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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Severe Tornadoes; New Strategy in Flight 370 Search; Interview Mississippi Governor; Interview with NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul- Jabbar

Aired April 28, 2014 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Jake Tapper.

We will begin with the national lead, a tornado emergency declared in Mississippi counties just moments ago.

Our CNN Weather System is on high alert at this hour, now that the same system that spawned monster tornadoes is once again building strength and barrelling toward more cities and towns. At least 16 deaths are already blamed on the storm system.

Right now, as many as 27 million people could be at risk from New Orleans all the way up through Indianapolis.

Believe me, you do not want until you hear the sirens to find safety.

(WEATHER UPDATE)

TAPPER: Mississippi could get the worst of it in the coming hours. As Jennifer explained, a tornado emergency is in effect there as we speak. Officials warn, this system could be -- quote -- "potentially catastrophic."

But when people most are running away from tornadoes, Brett Adair does the opposite. He runs towards them. He is a storm chaser with LiveStormsNow.com. He joins us right now on the phone. He's near Tupelo, Mississippi, which is included in that tornado emergency.

Brett, describe the conditions there right now. Have you spotted anything?

BRETT ADAIR, LIVESTORMSNOW.COM: Hey, Jake.

I'm actually just south of that area on Highway 45. We watched a meso or a rotating area go up towards Tupelo, which apparently produced that tornado that ran through the town. And we have got a couple of friends that are up there that say a fairly large, possibly up to a quarter- to a half-mile-wide tornado ran through the western and northern sections of Tupelo.

TAPPER: You have been in these situations many, many times before, Brett. What does your gut instinct tell you about where this storm is going and what is going to happen this evening?

ADAIR: Well, I will be honest with you. We were in Arkansas yesterday and caught the tornado that hit just north of Little Rock and Mayflower. And to be honest, we have been looking at the conditions and we think the conditions are much more ripe today for more tornadoes today than they were yesterday.

TAPPER: And, Brett, what do you hear about the condition of Tupelo, where the storm, where that tornado touched down? Was there significant damage or do we not even know at this point?

ADAIR: Well, so far, we haven't heard a whole lot.

As you can imagine, when a tornado hits a big town, the information is going to start flowing pretty quickly. It only hit about 20 minutes ago. What I do know is that it did go through the northern sections of town from some of my colleagues, they say that there is fairly significant damage.

Other than that, we don't have a whole lot of information yet. But I'm sure it will come out very, very soon.

TAPPER: All right, Brett Adair, thank you so much. Stay safe. We will come back to you later in the show.

The skies over Mississippi growing very perilous at this hour. The high-risk area, which includes 1.4 million people, has Mississippi right in the bullseye.

Our own Martin Savidge is probably wishing for the safety of that flight simulator we locked him up in for the better part of seven weeks. Martin joins us now on the phone.

He's just outside of Jasper, Alabama, on his way to Tupelo, Mississippi.

Martin, what are the conditions like where you are right now?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it has changed significantly.

And you're right about the cockpit thing. We left Atlanta this morning and it was a typical Southern day, partly cloudy, warm. Now here it is extremely hot and humid at the horizon. And we're headed in the northwesterly direction, which is toward Tupelo, which is about 50 miles away. It's growing very dark, looking very stormy, and certainly looking like we're heading into what is the worst weather we have seen so far.

TAPPER: Have you heard anything from anybody on the ground in Tupelo in terms of damage done, whether or not the tornado is expected back through the same storm system in the general area?

SAVIDGE: No, we haven't.

For the most part, it's just warning people shelter in place. It's described, as you have heard, a tornado emergency. It doesn't get any worse than that. So, right now, it is merely getting people underground, because that's the safest place to be.

As far as analyzing any kind of damage that may have been done or how long this storm is going to stay on the ground or how wide it is, it's still going to be a few minutes off before we begin to hear that read.

TAPPER: And we have also heard about a debris field regarding this tornado. Explain what that is and the damage it poses, the threat it poses.

SAVIDGE: Yes. The debris field, of course, is the trail of where the tornado has been.

You can get debris that has flown great distances, so it's not necessarily the immediate path. What you start to run across is sort of the damage on the outside, damage in less severe forms, and then as you make your way deeper and deeper, until eventually as you find that groove that's the destructive path, the churning of the ground that the storm has actually done, you turn and follow that, you will be right on the tail of the twister.

TAPPER: Martin, you're heading from Alabama to Tupelo, Mississippi. Are you seeing individuals heading the other way? Are people fleeing the area in droves or are they more likely to be taking cover?

SAVIDGE: Most cases like this -- weather like this in the South is pretty common. In fact, so far the South fortunately this year in the South, it's been relatively mild.

So people are aware of how these storms can suddenly cluster. Certainly in Alabama, they know that from a couple of years ago and from Mississippi, where they had a deadly onslaught of tornadoes. So they listen, they pay close attention to the weather radios and the television reports, but there is no mass evacuation, because there really is to know where to go until that storm is positively spotted.

TAPPER: If you're just joining us, we have reports that a tornado has touched down in I believe northwestern Tupelo, Mississippi. Obviously, this whole area, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Alabama, other parts of the country, are in danger of this storm system.

One tornado already hit and caused at least 16 deaths in Arkansas last evening from the same storm system.

We're joined right now on the phone by the mayor of Tupelo, Mississippi, Jason Shelton.

Mr. Mayor, thanks so much.

Tell us, how are the people in your town? How bad has this tornado been?

JASON SHELTON, MAYOR OF TUPELO, MISSISSIPPI: We're on the front end right now of the weather.

It's just sort of getting severe now in Tupelo. Obviously, urging all of our citizens to be weather-aware, to be inside of their homes in an interior room, and to make sure to keep themselves updated on the weather situation as it progresses.

TAPPER: Mayor Shelton, have you heard anything about how bad the damage has been?

SHELTON: There's conflicting reports.

In the city of Tupelo itself, there is not any major damage that I'm aware of at the moment. There is -- you know, some I hate to use the word light, but there is some damage. But we have not had an actual confirmed tornado in the city of Tupelo as of right now.

TAPPER: We just heard you tell your citizens to seek shelter.

Obviously, that's a message you have been warning them about for days. How do you warn them? Have you -- did you have alarms going off before the tornado approached? What's the way that you warned the citizens of Tupelo?

SHELTON: Yes, sir.

Obviously, we have tornado sirens all over the city of Tupelo. We have encouraged people all day, you know, several days, to keep themselves updated on the news, the local media. National media, of course, is instrumental in getting the word out to the citizens.

As a city, we went through an emergency management drill this morning. We have got everybody in place, and, you know, just ready to respond when needed and as needed.

TAPPER: Where are you right now, sir?

SHELTON: In City Hall.

TAPPER: Is there a storm shelter there for you , or are you in your office?

SHELTON: I'm actually in my office. The employees are all in the interior hall and sort of the different rooms in the interior hall.

TAPPER: Are there different individuals with emergency services, police, firefighters, et cetera, out patrolling, or is everybody shelter in place?

SHELTON: No, the police, fire and public works are all out patrolling and working.

TAPPER: And, finally, just in case any of your citizens are just tuning in, Mayor Jason Shelton of Tupelo, what is the message for the citizens of Tupelo and basically for anyone else who might be in the storm's path?

SHELTON: Well, right.

Just the citizens of Tupelo, of Lee County, or Northeast Mississippi just not to take a chance. This is not the time to, you know, take a risk, to go somewhere unnecessarily. It's the time to be in your home, in a safe room in your home and keep yourself and your family as safe as possible.

TAPPER: Our thanks to you, Mr. Mayor. We will keep monitoring this, and thoughts and prayers with the city of Tupelo, Mississippi. We will check back with you later.

SHELTON: Thank you very much.

TAPPER: Coming up, our guest is former NBA superstar Kareem Abdul- Jabbar. He once worked for the team owner now being accused of being something of a racist. Did Mr. Abdul-Jabbar ever see that side of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling?

And time to call in more help. After weeks of using a single robo-sub to look for Flight 370, the search is now entering a whole new phase.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

The sports lead now. He's a billionaire and former real estate mogul and we may soon learn if Donald Sterling will be able to add first ousted owner of an NBA team to his list of lifetime achievement.

By now, you have no doubt heard some of the recorded phone call that supposed took place between the Los Angeles Clippers owner and his girlfriend. The man on a tape is heard making racist remarks and chastising his girlfriend for posting a photograph of herself with former NBA player Magic Johnson on Instagram. He also asks her not to bring black men to the game.

Here's a snippet of one of the many cringe worthy, racist exchanges released by TMZ Sports.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

V. STIVIANO: People call you and say I have black people on my Instagram and it bothers you.

DONALD STERLING: Yes, it bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you're associating with black people. Do you have to?

STIVIANO: You associate with black people.

STERLING: I'm not you and you're not me. You're supposed to be a delicate white or a delicate Latino girl.

STIVIANO: I'm a mixed girl, and you're in love with me and I'm black and Mexican, whether you like it or not.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

TAPPER: The outrage over the phone call and the sentiments expressed has been swift and widespread. Clippers players staged a silent protest at their playoff game yesterday, dropping their warm-up suits with the team's logo in the middle wearing their practice shirts inside out. There have been calls for players and fans to boycott Clippers games until Sterling is gone, although it's not entirely clear if league owners have the power to force him out. Tomorrow, the NBA will comment on its investigation into the recording, but we're not sure if the league will announce any possible punishments. Some former NBA legends say it's up to the league to send a strong message that racism will not be tolerated.

Joining me now life from Los Angeles is NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He's also a former Clippers special assistant coach.

Mr. Abdul-Jabbar, it's an honor to introduce you and meet you by satellite.

Sterling has not reacted publicly to this controversy, but you know him well. Is that him on the tape, do you think?

KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR, NBA HALL OF FAMER: It sounds like him to me, as far as I can tell. I have no electronic expertise but it sounds like him.

TAPPER: Are you surprised by the sentiments that he expressed by minorities? Did you ever hear him say anything similar in your presence?

ABDUL-JABBAR: He never said anything like that in my presence but I read transcripts from some of his trials. Some of the things that he said about black people, that black tenants are -- they smell and they have vermin -- they cause vermin to come -- they would cause vermin to come into some of his rental properties. He didn't want to rent to black and Mexican families that tried to rent some of his properties. He's been very forthright.

And just his lack of compassion for people -- one of his coaches came down with cancer and needed surgery and Mr. Sterling would not allow that coach to be covered by his -- the team policy. It's ridiculous. Three of the players ended up playing for the coach's cancer surgery.

TAPPER: As an African-American who worked for him, when you heard the tapes, how did it make you feel? Did it outrage you? I know you've been out spoken about racism literally for decades, was it just another example of what you see in America today?

ABDUL-JABBAR: I think it's outrageous. I mean, we are supposed to be a society that has stepped past that and we see evidence everywhere we look that the bad old days really are not over. People are just a lot more subtle about expressing their bigoted views and their bigoted feelings and it's really disconcerting. It makes me wonder at times about how much progress we've actually made.

TAPPER: Sterling, as you've noted, has been accused in the past of discrimination. There was the largest settlement in Justice Department history when it comes to a housing case for discriminating against African-Americans and other minorities. Former Clippers executive Elgin Baylor accused him of having a plantation mentality, quoted Sterling as saying he wanted a white southern coach coaching four black players.

Why didn't society -- why didn't the NBA take those charges as seriously as we're taking these, do you think?

ABDUL-JABBAR: Well, wealthy people have the ability to defend their positions a lot -- with a lot more force and consistency than the average person. You know, having a lawyer and a PR firm work for you can get you a lot of slack in dealing with the public and putting propaganda out there, trying to put your point of view across.

Actions speak louder than words. And Mr. Sterling's actions have been persistent. He doesn't really respect black people. It's OK if they make him money. Apparently, it was OK for him to be involved romantically with this young lady. But other than that, he has contempt for black people.

That is the exact epitome of what the plantation mentality is all about. One of the NBA players, David West, pointed this out yesterday or the day before in his tweet. And it was so remarkable that he just very succinctly showed what this was all about.

TAPPER: I want to play another portion of this purported phone call between Sterling and his girlfriend and get your reaction, if you would.

ABDUL-JABBAR: OK.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

STERLING: If you don't feel like it, don't come to my games. Don't bring black people and don't come.

STIVIANO: Do you know you have a whole team that is black that plays for you?

STERLING: Do you know? I support them and give them food and clothes and cars and houses. Who gives it to them? Did someone else give it to them? Do I know that I have -- who makes the game? Do you make the game or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners that created the league?

(END AUDIO CLIP)

TAPPER: It's remarkable how he says he gives the cars and food to these superstars who are the reason why he has --

ABDUL-JABBAR: It's a very paternalistic, racist, plantation type of mentality and there you heard it. It's in plain English. What else does he need to say?

TAPPER: Now, I have to say, I don't hear people talk that way around me. Is this, do you think, a prevalent view among team owners?

ABDUL-JABBAR: I doubt if the majority of the team owners feel like this. A lot of them have done great things to advance minorities in sports. I play for a team in Milwaukee. They hired the very first black general manager, Wayne Embry. And, you know, sports has given Americans a chance to make statements about race and about how we feel about it. Think about Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics. I think about Jackie Robinson integrating baseball.

We've used sports to make progress and to bring people together and this is going in exactly the opposite direction. I don't think Mr. Sterling has a place in this landscape.

TAPPER: Do you think, then, the NBA should force him to sell this team?

ABDUL-JABBAR: Well, they have to do something to show that the NBA does not support people with his attitude. He owns the team and the Supreme Court really has made it very clear that ownership is ownership. We can't take the team from him, probably. But I don't think he belongs in this environment given the way he feels about 80 percent of the players in the league.

TAPPER: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, thank you so much. It was nice having you on the show. We appreciate it.

ABDUL-JABBAR: It's great talking with you. Thank you.

TAPPER: Coming up on THE LEAD: sponsors making a fast break away from the Clippers after Donald Sterling's comments. Is there anything the team can do to bring them back

And we are, of course, still monitoring the severe weather that's hitting parts of the South. More tornadoes could be hitting the ground at any moment. We will be there. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)