Clipped review – basketball scandal makes for captivating small screen drama

Ask a group of US sports fans to name the worst team boss in history, and see how many times the name Donald Sterling comes up.

Sterling was Trump west – the tan and dyed ambulance chaser turned slumdog billionaire who spent three decades ruining the NBA’s Clippers (AKA Los Angeles’ other hoops franchise) with his spectacular cheapness (recommending a head coach stretch and wrap players to save money on hiring an athletic trainer), stunning competitive indifference (routinely passing on young stars while half-heartedly pursuing capable veterans) and staggering cluelessness (responding to a lawsuit deposition question about his handwriting with a tortuous anecdote about having limousine fellatio). The 90-year-old might still be casting a pall on the NBA from his courtside seat if TMZ hadn’t published recordings of him saying that Black people shouldn’t come to “my games” (especially not Magic Johnson!), forcing his divestment from the predominantly Black league.

In a new limited FX series called Clipped, this national scandal gets The People vs OJ Simpson treatment. Creator Gina Welch – the same woman who produced Ryan Murphy’s Feud, the FX drama on the acrimony between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, knows how this goes, gets the tone, the tenor. She picked the best source material – the authoritative ESPN 30 for 30 podcast series about the saga by ace NBA insider Ramona Shelburne. The ensemble doesn’t just capture the spirit of those doomed Lob City-era Clippers of 2014; some of these actors – once passed through the hair and makeup and wardrobe departments – are virtual dead-ringers. Even the actor-players come off credibly until they step on the court– and those scenes are few, far between and, apart from a halfway silent protest, not the point.

Forty years of playing cranks on screen has given Ed O’Neill a particular understanding for Sterling’s quirks, gripes and foibles that few others in his field can claim. Laurence Fishburne serves up a reminder of his Olivier-like range, down to the raspy voice of Doc Rivers, the Black coach who bucks up to Sterling. Double Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver delivers yet another powerhouse performance as Shelly Sterling, the wife pushing to have it both ways.

But no actor will have you seeing double quite like Cleopatra Coleman – AKA V Stiviano, the (literal) foot woman turned trophy confidante who taped her private conversations with Sterling for years. Coleman has Stiviano’s IG-model looks, her effortless whimsy and shrewdness. Crucially, Coleman does not disappoint in the scenes unpacking the origin story behind Stiviano’s infamous face visor, a thing few outside Beverly Hills had seen until Stiviano started swanning around town in one.

Where Coleman is truly on her game is when she’s digging into the more closely guarded textures of Stiviano’s personality, not least her mixed feelings about her biracial ethnicity. In real life, Stiviano identified as Mexican and Black; on one recording, Sterling delights in how much she doesn’t look like she belongs to either race. Looking back, it’s weird that Stiviano still doesn’t hold Sterling’s remarks against him – and yet, not as weird as this whole scandal blowing up over what was essentially an extramarital relationship that was entirely devoid of sex. When Barbara Walters asked Stiviano what her relationship with Sterling was in their highly anticipated 2014 sitdown, Stiviano called herself, among other riddles, “his silly rabbit”.

The tension between Sterling, Shelly and Stiviano propels Clipped’s triangle offense: Sterling wants to control everything and flexes by popping into the locker room unannounced and marvels at half-dressed players as if they were his personal chattel. Stiviano wants to be the Clippers’ first lady, but will settle for Kardashian-level fame. And Shelly wants to be respected as the peer who had a heavy hand in building the family empire and not the feckless spouse.

The supporting cast doesn’t lack for major players who can knock down their shots either: Madame Secretary’s Clifton Davis as NBA great turned defeated Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor, LA Law’s Corbin Bernsen as Hollywood litigator Pierce O’Donnell, LeVar Burton as himself. It helps that Welch and her writing staff, which includes Shelburne and the former Grantland writer Rembert Browne, don’t feed all the best lines to one or two characters.

Ultimately, Donald Sterling came out a big winner. After being slapped with a lifetime NBA ban, the Clippers (which he bought for $12.5m in 1981) sold to the former Microsoft deputy Steve Ballmer for an NBA record of $2bn. Sterling kept his wife and a modicum of his celebrity status in LA while Stiviano faded into obscurity, proving that it still pays to be a racist creep. His downfall is one of those stories that still doesn’t sit right. But that doesn’t mean Clipped doesn’t make it fun to sit with it again.

The Guardian

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