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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Deadly Tornadoes; L.A. Clippers Owner Banned for Life; Interview with NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas

Aired April 29, 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: Nearly a quarter of the U.S. population is in the danger zone right now for yet another outbreak of potentially deadly tornadoes.

I'm Jake Tapper. And this is THE LEAD.

The national lead. It is coming and it has the power to destroy a town in minutes, 31 people already dead. Many more could lose their lives before the severe weather is done with us. We will take you to the eye of the approaching storm.

The sports lead, suspended for life. The NBA calls the ultimate technical foul on the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, caught on tape sounding more like a plantation owner than a team owner. Our guest, former NBA great Isiah Thomas, joins us with his reaction.

And the world lead. A company says it may have done what nobody else has been able to do for nearly eight weeks, find Flight 370. Just one problem, of course, it's thousands of miles from the current search area.

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We will begin with the national lead. From the Gulf up to the Great Looks, from Louisiana up to West Virginia, 75 million Americans are currently in the path of a tornado-spawning severe weather system. And I don't mean like a, oh, no, did I leave my car windows down kind of storm. It's more like I hope my car is still on the ground in one piece kind of storm, because this is what could be heading your way in the next couple hours.

This massive tornado inflicted widespread damage in Louisville, Mississippi, just one of possibly dozens of tornadoes unleashed by this storm system, the same storm system that has killed at least 31 people from Sunday. Far from finished, it's now reloaded and ready for round three. Some of those in the way just got hit yesterday by the very same system.

Two people died when storms leveled a chunk of Athens, Alabama, on Monday, and about two hours north of there, 21-year-old John Servati, a swimmer for the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, he was killed when a storm hit the off-campus home where he was taking cover. The university's Web site has a tribute to him on his home page.

Our meteorologist Chad Myers is in Aberdeen, Mississippi, close to the Alabama border.

Chad, how are conditions there?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Very moist and just steamy here.

This is tornado weather today. The only thing I think we're missing at this point in time is wind. There's not a lot of inflow, but the storms just going up, Jake. Over my shoulder, the base of one of the first thunderstorms of the day. See how the dark and the light mix, how the dark is at the top and the light is on the bottom?

The dark part on the top is actually a cumulonimbus cloud going up higher and higher and higher. We are here on this road because this is where the storms are going to fire, one after another. And there will be likely many tornadoes on the ground today, more than one.

And even at the same time, last night, I believe, when I was looking at radar, I could see six separate for sure meso-scale, mesocyclone tornadoes on the ground at the same moment around 10:00 last night. This is not just a daytime event. This is a nighttime event too.

The problem, usually, when you get a storm like Tupelo or all the way back toward Meridian, you get that next day, it's fine. The storm is gone. It only comes by one time. Well, today the air mass reloaded and the same people that had storms yesterday could have more storms, more tornadoes tonight.

TAPPER: Chad, we just saw two cars drive by behind you while you were talking. How bad do you expect it to get there in the coming hours and has the local population taken cover appropriately?

MYERS: When you go into the cafes, and you go into the quick shops, everybody knows. They see a little CNN on your shirt, and they go, why are you here? I said, well, why do you think? They said, don't tell me they're coming here, because they know.

Everybody is here, and everybody has already seen what two days, almost two-and-a-half days of tornadoes has done off to the west of here and to the south of here. They know they're next in line and they're ready for it. Can you ever get prepared? Yes. You can be prepared when the sirens go off. Already have a plan. Don't try to make a plan when you know a tornado is coming. You have to know what to do before it even gets there.

TAPPER: And, Chad, you have so much institutional knowledge when it comes to these storm systems. How much does this all remind you of the massive tornado damage in that region nearly three years ago almost to the very day?

MYERS: You know, we drove down from Tupelo, down to Aberdeen here down along the highway.

As I drove by, I said that town looks just like Greenville in Kansas. Something happened here. And when we looked it up, it was Smithville. It didn't register because it was a very small town, 900 people, but an F-5 tornado drove through that town. I could tell that that had been hit by a tornado before. There were no trees. All the homes were brand-new, yet it was still like this oldish kind of village.

And it was literally stripped of all of the trees. That's what we have seen here. This is really tornado central tonight. And it does remind me. It's a little bit less humid than that day, Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, day that Jake is talking about.

Let's go right down the road, Orlando, right down the street where the lights are coming from that car there. You see there's a separation between the light and the dark. That's the next storm coming. Jake, that's already 30,000-feet high. That's six miles in the sky and still building. The higher they are, the more severe they are. The ones last night were 55,000-feet tall, 11 miles in the sky -- Jake.

TAPPER: Chad Myers, thank you so much, my friend. Stay safe.

This terrifying weather is no doubt bringing back some awful memories for the people of both Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, Alabama nearly three years ago to the day an EF-4 tore through both cities.

Right now, we're joined on the phone by the mayor of Tuscaloosa, Walter Maddox.

Mayor Maddox, thanks for joining us.

Can you tell us what conditions are like there right now?

WALTER MADDOX, MAYOR OF TUSCALOOSA, ALABAMA: Well, it's eerily reminiscent of what we experienced three years ago. The weather is warm. It's humid and coming off a very high-anxiety day yesterday, where we had 150-plus homes damaged.

It's really something we're bearing down for and getting for another restless night.

TAPPER: You just got hit yesterday. Are there reports of any new damage?

MADDOX: No reports of any new damage. Nearly 200 homes were impacted yesterday. Of course, that pales in comparison to April 27, 2011, where we had 5,000 homes impacted that day.

But, still, for a community that is rebuilding and recovering, any type of event like this brings back the bad memories of where we lost 53 of our fellow citizens.

TAPPER: And some victims who got hit yesterday have to suffer through this all over again today.

What is the level of damage from the first round of severe weather yesterday, on Monday?

MADDOX: If you weren't comparing it to April 27, you would say it would be major. We had several neighborhoods that were impacted, nearly 200 homes that felt the impact, thousands without power and we had one fatality, a tragic fatality of a student athlete here at the University of Alabama. Really, our community is on the edge. We're used to being in Tornado Alley. We're used to tornadoes, but the last couple days, especially with the anniversary of April 27 looming, that's really put all of us on edge.

TAPPER: You just mentioned John Servati, the 21-year-old swimmer from the University of Alabama who was killed in Tuscaloosa yesterday.

Is there anything else you can tell us about the incident?

MADDOX: Not much more than what you already have. It's just an incident where we had flash flooding take place.

And the young man seemed to be caught in a very, very bad position, and my understanding, he was acting heroically at the time. So, it's just -- it's a tragedy all the way around. I know everyone today is mourning his loss. At same time, we have got to dust ourself off. We got to recover and we got to batten down the hatches, because we have another round of severe storms that are coming in from Mississippi that plan -- that everyone believes, including the National Weather Service, has potential to be severe and could bring even more damage to our city.

TAPPER: How worried are you that all that rebuilding your city did after that 2011 tornado will get wiped away today?

MADDOX: You are very worried. You would like to think something like that could never happen again. But it's obviously a shadow that lives with you and lives with this community. But we're taking it very seriously.

The one thing -- I can't predict whether a tornado will come to Tuscaloosa. But I can predict this community will be resilient, and whatever happens to us, we will survive it and we will come through it better than ever.

TAPPER: Are there lessons that you learned from the 2011 tornado that may save lives this time?

MADDOX: Early warning, making sure that people know that this is serious, get to your safe -- identify your safe places, get to your safe places, and heed precaution.

If we do anything, we know by doing that, it will definitely save lives.

TAPPER: All right, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox, best of luck to you town. We will be thinking, and praying and hoping that everyone stays safe.

We must report that officials are now raising the death toll from these storms to 35 over six states. Now, there are some people who live to see the destructive force of a tornado with their own eyes. Storm chasers such as Brett Adair get closer many of us would ever care to. And they often capture some of the most jaw-dropping images of these very unpredictable and very often deadly weather phenomena. Brett is with LiveStormsNow.com. He joins us now on the phone.

Brett, good to talk to you again, my friend. Give us your location and tell us what you're seeing.

BRETT ADAIR, LIVESTORMSNOW.COM: Hi, Jake.

This afternoon, we're in Meridian, Mississippi. I must echo what Chad is saying. We are starting to see some storms go to our west. Some of these storm tops are getting up around 30,000 feet. And right now we're just seeing those in the distance, but they're definitely coming. And I would just like to echo the sentiments Chad and Mayor Maddox that everybody just needs to heed the warning and take your safety precautions once these things start going tornadic today.

TAPPER: Any reports of new damage so far in any of the areas you have been to?

ADAIR: Well, not so far.

A lot of storms yesterday did significant damage of the areas of Louisville and down south of Columbus and obviously up near Tupelo. Those areas are still trying to uncover from that. But the storms so far, we don't have any tornado warnings nearby just yet. And the storms so far are kind of behaving, but that could change fairly quickly.

TAPPER: You have been out there a while now. Have you found yourself in danger at any point during this particular outbreak of tornadoes?

ADAIR: Oh, absolutely.

Yesterday, we were within a couple of hundred yards of a little over a mile-wide tornado that was just south of Columbus, Mississippi. And several other storm chasers were on that storm as well. Did some damage. We saw a church building that was significantly damaged on US-45 South, just south of Columbus, so these storms aren't playing. They're packing a punch.

TAPPER: You heard we just upgraded the number of individuals who have been killed by these storms.

Do you have any sense as to whether these are individuals who are just in the wrong place at the wrong time or whether these are people, in many cases, who did not seek shelter?

ADAIR: In all honesty, I know that we were in Mayflower, Arkansas, two days ago when that major tornado hit there helping with the search-and-rescue.

Most of those people were heeding the warning. And some of them were in mobile homes, unfortunately. And I think that's where a lot of our deaths over there came from. If you're in a mobile home and a tornado is approaching, please try to find a safe shelter. I know we have community shelters here in the south in Mississippi. I know in my home state of Alabama, we have several. If these tornadoes approach and you can get to a low, safe place, please do so, because these are large and they are violent.

TAPPER: Brett, before you go, when we were talking to Chad earlier, there were individuals driving on the road behind him even though it looked like he was in the path of this severe weather. Are you encountering a lot of people who have not sought shelter yet?

ADAIR: Absolutely. That's been one of the things that kind of concerned me.

We have our vehicle kind of outfitted with some representation of what we're here for. But unfortunately we have had a couple locals try to follow us while we're trying to do our job. And I definitely do not recommend that. If you get a tornado warning to your phone or your weather radio or see it on local media, please do not get out and try to follow these things. They can kill you.

TAPPER: Brett Adair with some good advice.

Thank you, my friend. Stay safe.

Coming up on THE LEAD, we're going to continue to monitor the situation on the ground in the South. We will go back live to Mississippi and Alabama, two states under tornado watch right now. And that's coming up.

But first, paying the price. Clippers owner Donald Sterling banned for life from the NBA this afternoon, and if the commissioner has his way, Sterling will lose the team, too. Is that enough? Is that too much? What do you think? I will ask former NBA great Isiah Thomas.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

The sports lead now. Most of us by now have heard what Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling revealed to his girlfriend proving that his own world view on race seems to have more in common with Jim Crow than Martin Luther King.

If you need a reminder, here's a brief sampling.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

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

(END AUDIO CLIP)

TAPPER: The NBA deems Sterling's ranting so spectacularly grotesque that the league today handed down what essentially amounts to a basketball death sentence to the Clippers owner. Commissioner Adam Silver announced Sterling admitted it's his voice on the tape.

He also dropped the hammer, Mr. Silver. Effectively immediately the Clippers owner is banished for life from the league. He must pay a $2.5 million fine. For Sterling, that means no attending games, no watching practices, no showing up at Clippers facility, no weighing in on personnel or business decisions. He's now basically a basketball persona non grata.

But Silver didn't stop there, adding he intends to push the league's other owners to force Sterling to sell the Clippers.

Joining me now is basketball Hall of Famer and former coach of the New York Knicks, Isiah Thomas.

Zeke, good to see you again. Thanks for joining us.

First, what's your reaction to the NBA's decision?

ISIAH THOMAS, BASKETBALL HALL OF FAMER: I think it's great. It's a great day in sports. It's a great day in our society in terms of leadership and showing what we will and won't stand for.

Sports has always been the back drop for societal values, and when I look at what the Commissioner Silver did today, in terms of exuding his leadership, setting the platform for what the NBA will be about, moving forward, setting the example for kids who watch our game, not only domestically but also internationally, this is the place where we embrace diversity. And this is the place where we welcome all, and I think he showed that today.

TAPPER: Silver said, the commissioner, said he would do everything in his power to force Sterling to sell the team. The league's constitution apparently would allow him to force a sale. Should he?

THOMAS: I think so, definitely. You know, that is his belief, that is the league's belief, that is the players' beliefs. And I do believe that the owners will fall in line, because, you know, this is a place, again, where we take the leadership role in sport. A lot of times we discuss tough issues in the NBA and we dealt with tough issues in the NBA.

And from a leadership standpoint, I do believe all of the owners will (AUDIO GAP) set the example, not only for sport, but also for society.

TAPPER: Do you see any scenario in which the NBA owners, and I believe there needs to be a three-fourths majority reach -- decided against forcing Sterling out?

THOMAS: I think there will always be some language and some given and take, but I think most of the owners, if not all of them, will side on the right side of this issue, which is to transfer power.

TAPPER: Mark Cuban, the outspoken owner of the Mavericks, he condemns Sterling's comments. He said that what happened today, he expressed happiness about it on Twitter. But he also suggested that forcing Sterling to sell the team might go a step too far, it might create a slippery slope because after all, it appears that Sterling was recorded illegally because he didn't consent to it.

Do you think Cuban has any sort of point there?

THOMAS: Well, I think he has a point. But we always have to do what's best for the good of the game and no one player, no one owner, is bigger than the game. And this is a defining moment, not only in our sport but in society. And this is a place where we can -- the door's now open for a bigger debate and larger debate, that society should have, because we had this debate and we have this in sport, but this needs to go out further into society -- out into society and have these open discussions.

You know, we -- for so long, we couldn't even talk about race for a while in this country. It was taboo to talk about it. Now, we can talk about it, we can speak about it. We can have debate about it. And that's a good thing.

I think Commissioner Silver's leadership today opened up the door for the continued debate, that continued discussion about how we interact with each other in this country.

TAPPER: I heard an interesting comment from Bomani Jones, a commentator for ESPN, he said on a radio show, earlier today, he suggested it's too easy to stand against Donald Sterling in this case, it's so obvious, it's so overt, it's caught on tape. And that while those comments are politic and certainly racist, other things that Sterling has done such as engage in housing discrimination. I think he paid the largest fine for housing discrimination in the history of this country, that those things matter a lot more.

Why are we now acting as a society against this guy when he's done worse things in some ways?

THOMAS: Well, those things that he brought out have been the debate and the conversation for us as African-Americans, all of the way back to the '60s, when you talk about housing, equal access to housing, equal access to education. Those are the things that we, we are -- we want to have discussion about.

Sports gives us the opportunity to bring it to the table, but at the same time, let's not just confine it to the sporting arena. Let's bring it out into society where we can talk about education. We can talk about fair housing and access to financial resources and the banking institution, loans, so forth, and so on. Discrimination, race, rationalization, those are big words in our society that we need to have conversation about here in America.

TAPPER: Before you go, I want to ask, you've been in the public eye for decades. You, yourself, you face nothing like this. But you have faced some difficult times in the public eye. Is there any part of you -- well, not sympathizing with Donald Sterling in any way, of course -- is there any part of you that looks at the public, what he's going through in the public right now and sympathize, you can put yourself in his shoes at all?

THOMAS: Well, you know, America is a place, and sport is a place, where we do have punishment, but we also have compassion, and we do have time for rehabilitation. You know, when we send people to prison, we let them come out. We rehabilitate them. And we do forgive.

So, we are a forgiving society and a compassionate society. I think that should extend to all, not just one.

TAPPER: Isiah "Zeke" Thomas, always a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you, sir.

THOMAS: Good talking to you also, and thanks for having me.

TAPPER: Sure, anytime.

When we come back, he's banned from the NBA and from making any decisions involving the L.A. Clippers? But will Donald Sterling still profit off the team, even if he's not in the board room? Our money lead is next.

Plus, keeping a close eye in the South where tornadoes could strike again this afternoon. Several major cities are in the potential path of this storm system.

Stay with us. We'll have a live report ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: The money lead now. He was exposed publicly as a racist. Now, he's boxed out. A short time ago, the commissioner of the NBA slapped Los Angeles Clippers' owner Donald Sterling with the most severe punishment the league could muster -- a lifetime ban from the sport effective immediately and a $2.5 million fine. That's the maximum allowed by the NBA.

But does it really make a dent in the billionaire's billfold if he doesn't explicitly force Sterling to give up ownership of the team?

Let's bring in Gabe Feldman. He's director of Tulane's Sports law program.

Gabe, good to see you.

Commissioner Adam Silver of the NBA says they're going to do everything they can to force Sterling to sell the team. What can they do?

GABE FELDMAN, DIRECTOR OF THE SPORTS LAW CENTER, TULANE UNIVERSITY: Well, there's a provision in the NBA constitution that allows the commissioner to ask for a vote of the owners. And if three quarters of the owners decide to vote another owner out, that owner has to sell his team.

The issue here though is that there are certain circumstances that have to arise to trigger that vote and those circumstances are typically extreme. Like the owner being unable to financially support his team or maybe gambling or fixing games. And the question is, do racially insensitive and abhorrent remarks made privately rise to the level of circumstances necessary for this vote to happen? The owners will decide that in the first instance, and then if Donald Sterling wants to challenge it in the court, then a judge will decide that in the second instance.

TAPPER: I'm just wondering, look, I don't know any of these owners. But I'm thinking a bunch of bill billionaires out there. Questioning whether or not everything they ever say, privately, or that a mistress might record, that how that could affect them in the future. Is it possible some of them aren't going to care for this precedent?

FELDMAN: Absolutely, that's a concern. And this will not be about, or really shouldn't necessarily be about for all of the owners whether they agree or disagree what he said privately. I think there's no question, that no one agrees with what he said privately. Everyone agrees that it is horrible, it is harmful, it is offensive.