Nothing Beside Remains: on Alzheimer’s and Donald Sterling

Flickr | Today is a good day

Flickr | Today is a good day

Recently, it was revealed that, in an attempt to forgo the impending vote to oust him from ownership that could be the grounds for a lawsuit, Donald Sterling was examined and declared mentally incompetent by two neurologists. Specifically, that he has some stage of Alzheimer’s, the most well-known and rightly feared form of dementia, a diagnosis he now fights against. What I want to talk about is how, in some way, this diagnosis changes nothing about this entire situation, and how, in another way, it changes everything.

This course of action and its legal ramifications are better left to more knowledgeable and interested minds. Suffice it to say that if Sterling is declared legally incompetent, he won’t be able to block the sale of the Clippers to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer for what would be a record-breaking $2 billion. It certainly seems as though Shelly Sterling, wife and 50% owner of the Sterling Family Trust that controls the Clippers, is using this as a ploy for power and autonomy to make this transitional period easier by effectively removing Donald Sterling from the picture. Sterling has retaliated through the aforementioned refusal of his own mental incapacity and by filing a $1 billion suit against the NBA, likely an anti-trust suit.

What I want to highlight is how, in similar (if less monetized) situation, this same sort of drama plays out all over the world whenever Alzheimer’s rears its ugly head. Already, we have seen further dismissal of Sterling as a crazy person, which I certainly won’t dispute. If he is, in fact, “crazy,” it is not because he has Alzheimer’s, nor is it a cause of the disease, which is predicted to afflict as many as 1 in 85 people globally by 2050.

Alzheimer’s, and its effects have taken a great personal toll on my family, specifically on my mother’s side. After my grandfather died of heart failure on Memorial Day 2001, my grandmother, his wife of then over 50 years, whom he proposed to on VE Day in 1945, was understandably upset. Around a year later, I moved in with her instead of living with my mother and her new boyfriend (later husband) simply because their new house was too small for what would be a five person family at the time. They lived less than a block from one another. I had always been close with my grandparents, having spent a great deal of my early childhood in their care as my babysitters and, predictably, we became closer as I helped her learn to drive again and rode with her to church and to the store as she slowly developed a newfound sense of independence after half a century of being every bit the stereotypical Irish-Catholic wife and mother of 11 children. Our birthdays are two days apart, her nearly exactly 60 years older than I, so in lieu of presents for one another, we would commonly swap some of the sillier gifts we got on our respective birthdays. She repaid this with kindness of her own, spoiling me with an actual mountain of grandmotherly treats and free sandwiches.

Anyways, the majority of the family had begun to notice a fairly sharp decline in her mental faculties as time went on. Stress is one of the presumed leading causes of most forms of dementia, as is old age, so an old widow in her mid 70s forgetting things from time to time was hardly cause for alarm. I, however, saw the the darker side of the progression, living with her every day for nearly four years. What started as simple absent-mindedness would turn into an inability to remember if she had eaten breakfast or lunch that day, which was especially worrying given that she usually woke up after I had already left for school and I didn’t return until nearly 4 pm on most days.

Things weren’t all that bad, until a series of physical problems reared their heads. One day, she fell over her cat and broke her hip. A few months later, she had a mild heart attack after playing Badminton (her favorite sport) with several relatives during a family get-together. Suddenly, after losing her capability to drive outside, visit people, and escape the doldrums of day to day retired life, she began to deteriorate. She started losing weight and hair rapidly, let her cat outside for days on end and once nearly started a fire on New Year’s Eve 2005 after leaving a toaster on all night. In 2006, when I moved out in order to stay with my mother and her husband in their newer, larger house, I pleaded (as did my mother) with someone in the family to stay with her and help keep her safe. My uncle Dennis, along with his new wife agreed to, and while I visited as much as my schedule as an awful high-school student and future slacking college-student would allow, I still worried. Things seemed better for awhile until my uncle moved out in 2008 or so. Then, after another near fire, a series of homecare professionals were installed to watch over my grandmother when it became apparent that ignoring her illness was going to get her killed. She was officially diagnosed with Stage 4 Alzheimer’s sometime in 2008 or 9.

This went along for a few more years, slowly draining the meager finances she had at her disposal from her retirement from Magnavox decades before. Finally, in September 2011, my uncle Dennis died of heart failure, the first of my grandmother’s 11 children to die. At the hospital, in what surely was already a sober event, myself and a handful of my aunts, uncles, and cousins were subject to what was then the final straw in my grandmother’s independence. After holding a prayer session for my uncle, my grandmother meekly piped in that she thought it was a beautiful prayer, and that she “sure hopes it helps that guy in that bed over there,” showing no recollection to one her own children and someone who had lived with her less then 3 years earlier. In November, she sold her house and moved into the assisted living facility that she lives in to this day. Where she will die.

She is happier, though I don’t visit her as much as I did at first. She routinely asks about her old cat, who was given away to a family friend. She used to ask when she could move back into her house, but she seems to have forgotten about it completely, even when asked. She can’t remember how many children she has, she can’t remember the addresses of the houses she used to live in (which she used to do routinely to show off her memory, to her own delight). She can’t even write in the looping formal Catholic school handwriting she used to be so proud of. She is, for all intents and purposes, a child, with all the incontinence, confusion, and frailty that implies. She is happy, spare the rare occasion where she shows flashes of lucidity and abject terror of what has become of her. Married at 19. Widowed at 72. Can’t remember her husband’s name at 84.

I write about this because there will surely be some debate about the role Alzheimer’s plays in Donald Sterling’s case against the NBA. The question of “mental capacity” will be lodged, as though these things are a one way street where intelligence and lucidity and consciousness leave one day and never return. It’s entirely possible that, one more than one of the occasions we heard Donald Sterling spew his bile, he was unaware of what was happening and why. It certainly seemed that way during his interview with Anderson Cooper. It should be known that dementia would not, in any way, be responsible for these views. My own beloved grandmother was, before she seemed to lose the ability to understand abstract concepts, increasingly capable of shockingly racist thoughts. The key is that she very likely held these beliefs beforehand and elected not to speak on them, as is the Irish-Catholic custom.

It is entirely possible that Donald Sterling can be both completely, hopelessly, destitutely helpless on some days and totally in control and lucid another. In this way, his diagnosis should have no bearing on his words and actions, specifically considering he’s been estimated to have suffered for around 5 years, a much smaller amount of time than his history of racist and prejudiced track record. On the other hand, his wife plotting to remove him from the equation by using his illness as a excuse is a reprehensible act, one that has been repeated by far too many wives, husbands, children, brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, and legal caretakers. Perhaps most of all, while this isn’t a fate I would wish upon anyone, it comes off as something of a cop out. While Sterling himself is certainly denying the diagnosis (which is, of course, an extremely common course of action in the face of one’s very individuality melting away), it stands to reason that a great deal of people will use it as an excuse for his actions, that the NBA has punished a poor old man who didn’t know what he was doing and never meant to hurt anybody. That Donald Sterling may prolong this legal battle long enough to avoid having to deal with consequences while he’s still capable of understanding them is sad, but that so many people will dehumanize his condition by equating it to simple craziness instead of the most existentially terrifying disease currently known to man is sadder. This is not going away, even if we all forget about it. Neither is Donald Sterling.

Brian Schroeder

Brian Schroeder is first and foremost a student, hoping to finish his studies at IPFW within the next solar decade. He enjoys pontificating almost as much as he enjoys using the word "pontificating." He plays more video games than you, and his work can be found at, The Basketball Post, and Digital Refrain, alongside his personal blog, which you probably don't want to read.