On the first Saturday in May, about an hour before the start of Game 7 of the L.A. Clippers’ thrilling first-round series against the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, a black Chevy Tahoe came cruising down the ramp of the private parking lot beneath Staples Center and stopped amid the players’ luxury cars.
The driver’s-side door opened and out stepped Steve Ballmer, the bald, bulky, six-foot-two-inch former CEO of Microsoft whose holy roller arm waving and ecstatic, open-mouthed bellowing at Clippers games suggest somebody at risk of stroking out courtside. But even in the bowels of the arena, where there are no cameras, the team’s owner was still at it, acting more like a rabid fan than the 35th richest man in the world on Forbes’ 2015 list.
“How we doing?” Ballmer shouted to no one in particular, clapping his big hands vigorously as he made a beeline for Annemarie Loflin, director of team services and assistant to Clippers coach Doc Rivers. This, it seemed, was the real Ballmer: a 59-year-old bear of a man and NBA superfan who commutes to Clippers games by jet from Seattle and has injected the franchise with his own slightly frightening brand of extreme home makeover enthusiasm, even in an underground garage.
A few hours later the answer to the question Ballmer had posed—“How we doing?”—would appear, temporarily at least, to be a definitive “Un-be-frickin’-lievable!” All-Star guard Chris Paul’s off-balance basket with one second on the clock clinched a franchise-defining victory and sent the Clippers on to face the Houston Rockets. Suddenly L.A.’s “other” NBA franchise—“the team the town found on its doorstep eight years ago with a note pinned to it,” as Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray once wrote—was favored to advance to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in its history.
In the ensuing weeks, though, the Clippers were still un-be-frickin’-lievable, but not in a good way. When the team was on the verge of dismissing Houston in six games, they turned a 19-point lead late in the third quarter of a close-out match at home into a Game 6 loss. Fans who listened on the radio could hear the Clippers’ legendary play-by-play man, Ralph Lawler, utter his signature phrase, but forlornly: “Oh-me-oh-my.” The Clippers then flew to Houston to complete their collapse, a 113-100 Game 7 loss in which they never led. “I was wrong,” Earvin “Magic” Johnson tweeted. “The Clippers are still the Clippers.”
“I would not sell the team to anybody who was going to take it out of the city. I would never, ever, ever have it leave L.A.”
Shelly Sterling, owner emeritus, L.A. Clippers
Which wasn’t entirely fair. Over the past year they’d rallied impressively in the face of a morale-crushing spectacle, pulling together after revelations that their previous owner, Donald Sterling, was an out-and-out racist. Still, as Ballmer squirmed in his seat behind the basket during that last game, I thought back to something he’d told me before everything fell apart. I’d asked him whether he wanted his outsize personality—the ridiculing of which was common on tech blogs and sports Web sites alike—to become part of the Clippers’ new identity. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said, sounding like someone who goes into a fugue state and doesn’t necessarily remember how he looks while cheering (and certainly doesn’t care). “If my being kind of a passionate fan is helpful, that’s OK with me,” he said. “But I know I’m also just a sideshow. Everything is a sideshow to our coach and our team and what they do in the games.”
Today Ballmer remains committed to doing something he set in motion before the team limped to defeat: rebranding the Clippers as an L.A. powerhouse whose time has come. But everyone acknowledges that the task will be all the more difficult because of what the team did—and then didn’t do—in that series against the Rockets. As the Clippers prepare to unveil new uniforms and a new court logo, among many other things, Ballmer is certainly hastening history’s march away from the rifts created by the divisive 33-year legacy of Sterling. That alone, says Marques Johnson, the local legend who played forward for Sterling and the Clippers from 1984 to 1987 and now cohosts a morning show on the Clippers’ flagship radio station, the Beast 980, will be a tall order. “Donald may be gone,” Johnson says, “but part of the stench—it’s going to take some cleansing, you know what I mean?”
When he played in pickup games at Microsoft, Ballmer says, he was “a big guy who didn’t actually have any moves under the basket.” The defining criticisms of his 30-plus years at Microsoft are not dissimilar. The company failed to make at least one key move while he was CEO, losing big ground in the device and smartphone market to rival Apple. (In 2007, when Apple introduced the iPhone, Ballmer publicly said, “No chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.”)
At Microsoft, Ballmer was synonymous with a company whose product, Windows, changed the world. In L.A. his biggest move—if he can accomplish it—will be to change the city’s loyalties from one NBA team to the other. Ballmer himself seems to sense he’ll need better game.
“This team, this franchise, was born out of toughness,” Ballmer says. “We’re going to change the look. Right? And the tone. All I can do as an owner is say, ‘Hey, what tone do I want?’ I want us to be better. I want us to be relentless. I want us to be working constantly on improving ourselves. I want us to be unsettled about our desire—you know, always a little unsettled in our desire to improve.”
It was only 15 months ago that the gossip machine TMZ broke news of a recorded conversation between Sterling, then the Clippers’ 80-year-old owner, and his 31-year-old companion, V. Stiviano. In it Sterling expressed displeasure that Stiviano was posting pictures of herself with black people on Instagram. The mistress then led the horse to a lake of fire.
Stiviano: “Do you know that you have a whole team that’s black?”
Sterling: “Do I know? I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses.”
The NBA—and Los Angeles—had long tolerated Sterling as a distasteful relic of the noblesse oblige-type owner who bottom-fed on the league’s explosive popularity. New NBA commissioner Adam Silver dropped the curtain on that era, banning Sterling for life and setting a regime change in motion.
“We have to talk, essentially, about working harder. We talk more like Avis than we do like Hertz.”
Steve Ballmer, owner, L.A. Clippers
The Clippers, who were trying to beat the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the 2014 play-offs, were quickly and embarrassingly world famous. Time magazine reported that Google searches on the word “Clippers” increased by 5,000 percent. The Sterling affair was more than a distraction; it was a third-rail scandal about race in America and the uncomfortable—and long-existing—power dynamics between white owners and black players.
It was easy to forget that any new owner would be dealt a surprisingly strong hand. The Clippers had become a team on the rise in the powerful Western Conference, selling out home games at Staples since around the time Chris Paul arrived in 2011 via a trade from New Orleans. That same year rookie Blake Griffin—a six-foot-ten-inch forward who left the University of Oklahoma after his sophomore season—won the slam dunk contest at the All-Star Game by jumping over a car. For so many years a hapless outlier run by a frugal, banana republic-like strongman, the Clippers had become—on the strongman’s watch, no less—a team with a nucleus of star players and a highly sought-after coach, Rivers, who had won a championship with the Boston Celtics. After the NBA banned Sterling and they were put up for sale, no shortage of bidders emerged. A star-studded group that included David Geffen, Oprah Winfrey, and Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of the late Apple founder Steve Jobs, offered $1.6 billion for the team. Ballmer went bigger, offering $1.93 billion, which he ultimately rounded off to $2 billion—the largest amount ever paid for an NBA franchise and a sum that one media investment expert testified represented 12 times the Clippers’ revenue.
A lot of money to be sure. What Ballmer couldn’t have put a price on, though, was the Lakers’ decline, which gave the Clippers an opening unavailable for decades. Because of injuries, Kobe Bryant hasn’t finished any of the past three seasons, and Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak has told several media outlets that he expects Bryant to retire after the next season. Whether Bryant stays or goes, the Clippers gain. If he keeps playing, he remains the focus (Can the Lakers sign a free agent star to play with him? Does it matter if Bryant can’t make it through a season?). If he retires, the 2015-2016 season will be full of tributes and sports-talk radio arguments about where No. 24 ranks in the annals of Laker greats—a discussion that has tended in recent seasons to coincide with the team’s front-office dysfunction—and whether to blame team owners Jim or Jeanie Buss for the current state of affairs. Add the death of family patriarch Jerry Buss, and the Lakers seem less like a basketball team than a 900-page multigenerational novel.
What the Clippers also didn’t have, until now, is an insanely enthusiastic fan signing their checks. A courtside presence at Seattle SuperSonics games, Ballmer, who is the largest shareholder of Microsoft stock, had been trying to buy into the NBA for nearly a decade. There were plays to keep the Sonics in Seattle—before owner Clay Bennett moved the team to Oklahoma City—and to bring the NBA back. In 2013, Ballmer joined with Christopher Hansen, founder of the multibillion-dollar hedge fund Valiant Capital and Management, in going hard after the Sacramento Kings, whom he wanted in Seattle.
Hardly a stranger to the NBA’s board of governors, Ballmer was a relative unknown in the L.A. market. But Shelly Sterling, Donald’s estranged wife, who won control of the family trust last July, says she would have sold to Ballmer even if he hadn’t been the highest bidder. He was an individual, not a consortium, and she found him charming. “He was telling me a story. His wife asked him, ‘Honey, if you’re buying it for two billion, how do you pay for it? Do you write a check?’ ” she says. “It was just so cute. It was so realistic.” First, though, Shelly made Ballmer vow that the Clippers wouldn’t leave. “I would not sell the team to anybody who was going to take it out of the city,” she says. “I would never, ever, ever have it leave Los Angeles. And I had to get a promise from him that he would not take it to Seattle.”
She got that promise, and right away things were different. Security guards and other support staff who had worked without contracts were given them. Donald Sterling had deemed body-scanning software designed to maximize on-court performance too expensive. Under Ballmer, the software was purchased. Sterling had always sat “on the wood,” as the see-and-be-seen courtside seats are called. Ballmer sits behind the basket, where it’s easier to observe the pounding that players take. Rivers says Ballmer made that choice only after reviewing seating options with him. “That just tells you a lot about him,” Rivers says. “He said, ‘Hey, these are the areas, are they good with you?’ ”
All new owners craft some sort of pledge to assure fans they’re here to win a championship, but Ballmer proved a natural at the introductory rally at Staples in August. His rowdy speech went a full 13 minutes, or 12 minutes and 30 seconds longer than owners usually speak to the ticket-buying public.
Seated onstage, his coach and players looked relieved. Free of Sterling’s miserly, inscrutable personality, they were finally going to be judged only on how superhuman they could be in the workplace. “Donald Sterling didn’t care if we won—at least if it meant he had to spend money,” Griffin wrote a few months later in The Players’ Tribune, an online magazine of athlete-written articles founded by former Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. Ballmer, Griffin continued, was “like a cool dad who gives you candy. Donald was like a weird uncle.”