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In Clippers court case, octogenarian lawyer relishes the ruckus

By Eric Kelsey

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - With the $2-billion sale of pro basketball's Los Angeles Clippers at stake and the team's irascible owner refusing to bless the record deal his estranged wife brokered, Bert Fields can hardly keep a smile from his face.

As one of the colorful cast of characters in a trial over the minutiae of a family trust and California probate law, the 85-year-old attorney to some of Hollywood's biggest players over the last five decades appears to relish his role as the adversary of Donald Sterling, the man banned for life by the NBA over racist remarks.

"Bert Fields is one of those lawyers who is in his element in the courtroom," said Steven Weisburd, a Texas civil litigator who has been part of legal teams that have opposed Fields.

"He loves it, he thrives on it, and he's excellent at it," Weisburd said.

Fields, who has a reputation for making a witness' time on the stand miserable, may get another shot to examine Sterling as the 80-year-old real estate billionaire could testify again when his own attorneys start their case in Los Angeles Superior Court on Monday.

Sterling's wife, Shelly Sterling, has asked the court to confirm her authority to sell the Clippers to former Microsoft Corp Chief Executive Steve Ballmer under a clause in the family trust. Sterling says he was defrauded by his wife and her attorneys and can veto the sale.

In their first go-round a combative Sterling, also a lawyer, bellowed at Fields, an attorney for his wife, challenging the pugnacious litigator, who has represented the likes of Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman and studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg.

"It shows you the meanness of this guy and the hypocrisy that is just all over this man," Fields told reporters after Sterling's testimony. "But what this guy did ... was to show you the real Donald Sterling, warts and all."

Fields, who declined to comment for this report, also got in his own jab: "Is this a guy you'd employ to sell hamburgers?"

The trim, silver-haired attorney then quietly left the media scrum, took off his tie and watched with a smile as Sterling's lawyers addressed the media.

"Some people might think he's arrogant, and other people think he's exquisite," Weisburd said.

Fields' ability to control his tone, even in tense courtroom quarrels, is one of his defining qualities, according to attorneys who sparred against him.

"He's an ultimate gentleman and a worthy opponent," said Elizabeth McNamara, a first amendment attorney who opposed Fields when Cruise sued a magazine publisher over a story.

"I really think he does love the courtroom ... His clients love him, and he commands a huge amount of respect from the bench," she added.

What also distinguishes Fields, said McNamara and Weisburd, are his preparation, and ability to shine, when stakes are highest.

Several of Fields' past opponents declined to speak on the record about him on the grounds that they might find themselves sparring with the octogenarian once again.

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