New York - The NBA came down hard on Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling on Tuesday, banning him for life for "deeply offensive and harmful" racist comments that sparked a national firestorm.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver hit Sterling with every penalty at his disposal, fining him a maximum $2.5 million dollars and calling on other owners to force him to sell his team.
The swift, sharp reaction drew praise from around the league and buoyed Clippers players, who defeated the Golden State Warriors 113-103 on Tuesday night to take a 3-2 lead in their best-of-seven Western Conference first-round playoff series.
"I thought they were great," Clippers coach Glenn "Doc" Rivers said of his players. "I thought they were tired a lot, and that was the result of the last few days.
"I just thought they had great mental toughness. They wanted to will this game, and I'm just proud of them."
Rivers said before the game that the sanctions meted out by Silver were "the sigh of relief we needed".
"Is this over? No, it's not over," Rivers added. "But it's the start of a healing process that we need."
Rivers said he felt his team had played under undeserved stress in the three days since an audio recording surfaced of 80-year-old married billionaire Sterling chastising his girlfriend for publicly associating with blacks.
"It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you're associating with black people. Do you have to?" the man now confirmed to be Sterling says in the recording.
"The little I ask you is not to promote it... and not to bring them to my games."
"The views expressed by Mr. Sterling are deeply offensive and harmful," Silver told a news conference in New York. "That they came from an NBA owner only heightens the damage and my personal outrage."
The punishment means real estate tycoon Sterling cannot attend any National Basketball Association (NBA) games or workouts, appear at any Clippers office or facility, or make any business or personnel decisions for the club.
Silver said he will urge NBA owners to force Sterling to sell. That would require three-quarters of the owners to agree, and Silver said he fully expected to get the necessary support.
Clippers players staged a silent protest in Oakland on Sunday before a road loss to the Warriors and Rivers said the affair had taken a toll.
But fans, torn by love for the team and dismay at Sterling, were also soothed by the NBA's hard stance and greeted the Clippers rapturously before contest.
"Hate will never win," read one sign held by a fan. "Rise above" said another.
"This is our house," the public address announcer said as Los Angeles players took the court for pre-game warm-ups. "Be proud of your team."
"When we ran out for warm-ups it was one of the most emotional things I've ever been a part of," said Clippers star Chris Paul. "To feel the support of our fans - I wasn't sure what we would come back to."
Silver, in his 88th day as commissioner after taking over from 30-year NBA boss David Stern, apologized to NBA coaches, players, fans and business partners, adding, "This has been a painful moment for all members of the NBA family."
More than a dozen sponsors severed or suspended their relationships with the Clippers, but the market value of the team Sterling bought for $12 million in 1981 is still expected to approach $600 million.
Already on Tuesday potential suitors were lining up, a list including former boxing World Champion turned promoter Oscar de la Hoya and, reportedly, reigning world champ Floyd Mayweather and entertainment mogul David Geffen.
NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson, whose photo with Sterling's girlfriend prompted the tirade that led to the owner's banishment, has also been mentioned as a potential buyer.
Johnson tweeted his approval of Silver's ruling saying "we have a great leader leading our league."
Silver's few critics wondered how Sterling was tolerated so long by owners, given past court cases against him over discrimination charges, but Silver noted that in each instance, Sterling won the legal fight.
"At the end of the day the commissioner did an incredible job of making us feel like the situation is under control," Warriors coach Mark Jackson said. "The situation will be handled."
Kevin Johnson, a former NBA standout acting for the players union in place of Clippers player and union president Chris Paul, said it was a defining moment in NBA history.
"I believe that today stands as one of those great moments where sports, once again, transcends, where sports provides a place for fundamental change on how our country should think and act," Johnson said.