LOS ANGELES — I’d covered the Super Bowl, Olympics, Final Four, World Series and NBA Finals, but none of that compared to an assignment that started with a question.
“Can you cover Donald Sterling for us?’’
It was April 2014, and Sterling, then-owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, was the most toxic person in all of sports and a man who would change my life.
A few days earlier, TMZ had released a recorded audio of Sterling making offensive, racist comments toward V. Stiviano, Sterling’s personal assistant. Sterling, then 80, and Stiviano, then 31, were rumored to be romantically linked.
It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. And one I’ll never forget.
The fun started April 30, 2014, when I drove to Roosevelt High School, Sterling’s alma mater, and got stopped by a security guard in front of the entrance.
“What are you here for?’’ he asked.
I was expecting to be turned away when I told him I was doing research on Sterling.
The security guard’s eyes lit up.
“You know, they both went to school here,’’ he said.
“Donald Sterling and the girl,’’ he said.
The security guard nodded, let me in and pointed me to the front office. I had no intention of checking in.
I found the library, tracked down the yearbooks and dug until I hit gold.
There were photos of Sterling in the 1952 yearbook, listed under his given name, Don Tokowitz. And a photo of Stiviano in the 2000 yearbook, listed under her given name, Vanessa Perez. And a photo of Sterling’s wife, then Rochelle Stein.
First story filed: V. Stiviano attended the same high school as Donald and Rochelle Sterling.
Second story filed: V. Stiviano was nicknamed “Barbie” in high school for her expensive taste.
After leaving the library, you see, I prowled the grounds before finding Javier Cid, a longtime teacher at Roosevelt. He filled me in on Stiviano’s high school days. Including her breast augmentation. Her $800 jeans. And her nickname.
“Which kind of says a lot about her and who she wants to be,” Cid told me. “Barbie, someone that just wants to have the car, the house, the clothes, the designer stuff.’’
The appetite for Sterling and Stiviano stories was ravenous. Readers ate it up.
The next day I tracked down records showing why Sterling and Stiviano had changed their names. It was the first time the records had been published.
Sterling did it at 25, and cited the difficulty his friends had pronouncing Tokowitz and the belief he would benefit financially from the name Sterling as reasons for the change, according to the petition filed with the state superior court Dec. 9, 1959.
V. Stiviano petitioned to have her name changed in 2010 because she hadn’t “yet been fully accepted because of my race” among considerations. She described herself as of “mixed” race on the audiotaped conversation with Sterling during which he made racist comments.
I drove to his old boyhood neighborhood. Knocked on doors. Pounded the pavement. Dug, and dug some more.
Soon, I had my scoop.
Property taxes for Sterling’s boyhood home and the home of his grandmother, and property taxes for a nearby location had been arriving by money orders written in the names of Sterling’s grandmother and mother — even though both had been dead for many years.
California law requires the death of a homeowner to be reported to the county assessor — a step that triggers a reassessment of the property at market value and typically a property tax increase. The responsibility to report the death falls upon the surviving spouse or partner, executor of the will, administrator of the estate or the successor trustee of the trust.
Just weeks before TMZ released the Sterling audiotape, a former tenant of the home said Sterling was at one of the houses. And he had company — Stiviano. Others independently confirmed Sterling and Stiviano were seen at the properties.
Granted, Sterling had bigger problems than the property taxes. On April 29, the NBA banned him for life, fined him $2.5 million and began proceedings to force a sale of his team.
Sterling hasn’t been seen at an NBA game since.
I got a full-time job with USA TODAY Sports, thanks in part to my coverage of Sterling and one of the most memorable stories of my career.
In fact, five years later, here I am still writing about it.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Josh Peter on Twitter @joshlpeter11