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Clippers owner Ballmer unwavering on stadium project: 'We need our own house'

ATLANTA — LA Clippers owner Steve Ballmer is steadfast: his team needs a home of its own, no matter how daunting the process might seem.

Targeting 2024 for new digs, Ballmer and the organization believe exiting Staples Center, where they share space with their city rival Los Angeles Lakers, is the prudent move for the future. “[We] need our own house,” Ballmer insists.

Yet the Clippers’ proposed arena in Inglewood, where The Forum remains a concert and event venue, has legal obstacles to clear before the project can advance to the next stage.

“We’re going through the permitting process,” Ballmer told Thursday in a wide-ranging interview. “And an environmental process, and we’re going through that right now. We have some folks pushing back on us, primarily Madison Square Garden and the Knicks, if you will. They own The Forum, which is a concert venue, and they don’t want to see a new concert venue, which any new basketball arena would be. So we’re getting some pushback.

“But 2024 is our target. And we’ve given ourselves some time to get ready. And 2024 comes faster than you think, so we’re pushing along down the path. We’re excited. We’ve seen some preliminary exterior designs … can’t show them to you yet. But the community will see them not too long from now.”

Not only do we play in the same building, we don’t have the championship pedigree. So you know what, we need our own house. We’re going to define our own identity, in our own house.”

Steve Ballmer

Ballmer’s vision for the new building is for it to be crafted with basketball experience as the primary focus. There have been scant public details about the project, which would be built on 23 acres of mostly vacant land. The site would include not only an 18,000-to 20,000 seat arena, but also a practice facility, team offices, sports medicine clinic, parking facilities and more.

“It’s about the ability to get it right,” said Ballmer, the billionaire and former Microsoft CEO who bought the Clippers in 2014. “We’re not putting hockey in the building. I don’t think most people know just how big a difference it can make to not have hockey. You get everybody closer to the floor. The sightlines are a lot better. We’re talking about how much leg room to give people, how much width. I like energy. I want people pumping and thumping in the seats. But you’ve still got to have some bars and clubs.

“We’re trying to pull you back in. Some buildings, in my opinion, try and push you out a little bit to the bars and clubs. Then it’s more of a different kind of social experience. We’re trying to support both. But we want people who really love the game in the building.”

The new arena would provide the Clippers with an identity they simply have not had, something that sharing space with the Lakers and their 16 championship banners has always overshadowed.

Ballmer took over a team that had stars on the roster — Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan — and in the coaching and front office ranks with Doc Rivers. They were winning and going to the Western Conference playoffs while the Lakers were on the downside of the Kobe Bryant era and missing from the postseason picture.

And yet the Clippers still had to battle history and image problems in a city dominated for generations by the Lakers and their prevalent fan culture, one that is pervasive in the Southland and beyond.

“I think we made some progress since Blake, DeAndre and Chris,” Ballmer said of the team’s former stars, each of whom has moved on in trades or free agency. “We had a winning team basically since these guys came to the Clippers. We changed the guys, but we’ve never been the big dog in town. Now there’s only one other town in America where you have two NBA teams and that’s in New York. So for me, it was a whole other experience in Los Angeles.”

Ballmer lives in Seattle, but discovered his love for the game as an 11-year-old in suburban Detroit, watching the Pistons and witnessing the appreciation the hometown team and its stars were afforded from local fans.

“For me growing up in Detroit, it’s the Pistons. It’s always the Pistons,” Ballmer said. “But in L.A., you have to think about it differently. Not only do we play in the same building, we don’t have the championship pedigree. So you know what, we need our own house. We’re going to define our own identity, in our own house.

“We’d like to build a team that’s tough, competitive, hard-playing guys. I’m not saying every team doesn’t have some aspect of that. But I want that to be our tone … tough, competitive, gritty and resilient. And I think you have to give people their own house to go and do it. We’re doing it all, the practice facility and everything. And in 2024, we’ll be the newest stadium out there.”

That doesn’t mean Ballmer is waiting on 2024 to field a competitive team. The Clippers are 32-27 in possession of the eighth and final playoff spot with 23 games left and Ballmer says, charging ahead with plans to hold on to that postseason berth at all costs.

Putting together the roster is a little bit like product development in any other business. … You’ve really got to think it through. All of the details matter.”

Steve Ballmer

Even after trading Tobias Harris to Philadelphia in a six-player deal at the trade deadline, a deal that netted the Clippers assets including rookie guard Landry Shamet, the Sixers’ own 2020 protected first-round Draft pick and an unprotected 2021 first-round pick from the Miami Heat, Ballmer said the goal remains the same this season.

Ballmer loves the roster the Clippers have now and loves the process of continuing to build the basketball side as much as he enjoys being immersed in the business side.

“Can I use an analogy? And I don’t want to take it too far,” Ballmer said. “Putting together the roster is a little bit like product development in any other business. Yeah, you’re going to sell and you’re going to market it. But how do you get that right product, the beautiful product the Microsoft Surface or the Xbox or even to competitors to Microsoft, the iPhone. You really want to … and it’s not easy. You’ve really got to think it through. All of the details matter.

“It’s fun. It’s a little tricky. The other thing, I guess I sort of knew, it’s not like you have invite flexibility. People like to say, ‘Just go build your roster.’ But it’s really kind of clever. You have to figure all of this out. How does the Draft work? How does free agency work? How does the trade process work? Free agents. Drafts. Trades. How can you use the tools? It’s not like you can trade for anybody in the league. But before you get involved [as an owner], it’s like ‘Trade for anybody, hire whoever you want, sign whatever free agent you want. I’m always going to get a good draft pick.’ And that’s just not the way it works.”

Having fewer degrees of freedom forces you to be even more insightful, Ballmer said. It’s also what keeps his kinetic energy on full blast.

“I loved it before, I love it now and we’re probably a little more flexible now,” Ballmer said, “but we’re in it now. We’re competing for the playoffs because that’s who we are. We’re never going to not compete. I know some other teams have taken some steps back. We bought ourselves a little more flexibility. I’m glad to see our guys doing well now that they’ve moved on. But I love the guys on our team. We have 23 games left and that’s 23 games we’ve got to kick some [expletive] to make the playoffs.”

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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