By Eric Kelsey
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The estranged wife of Los Angeles Clippers co-owner Donald Sterling can proceed with the record $2 billion sale of the NBA team despite her husband's objections, a judge ruled on Monday, in a likely coda to a case of lingering racism in American sports.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Levanas said the deal struck by Shelly Sterling with former Microsoft Corp Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer was permissible and could be consummated even if Sterling, who has been banned for life from the National Basketball Association for racist remarks, chose to appeal.
"She had every good reason to believe that Donald agreed to the sale of the team," said Levanas, who added that he found Donald Sterling's combative testimony at the emotionally charged nine-day trial "often evasive and inconsistent."
The ruling was a major victory for an embarrassed NBA and Shelly Sterling, who had asked the probate judge to confirm her as the trustee of the family trust that owns the Clippers. She acted in May to have her 80-year-old real estate billionaire husband removed when neurologists deemed him to have early Alzheimer's disease and unable to handle business affairs.
Shelly Sterling, 79, cried after the ruling and told reporters outside the courtroom: "Either way we'd win. I am just doing what I had to do."
Donald Sterling's attorneys said they would file an appeal of the decision.
"He doesn't see this as the final battleground," said Sterling's attorney, Bobby Samini. "This is one stage of a long war."
In an unprecedented move, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling and fined him $2.5 million three months ago after his taped private comments imploring a girlfriend not to associate with black people, including NBA Hall of Fame player Magic Johnson, were published.
The majority of NBA players are black, and Clippers interim CEO Richard Parsons testified that team sponsors were ready to leave, head coach Doc Rivers could quit and players would refuse to play if Sterling was able to keep the franchise he has owned for 33 years.
Under Sterling, the Clippers for decades languished as a league doormat and afterthought to the marquee Los Angeles Lakers, but in recent years they have added enough talent to compete in the NBA playoffs.
Sterling had vowed to block the sale he initially blessed because he said his wife improperly removed him as a trustee of the family trust that owns the Clippers.
Shelly Sterling also said she believed her husband's ban from the NBA would be lifted. During the trial, Sterling had treated her with both love and contempt, calling her a pig and liar at one stage.
'BRINGING DIGNITY BACK'
The NBA, looking to close a chapter that brought shame to the basketball league and outraged fans, said it was "pleased" with the court's decision.
"We look forward to the transaction closing as soon as possible," NBA spokesman Mike Bass said in a statement.
The tentative ruling will take formal effect when Levanas issues it in writing in coming weeks after he considers objections.
Ballmer, known for his enthusiasm for pick-up basketball while at Microsoft, is ready to get to work, his attorney, Adam Streisand, said.
"He is very excited ... about bringing dignity back to the Clippers," Streisand said.
Legal experts said the ruling was so strongly in favor of Shelly Sterling that any challenge from Donald Sterling was unlikely to derail the sale.
"He can appeal as much as he likes, but the Clippers are going to be sold to Ballmer," said Ed McCaffery, a professor of law at University of Southern California.
Sterling has also sued the NBA, the league commissioner and his wife in state and federal courts, contending the team was illegally taken from him.
"We expect that we'll continue to get grenades from all directions," Streisand said.
(Additional reporting by Tim Reid; Writing by Mary Milliken; Editing by Grant McCool and Mohammad Zargham)