NEW YORK (Reuters) - The National Basketball Association on Thursday launched its bid to oust Donald Sterling as owner of the Los Angeles Clippers for racist comments as a panel of 10 fellow team owners or their proxies unanimously agreed to proceed "as expeditiously as possible," the NBA said.
The decision, reached during a telephone conference call of the NBA Board of Governors' advisory-finance committee, seemed to indicate a strong base of support among Sterling's fellow owners for his removal, as urged by league Commissioner Adam Silver.
Silver on Tuesday declared Sterling banned from the NBA for life, fined him $2.5 million - the league maximum - and called on the 29 other club owners who make up the governing board to exercise their authority to force Sterling to sell the Clippers.
The unprecedented move would require a three-fourths majority vote under the league's constitution and bylaws. If approved, the board could then go further still and vote to seize ownership of the team for the NBA itself to sell, cutting Sterling out of the negotiations.
The decision came hours before sports network ESPN and other media reported Sterling has been battling prostate cancer. Reuters could not independently confirm the reports.
Silver and at least two of the owners, including the interim chairman of the board, Glen Taylor of the Minnesota Timberwolves, have expressed confidence they could muster the votes necessary to force a sale.
The teams represented in Thursday's initial strategy session were Minnesota Timberwolves, the Miami Heat, the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Los Angeles Lakers, the New York Knicks, the Boston Celtics, the San Antonio Spurs, and Phoenix Suns, the Indiana Pacers and the Toronto Raptors.
In a brief statement, the NBA said the panel discussed terminating Sterling's ownership and "unanimously agreed to move forward as expeditiously as possible." It said the panel would reconvene next week.
The committee's decision was in line with an outpouring of support expressed by the owners as a whole for Silver following Tuesday's announcement of a ban. But experts have suggested that some of Sterling's fellow owners might be hesitant to support action they felt could set a precedent weakening their own future property rights.
COLLISION COURSE SEEN
Sterling, who bought the Clippers in 1981 for $13 million when the team was based in San Diego, has not indicated whether he would relinquish ownership without putting up a fight.
Experts have estimated that the franchise, which moved to Los Angeles in 1984, could now be worth as much as $1 billion, posing an enormous potential capital gains tax liability on Sterling if he were to sell the team.
A number of legal scholars and sports business analysts have said they expect Sterling and the NBA to be on a collision course that will be fought out in court.
"The guy has a reputation for being highly litigious. I just can't possibly imagine him rolling over and handing the team over and not fighting back," said Adam Schlatner, a sports business attorney and commercial litigator.
Schlatner, who handles legal matters for the National Hockey League's New York Islanders' owner Charles Wang and has had dealings with clients involving the NBA, said the league might consider allowing Sterling to sell the team himself by a prescribed deadline.
But he predicted that, one way or another, Sterling would end up severed from the Clippers and would realise that "the franchise would not be economically viable if he continues to own it."
The scandal sparked outrage from fans and players, and numerous commercial sponsors pulled their support from the team before and after the NBA moved to expel Sterling.
Sterling was banned from any further ties with his team or professional basketball, and stripped of his seat on the NBA governing board, days after two websites released audio recordings in which a voice said to be Sterling's is heard criticizing a female friend for "associating with black people."
Silver said Tuesday that Sterling has acknowledged to the NBA that the recording was authentic but did not apologise.
The sale of the Clippers could take weeks. According to NBA bylaws, Silver must present Sterling a written copy of any allegations justifying a forced sale within three days, and Sterling would have five days to answer.
A special hearing of the Board of Governors, consisting of all the owners, would then be held on a date no more than 10 days after Sterling's reply.
The prospect of Sterling's ouster led several luminaries of sports and show business to signal interest in buying the team. Among them were talk show host turned media mogul Oprah Winfrey, Hollywood executive David Geffen, computer technology titan Larry Ellison, former Los Angeles Lakers star Earvin "Magic" Johnson and boxing promoter Oscar De La Hoya.
(Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Gunna Dickson, Lisa Shumaker and Catherine Evans)