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LOS ANGELES – When Shelly Sterling was approached by former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer about buying the Los Angeles Clippers, the wife of disgraced NBA team owner Donald Sterling did not know who he was. But in before long she wound up convincing him that the team was worth an unprecedented $2 billion.
In an exclusive interview Thursday with The Associated Press, Shelly Sterling offered details of how she wound up negotiating one of the richest deals in sports after her husband's racist rant to a girlfriend became public, prompting the NBA to ban him for life and decree he give up the team.
At that point, Shelly Sterling stepped in.
"I was given the task and I did it," she said. "I just did what I had to do."
Prospective buyers started lining up and she was interviewing bidders for the team when Ballmer entered the scene. She already had a bid of $1.65 billion from David Geffen and an Egyptian princess was entering the bidding war.
Ballmer called her at 7 a.m. on a Saturday.
"He was really enthusiastic," she recalled. "He said I want to come see you immediately."
She put him off until the next day and quickly called a girlfriend to find out who this man was that wanted to buy her team.
"He was a like a little child. He was so excited, so happy," she said of their meeting. "We sort of connected. I felt he would be good for the team."
She said he asked her how much others had offered and then he bid $1.9 billion. But she was not through negotiating.
"I told him: 'You won't have to build an arena or a practice field.' So he was getting a bargain. And I told him, 'We have great players, a great coach and you'll never have the chance to buy a team in Los Angeles again."
After her speech, she recalled "He said, 'O.K. I'll give you two (billion).' He really really wanted the team."
She said she extracted a promise that he would never move the team to Seattle, his home town. The deal closed after a bitter probate fight with Donald Sterling and Ballmer now owns the team. He gave Shelly Sterling the title, "owner emeritus" and said she would have floor tickets for all games.
In a wide ranging interview just days before her 80th birthday, the elegant, blond wife of the beleaguered businessman exuded energy and enthusiasm of a much younger woman. For a half century she had worked in Donald's shadow , renovating and decorating their properties while he built a real estate empire.
"I never liked the spotlight. I didn't like to get up and speak," she said. "But you don't know your potential until you're thrown into something."
She was thrown into the center of a publicity maelstrom with the release of explosive audio tapes of her husband denouncing his young girlfriend for bringing black men to Clippers games.
In her new role, Shelly Sterling signed up well known litigator Pierce O'Donnell. He asked her how much she wanted for the team and she handed him a piece of paper on which was written, "$1.5 to $2 (billion)."
Once Ballmer's offer was accepted the drama moved to probate court. Shelly Sterling had removed her husband from the family trust saying he was suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. Doctors testified but he insisted he was in full control of his faculties. When Shelly tried to approach him in court he growled, "Get away from me, you pig."
It was a painful moment in a 59- year marriage and she said he has since apologized. She blames his illness.
The marriage has had rough patches, she said, and they have been estranged since the death of their diabetic son from a drug overdose last year.
She remembered their high school romance when "He crashed my 16th birthday party," and the years they spent building a real estate empire with 160 apartment buildings in Los Angeles.
Asked if she knew her husband was unfaithful to her over the years, she said , "I can't say if I was blind to it or I didn't know to ask. I was raising my three kids and I was very involved in taking care of the buildings...There were always excuses that he was working with one girl or another. Maybe I didn't want to realize it. "
She considered divorcing Donald but was told by lawyers: "It was of no benefit."
"What's the point at our age?" she said. "I still feel sorry for him. I think he's going to make it right and he'll be o.k. "
These days, she said, " We're on better terms . We try not to talk about the case. We have a business together so we have to talk."
Asked about his mental condition, she said, "He's been a little better, a little sweeter and softer. Losing the team he loved was very hard on him. I resigned myself to the fact I couldn't have it. But I'll always feel it's our team."