved. I cared for him, despite his flaws. And I know his brother, sister, and mother did so, too. But time and again, the one person whose love he needed most was never there — his father, Donald Sterling.

Donald Sterling holds the author as a baby at his compound in Malibu, California 1977.

I’d only seen Uncle Don, an honorific title bestowed on him by my mother, once between my son’s birth and the morning of his son’s burial. He’d been shopping on Western Avenue with a paramour. His rampant infidelity wasn’t news. Indeed, it formed the basis of widespread rumors and lawsuits. But it was the first time I’d seen him with my own eyes engaged in an extra-marital affair. Since he always thought of me as a boy, the old man was abashed, like the guilty child caught with his hand in a cookie jar.

He was greasy as I gazed upon him that day. It brought back memories of sleepovers and playdates at Scotty’s house as if they’d just been captured on Kodachrome. Don sauntered about in his monogrammed ivory bathrobe, his dyed black hair combed back, rolling phone calls on a rotary dial. In between, he’d bark orders and criticism at his boy, like, “God damn it, close the door when you come back in this house!” and “Shut your mouth when I’m on the phone!“

Yet, in public, Don was gregarious and guarded his vulnerabilities closely. He’d grown up poor and disadvantaged in Boyle Heights and never discussed his childhood. At times, Scotty tried in vain to speak tenderly to him, but the man was iron-hearted and indifferent. People say that’s the cruelest form of punishment. Well, for Scotty, it was true. Nothing was worse than having a father who didn’t want him around.

My friend and I began our lives as fragile souls. We were both abandoned, which made assimilating into the upper crust of Beverly Hills, at least subconsciously, an unnatural adaptation. And Scotty’s early traumatic experiences with his dad may have saddled him with the kind of baggage not easily unpacked by a shrink. Don never handed out more than a spanking, from what I observed. But it didn’t matter. The apathy he treated that boy with did more damage than a leather belt ever could.

The author with Scotty Sterling, circa 1989.

As a father, I’ve tried to put myself in Don’s loafers and speculate what may have gone wrong between him and Scotty, who was frequently in legal trouble. A part of me wants to believe he was demonstrating love for the boy all those times he shielded him from the long arm of the law.

Once, when Scotty was nineteen, Don intervened to prevent him from being charged with the attempted murder of a man he’d been fighting with over a girl. The LA Times, in their coverage of his son’s overdose, rehashed the allegation.

The shooting occurred at the Beverly Hills home of Donald Sterling — lawyer, commercial real estate mogul, owner of the Clippers basketball team and fundraiser for outgoing District Attorney Gil Garcetti. More than a year after the shooting, prosecutors decided not to file charges. The conclusion left police frustrated.

That outgoing district attorney was Don’s friend and benefactor of his recurring political contributions. Everybody suspected that their relationship influenced why charges weren’t filed. Beyond injustice to the alleged victim, though, it was a disservice to Scotty. I can’t help but wonder whether things would have turned out differently if that compromised DA hadn’t interfered and let him face the music.

One thing is certain — the favor didn’t help Scotty in his struggle with the monster. He may have thought he’d slipped from its grip, but that salivating beast grew mightier with each passing day. It was our Leviathan. Serpent-like and demonic, its blazing eyes feasted on our insecurities, constantly tempting us to seek validation from the bottom of a flask, the tip of a syringe, the end of a joint, or the arms of a lover.

I can’t remember if Gil Garcetti attended Scotty’s funeral. But I watched him deliver the keynote at a friend’s gala a few years later. He conducted himself like an elder statesman up there on the dais, speaking glowingly about his son, Eric, newly elected to the LA City Council. It crossed my mind to confront him about my friend.

It wouldn’t have been the first time.

Ten years before, I’d had too much to drink at Scotty’s sister’s wedding and brazenly called out the attorney for mishandling the infamous OJ Simpson trial. My unsolicited opinions, awkwardly timed moments before the bride walked down the aisle, annoyed Garcetti. He laughed off my outburst, but it must have been brought to Uncle Don’s attention because he treated me a little differently from that point. It angered him, perhaps rightly, that I’d disrupted the occasion. By the time I saw his old crony speak years later at the gala, I’d matured. With a young family and a burgeoning career, I knew better.

They would both be judged, but not by me, I told myself as the rabbi opened Scotty’s service.

As he spoke, I looked at the back of Don’s head in the front row of the opposite aisle. He turned around to check attendance, then reclined as if it were another day at the office.

The man was unaffected, just like in business, where he’d employed a strategy that could be summed up in two words — never sell. Take his basketball club, the Clippers, for example. Season after season, they finished in last place. Fans never caught on that Sterling had no intention of winning. The team was little more than a financial instrument moonlighting as the mogul’s toy. Don shared in NBA profits for merchandise and wrote off ticket sale losses on a separate ledger. He was even shrewder in real estate, acquiring over two hundred properties with sometimes little or no money down.

If only he’d made those wise investments in his son, I thought, sitting in the pew.

Scotty’s mom, by contrast, wasn’t cutthroat like her husband. She’d asked me earlier in the week to serve as a pallbearer and deliver a eulogy. At the last minute, though, Don decided to exclude me from the latter honor. He may have feared what I might say, knowing I’d seen the skeletons in his closet. Maybe he remembered my words with the DA at his daughter’s wedding or when I’d caught him buying things for his mistress. Perhaps it was something else entirely. But as dismayed as I was, I’d never, in that solemn setting, trample on his family’s name. I knew the right place and time would eventually come to honor Scotty.

Donald Sterling was banned for life from the NBA in 2014.

The memory of his funeral plays back in my head like a broken record. There was sympathy for the deceased, but the event’s orchestration made it ring hollow. It wasn’t a funeral as much as it was a formality.

We were sitting in the third row because Don reserved the first two benches for his basketball team. Scotty’s tearful girlfriend and her mother had mistakenly sat there, directly in front of me. Abby and I watched, aghast, as they were reseated toward the back of the chapel.

Invitees trickled in, a handful in wheelchairs, including an aunt who’d doted on Scotty and would leave flowers at his gravesite until her dying day. One of Don’s players, a star forward, helped the woman to her seat. Then the rest of the Clippers tarried in behind him, one by one, seven feet at a time, and sat up front, blocking the view of family and friends. They were obliged to attend. But Scotty would have loved seeing them there since it’s where he spent so much time — puttering around the old stadium like a lost puppy. Players and staff usually kept an eye on him in the corridors and at the concession stands before games.

His sister gave the first eulogy, and an acquaintance delivered another. After the speeches, we walked through the cemetery to where Scotty would lie forever in a mausoleum. His sister wept as she said farewell, and his mother kissed his mahogany casket.

And then all eyes turned to Don.

He stepped forward from behind his wife, already wearing his trench coat and sunglasses, as if he couldn’t wait to leave. Taking a quick breath, he callously tossed a single rose onto the coffer, grimacing as he watched us slide his son into his final resting place.

Scott Sterlings grave at Mount Sinai in Los Angeles.

Abby drove home as I smoked the last cigarette in my pack, reliving those moments of mourning with Don flinging the red rose onto Scotty’s coffin. The imagery was gut-wrenching — not just Don’s smugness but the ominous shadow of the beast who stalked us as kids and had wantonly claimed Scotty. The boy’s spirit was engulfed in flames almost from the moment the Sterlings brought him home. Now there was nothing left to incinerate. And though I’d kept a safer distance from that monster’s fire, I knew it could rise from its lair and torch me when I’d least expected it.

When we returned to our apartment, my son was cranky. Abby relieved the babysitter, and I stayed behind in the kitchen. I leaned against the laminate counter, and an electric tingle rippled through my chest. Foolishly, I headed to the corner gas station for more smokes but felt another sharp pang on the walk back. This time it was excruciating. As if I’d been struck by lightning.

I knew I’d be dead if I ever lit up again.

The warning was from Scotty, coming from somewhere in the ether. I scribbled the date on the cellophane wrapper and crumpled the pack of cigarettes with my fist.

Nicotine withdrawal ensued. I sweated through the sheets for weeks as I lay next to Abby, waking from nightmares I hadn’t endured since I was a child. I kept myself up, questioning whether Scotty’s life might have been saved had he connected with his blood relatives the way I originally planned.

I’d learned the secret of my adoption not long before the funeral. And it came as one hell of a surprise when I tracked down the person who made it all possible — the absolute last soul on earth you’d ever trust to watch out for a kid like me.

To read more about this amazing story pick up your copy of The Bastard of Beverly Hills today!

1 thought on “Cancel Culture Target #1: Will The Real Donald Sterling Please Stand Up?”

  1. Hello Rafael, this is auntie Jean from Seattle. Your book brought lots of emotion and I felt proud of you reading it. You coming into this world was a huge, bright light for your parents and us as well. It made me so happy to see you last in Seattle at Graces Bat Mitzvah. You were always (and still are) very special. I wish you, your wife and children, all the love and happiness in the world. You have a beautiful family. Love always.

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