Richard Parsons: NBA's highest-profile draft pick

The former CEO of Time Warner and Citigroup comes out of retirement to take the reins of the scandal-tossed L.A. Clippers
The former CEO of Time Warner and Citigroup c... 05:35

The NBA on Friday named Richard Parsons acting CEO of the troubled Los Angeles Clippers. Just who is Richard Parsons? CBS News Special Correspondent James Brown takes us Behind the Headlines:

As tabloid stories go, the Donald Sterling saga has it all: Fabulous wealth, infidelity, secret recordings, and yes, race.

After racially-offensive recordings of California billionaire and Los Angeles Clippers co-owner Donald Sterling surfaced two weeks ago, condemnation was swift.

"When ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance, you don't really have to do anything -- you just let them talk," said President Obama.

Equally swift: the response of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who banned Stirling from basketball . . . for life. "This has been a painful moment for all members of the NBA family," Silver said.

On Friday, the NBA took the next big step toward healing the wounds, appointing an interim CEO of the Clippers, someone with a lot of experience with damage control:

"My wife says, you know, my strongest quality is that I'm obtuse," laughed Richard Parsons. "You know, I don't know enough not to take the shot. But I always take the shot."

For Parsons, this is just the latest reclamation project in a long, sometimes turbulent career full of them.

We spent some time with Parsons at the site of a very different reclamation project -- Minton's, a historic jazz club he's restored in Harlem.

He showed portraits capturing some of the figures who represent the club's history: "Thelonious Monk, who was in the house band here; Dizzy Gillespie, who played here every Monday night and helped create bebop."

He may sound like a jazz historian, but Parsons made his mark in business . . . first as the Chairman and CEO of media giant Time Warner, then as Chairman of Citigroup.

He has a reputation as a "cool customer" . . . a trait he says he cultivated growing up as the middle of five children. "When you're in the middle somewhere, the older ones rain down on [you]," he said. "And then you have to protect yourself and the younger ones. So you have to learn a lot of diplomacy."

Parsons grew up in Queens, N.Y. His was the first black family to move into this lower-middle-class neighborhood.

"Every house was basically identical," he said. "And I remember my father bought one in 1953." The price back then? $13,900.

Parsons attended public school, showing enough promise to skip two grades, and graduate high school at 16.

He went on to law school back in New York, and graduated first in his class -- catching the eye of a very powerful patron, then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller.

It was, said Parsons, a match made in heaven: "He liked me, I liked him, we formed a kind of a bond. He introduced me to a world that I never would've been introduced to growing up where I grew up."

Parsons was on the fast track, but race was sometimes part of the equation -- like the time he showed up at a high-powered meeting:

"All these heavyweights sitting in the room, and the secretary said, 'Well, the governor's lawyer's here.' So the door flew open and I went in. And everybody's still looking at the door,'" he laughed. "It was a hoot. So I stood there for about ten seconds. I said, 'Gentleman.' They said, 'Is the governor's lawyer out? Is he coming?' I said, 'He's here.'"

By 31 he was partner of a major law firm . . . at 40, he ran a large regional bank . . . and at 47, he became president of Time Warner, the largest media company in the world.

But it was a bumpy ride. He faced tough criticism after the ill-fated merger of Time Warner and AOL in 2000, which lost billions for investors and cost thousands of jobs.

"You have a degree of regret, obviously," Parsons said. "But you can't go back and undo history, or undo what's happened. All you can do is try and fix it, try and make it better."

Parsons is credited with steadying the ship before he left in 2007, enough so that he was named Chairman of Citigroup in the midst of the Great Recession in 2009. Once again, he took some of the heat for Citi's risky investment.

"Were there signs, as you look on it dispassionately, that you say, 'How could I not have seen it?'" asked Brown.

"We've all done things in life where you go, like, 'How could I have been so stupid? How could I have missed that?'" re replied. "Hindsight is 20/20."

Again, some say Parsons lived up to his reputation as "Corporate America's Mr. Fix-It," paying taxpayers back $20 billion of government bailout money and putting new management in place.

He retired in 2012, and with an estimated worth of $100 million, he was free to pursue his interests. But now the NBA is hoping the man nick-named "The Great Mediator" can help navigate the tricky waters of race and high-finance.

Race, he said, is embedded in the fabric of America: "Most people don't think they're bigots, they really don't. But they just have a set of expectations and things that are in their subconscious that they aren't even aware of that reflect the world they grew up in, and the way they see the world and how they subconsciously assume the world should be.

"And so you do have to confront that from time to time."

For more info: