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This star-studded new miniseries recounts the downfall of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, as played by Modern Family’s Ed O’Neill

The story of L.A.’s “other” basketball team takes you behind the scenes of a notorious NBA owner’s racist remarks captured on tape and heard ’round the world. In 2014, Clippers owner Donald Sterling was banned from the NBA for life, and fined $2.5 million by the league, after recordings of him making racist comments to his mistress V. Stiviano were publicized. Now, the limited series Clipped dramatizes the collision between a dysfunctional basketball organization, the even-less functional Sterling marriage and the tape’s impact on a team striving to win despite its reputation as the most cursed franchise in the NBA.

The series begins with the arrival of Doc Rivers, the new coach of the Clippers, as played by Laurence Fishburne. “I think Doc is the emotional centrepiece of the show,” says showrunner Gina Welch. “The show in essence is about the costs of living, working and trying to thrive under the power of a racist, incompetent buffoon who’s abusing power. Doc, who had played for the Clippers in ’91, came back to coach this team after winning a championship with the Celtics. It would have been a history-making championship, had they been able to win it. Letting the audience connect to that, and care about that trajectory as it is headed for a collision with the chaotic love triangle spinning out of control, is why we started there.”

Clipped on Disney+. Pictured: Laurence Fishburne as Doc Rivers.

A topic as sensitive as racism can present its challenges, but Fishburne was drawn to the honesty of the exploration by Welch and her writers. “When I got the first six scripts from Gina, her approach to both the racism and the sexism in the culture of the Clippers was absolutely respectful. It was honest, it was fearless,” he says. “It’s one of the reasons that I wanted to do this show, because it’s very rare that people are willing to deal with issues like racism and sexism in an honest and frank way. And these scripts really did that.”

Portraying one of the most despised characters in NBA history is TV’s most lovable curmudgeon, Ed O’Neill. “I was kind of looking to play a bad guy. It could have been in any genre, but I wanted it to be somebody edgy,” says the Married . . . With Children and Modern Family alum. “As an actor, you want to do something that’s different to show some kind of versatility.” In Donald Sterling, O’Neill found exactly that, but initially wasn’t sure the part was right for him. “I didn’t know I was going to do it until I had lunch with Gina, because I knew of [Sterling] and I thought, ‘I don’t think I’m right to play this,’” he reflects. “It was nothing close to my world, nothing like what I had grown up with.”

Clipped on Disney+. Pictured (left to right): Laurence Fishburne as Doc Rivers, Ed O'Neill as Donald Sterling, Jacki Weaver as Shelly Sterling.

O’Neill may not have found much to connect with in the character, but nevertheless, he developed an understanding of him. “When I read the script, I thought, he can be very charming and friendly as long as you don’t go against him. I’ve known people like that. He was used to getting his way, and so he insisted on getting his way.” Sterling, O’Neill explains, was also a man with a chip on his shoulder from experiencing antisemitism in his youth. “He was born in Chicago, and his name was Tokowitz. He changed his name to Sterling after law school,” says O’Neill. “If you wanted to pick a name out of a hat to make you look like a white WASP businessman, you can’t pick a better one than Sterling.”

Despite all evidence, O’Neill doesn’t think the Clippers owner considered himself a bigot. “He was all about perception. What do people perceive as important? He would say, ‘I don’t make the rules. I just live in the world with the rules.’ That was his philosophy,” the actor muses. “Now, was he really racist? Yes, he probably was, but he couldn’t admit it.” While O’Neill has some of the more controversial lines on the series, he struggles with journalists wanting to know what it’s like to put one’s hand inside that glove. “I have the hardest time talking about this to people, because it’s a very smart question. The answer is, it’s not hard at all,” he says. “Just like when you’re a kid and you’re playing make-believe, it’s just pretending. And oftentimes, if you pretend well enough and you’re playing opposite people that are good, you actually will feel emotions. That’s the magic of it. That’s why it’s basically your heroin.”

This may be a chapter the NBA is eager to close, but there are still valuable lessons to be learned from it a decade later. “I don’t think they love reliving all of this over and over again, but I think it’s an important story for not just the NBA, but the sports world, for Los Angeles, for our whole world,” says Ramona Shelburne, the host and reporter for the ESPN podcast on which this series is based. “And even though people may not enjoy reliving all of that, it’s still a really entertaining watch.”

Clipped begins streaming Tuesday, June 4 on Disney+

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