Three days after a recording surfaced of Sterling urging his girlfriend V. Stiviano not to publicly associate with black peoples, NBA commissioner Adam Silver removed the 80-year-old billionaire from the league and urged owners to start the process of forcing him to sell the team he bought in 1981.
The tough sanctions earned swift praise from across basketball, with current and former stars lauding Silver's decisive action on his 88th day in the job since replacing 30-year NBA boss David Stern.
"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 stiff punishment following a lightning-fast investigation 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 strip the team from Sterling. The market value of the team Sterling bought for $12 million is expected to approach $600 million.
"I fully expect to get the support I need from fellow NBA owners to remove him," Silver said.
A three-quarters vote of owners is needed, but Silver starting the process could be enough to prod Sterling to sell to avoid the risk of him not having the Clippers to sell for a huge profit. A lengthy court fight however is also possible.
"I spoke to several owners and I have their full support," Silver said.
In the secret recording made public over the weekend to the muckraking TMZ.com website, the man now confirmed to be Sterling told his much-younger girlfriend Stiviano that he didn't want her associating with black people or attending Clippers games with black friends.
Stiviano is being sued by Sterling's wife in a $2 million lawsuit, alleging the younger woman embezzled money and property, mostly cars, from her husband. Sterling is 81, while the flamboyant Stiviano, born Maria Vanessa Perez and ironically of mixed "Mexican-black" heritage according to her biography, is 31.
"It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you're associating with black people. Do you have to?" Sterling says, later adding, "You can sleep with (black people). You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want.
"The little I ask you is not to promote it... and not to bring them to my games."
Silver, who described himself as distraught at the comments, apologised to NBA coaches, players, fans and business partners, adding, "This has been a painful moment for all members of the NBA family."
The announcement came only hours before the Clippers, who saw sponsors leave in droves Monday, were set to play their first home game since the controversy erupted - game five of their first-round playoff series with the Golden State Warriors, which is level at 2-2.
"My message to the Clippers' fans is that the league is far bigger than any one owner," Silver said. "The players deserve their support. They have just been through an incredibly difficult incident."
"We wholeheartedly support and embrace the decision by the NBA and commissioner Adam Silver today. Now the healing process begins," the Clippers said in a statement.
The front page of the Clippers' website was changed to a black screen with a team logo and white lettering saying, "WE ARE ONE."
NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson, whose photo with Sterling's girlfriend prompted the tirade that led to the owner's banishment, tweeted, "Former and current NBA players are very happy and satisfied with Commissioner Silver's ruling... we have a great leader leading our league."
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.
"This is also a statement about where we are as a country. It doesn't matter if you're a professional basketball player worth millions of dollars or a man or woman who works hard for their family - there will be zero tolerance for institutional racism, no matter how rich or powerful."
Four-time NBA Most Valuable Player LeBron James, a superstar forward for the reigning NBA champion Miami Heat, tweeted, "Commissioner Silver thank you for protecting our beautiful and powerful league!! Great leader!! #BiggerThanBasketball #StriveForGreatness."
Silver's few critics wondered how Sterling was tolerated so long by owners, given past court cases against him over questions of race, but Silver noted that in each instance, Sterling won the legal fight.
And Silver asked sponsors who cut ties with the Clippers to "judge us by our response to this incident".
"I'm hopeful there will be no long-term damage to the league or the Clippers. But I'm outraged so I certainly understand other people's outrage. It will take some time and appropriate healing will be necessary."