Shelly Sterling has signed her divorce papers but is holding off on filing them against her husband Donald, partly because her camp knows that proceeding could disrupt the situation involving the NBA and the Los Angeles Clippers, a person familiar with the Sterling case told USA TODAY Sports.
But that might be her strongest leverage against the league — a nuclear option that could place the Clippers under the jurisdiction of a California divorce court and delay any sale of the team indefinitely.
The question is whether Shelly Sterling will use that leverage in her quest to keep her 50% ownership share of the Clippers. She has been advised not to file yet, said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the situation.
A decision by either Shelly or Donald Sterling to move forward with a divorce immediately could make it difficult for the NBA to force a sale of the franchise as quickly as desired by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. In the case of divorce, the couple's many assets, including the Clippers, could be subject to a temporary restraining order by the court as the couple tries to divide their community property and reach a resolution about who gets what, a situation that sometimes takes years.
Shelly Sterling prefers to continue a dialogue with the league in her bid to keep her half of the team, the person said.
Donald Sterling is worth about $1.9 billion, according to Forbes magazine, and owns a substantial amount of property in Southern California.
Silver wants to move quickly to force a sale of the team as it tries to completely wash its hands of Donald Sterling and his racist comments about African-Americans. But the fact that Donald and Shelly Sterling are already estranged is a potential problem.
"As soon as one of them files (for divorce), the family court is going to argue it has some jurisdiction over how that property gets disposed of," said Sharon Kalemkiarian, a family law specialist in San Diego who is not involved in the Clippers case.
Even if the NBA succeeds in forcing a sale of the team, as many expect, a divorce filing could drag out the case and keep the ownership situation in limbo indefinitely, a complication that the league, sponsors and players wouldn't like.
The NBA might have to petition the presiding family court to take over the team in the case of a divorce.
Shelly Sterling has said she will fight to keep her half of the team because she doesn't believe she did anything wrong. But many NBA players, fans and sponsors see the couple as intertwined even though they are separated.
They have been married for than 50 years and have owned the team since 1981. They also were co-defendants in lawsuits that accused them of housing discrimination in their rental properties. In 2009, they reached a $2.8 million settlement with the federal government without admitting any wrongdoing.
After Donald Sterling's private comments about African-Americans were recorded and leaked to the gossip website TMZ, Silver banned him from the league for life and fined him $2.5 million. He also said he would move to force him to sell the team with a three-quarters vote of league owners.
Though Silver said his ruling applies "specifically to Donald Sterling and Donald Sterling's conduct only," the league said a vote to force a sale of the team would include all ownership stakes.
"Under the NBA Constitution, if a controlling owner's interest is terminated by a 3/4 vote, all other team owners' interests are automatically terminated as well," according to a statement from NBA spokesman Mike Bass.
In an interview that aired Monday with CNN's Anderson Cooper, Donald Sterling said he didn't want to fight other league owners, though it's unclear if he will if they vote him out.
"People want me to hire a wall of lawyers and them to have to hire a wall of lawyers and go to war," Donald Sterling said. "I don't think that's the answer."
He referred to Shelly as his "ex-wife," though that's not yet official. When and if it becomes official could decide when this controversy finally goes away.