By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Basketball great Earvin "Magic" Johnson shrugged off the latest character assault leveled at him by Donald Sterling, calling the Los Angeles Clippers owner "delusional" and suggesting Sterling acted out of desperation to keep the NBA from seizing his team.
"He's reaching. He's trying to find something that he can grab on to help him save his team, and it's not going to happen," Johnson told CNN on Tuesday, a day after Sterling accused him of being a poor role model for children and of doing little to help the black community.
Sterling's comments about Johnson, one of the most revered figures in U.S. sports, left many scratching their heads. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver issued a statement apologizing to Johnson for being "degraded by such a malicious and personal attack."
Sterling's CNN interview on Monday marked his first public comment since coming under fire nearly three weeks ago, when TMZ.com posted an audio recording of him berating a female friend for publicly associating with black people, including Magic Johnson.
The resulting furor led Silver days later to declare Sterling banned for life from the National Basketball Association, and to call on the 29 other team owners who make up the NBA Board of Governors to strip Sterling of team ownership.
Such an unprecedented move requires a three-fourths' vote of the board. It remains to be seen whether Silver will muster the votes he needs, and whether Sterling will give up the team he has owned for 33 years without fighting back in court.
In his CNN interview that aired on Monday, Sterling, 80, apologized for racist comments that he claimed he was "baited" into making by the 31-year-old woman who recorded the conversation, who uses the name V. Stiviano.
He also further stoked outrage by lashing out at Johnson, the charismatic former Los Angeles Lakers point guard who stunned the sports world in 1991 when he announced he had contracted HIV and was retiring at the peak of his NBA career.
"What kind of a guy goes to every city, he has sex with every girl, then he catches HIV and - is that someone we want to respect and tell our kids about?" Sterling told CNN's Anderson Cooper. "I think he should be ashamed of himself."
Going on to compare Johnson unfavorably to his own charitable work, Sterling added, "what does he do for the black people? (He) Doesn't do anything."
Johnson, who has acknowledged that he was infected through promiscuous unprotected sex, became a leading advocate for HIV and AIDS prevention and launched a foundation that has raised millions of dollars for AIDS-related care and education.
He also has been widely praised for teaming up with business investors to help bring development to under-served minority communities in urban areas of Los Angeles and elsewhere blighted by decades of economic decay.
"My whole life is devoted to urban America, so, you know, I just wish he knew the facts when he's talking," Johnson said. "I just feel sorry for him. I really do. It is sad."
The former NBA star also disputed Sterling's claim that Johnson called him after the audio tape surfaced and urged Sterling to keep quiet in a ploy to wrest away the Clippers.
"I never deceived anybody. I never tricked anybody. And I would never do that to gain wealth for myself or popularity for myself," Johnson said.
He said it was Sterling who called him after the recording emerged to ask Johnson to go on television with him. Johnson said he refused.
Asked about Sterling's claim that he is still beloved by the players on his team despite the controversy, Johnson replied: "Now he is delusional."
(Editing by Paul Tait)