Editor’s Note: This is one in a series of features that spotlights innovative, unique figures around the NBA who could change the league forever.
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LOS ANGELES -- There are few better places to get a quick entertainment fix than YouTube, where the videos are vast and diverse, satisfying every imaginable taste -- from Taylor Swift to Snoop Dogg. Or you could type the name of a balding Harvard-educated software executive in the search box and become transfixed as he gyrates and resonates so excitedly he doesn’t even need a soundtrack.
But there is a soundtrack playing anyway on his most popular video (nearly 1.7 million views), where Steve Ballmer sprints onstage at a company event while Gloria Estefan’s “Get On Your Feet” is strategically blasting in the background. Ballmer is screaming to the crowd of employees and sponsors to “Get up!” while bopping around the floor and frantically waving his arms and hands. Even two decades later, there is no way anyone watching this on a computer screen can remain seated unless they’re a Buddhist monk.
Ballmer was just getting warmed up though. At another event, he extols the virtues of a particular industry species by chanting, over and over, “developers, developers, developers, developers!” until his lungs plea for mercy and he runs out of breath after the 14th mention of “developers” and only manages a faint and raspy “deevellopssss” for mention No. 15. By then, his blue button-down dress shirt is soaked with perspiration but does not douse his spunk.
Those were some of the perkier moments of Ballmer at Microsoft, where his final 14 years there were spent as the CEO of one of this generation’s iconic companies. He was an energizing leader then, and still is now, at a different arena where yelling is encouraged and expected yet still seems astonishing that the loudest noise is barked by the most important person in the house.
It’s impossible to miss Ballmer, the chairman of the LA Clippers, always seated to the left of the basket by the Clippers’ bench at Staples Center, because he is still making videos. Just let the Clippers rally to take the lead, or make a thrilling play or Lord knows hit the game-winning hoop, and Steve Ballistic will rise up and detonate, arms flailing, mouth expanding, vocal cords snapping.
It’s a big part of his infectious charm, that someone worth an estimated $52 billion (no typo) can seem this earthy and normal and unravel right along with the fans. Still, it can be jarring to first-time witnesses. Last July, when the Clippers formally introduced Kawhi Leonard and Paul George at a news conference -- proclaimed by some as the second-most important day in franchise history, and we’ll reveal No. 1 in a moment -- Ballmer did what Ballmer does.
“Pretty cool,” he yelled, clapping his hands furiously. “Pretty damn cool. I’m pumped to say hello as Clippers to Kawhi and Paul. C’mon! Get up! Get up if you’re as psyched as I am! Yeeaahhhh!”
A few seats down the dais was Leonard, as stoic as they come in the NBA, and he later whispered to coach Doc Rivers: “I don’t know if that’s healthy.”
Well. There are few if any operators of NBA franchises with more reason to have their giddy up than a 63 year old whose next-life looks and seems fun. This is what you do when you’re retired from the tech business, are ranked as the 19th-wealthiest person in the world and need another outlet, and what better one than calling the shots for an NBA team in Los Angeles? No, Ballmer isn’t running that other L.A. team, the one with all the banners and the statues in front of Staples Center, the one with the wide global reach. Yet that makes it all the more Herculean, and Ballmer if nothing else is up to the challenge.
He’s using that energy and those billions to completely transform a franchise that for much of its existence was a cold sore on the face of the league. Crazy thing is, five years after purchasing the club for a record price, Ballmer is well ahead of the pace to overhaul the Clippers and recreate their image. One might say he’s attempting to do for the Clippers what he helped do for Microsoft.
Here’s the Ballmer scorecard so far:
• Reshape the front office
• Hire the great Jerry West as a trusted adviser
• Green-light several risky basketball decisions, which included trading the team’s biggest stars
• Create a respectable workplace for players and employees
• Put women in jobs they’ve rarely had before
• Make the club attractive to top-notch free agents (hello, Kawhi!)
• Put plans in place for a costly new arena in Inglewood
• Erase the stench left behind by former owner Donald Sterling
Oh, and by paying $2 billion for the team, Ballmer also raised the value of all NBA franchises. Not only do players and fans love him, his fellow owners are toasting him. And so: The day he took control of the club from Sterling, the disgraced owner who was essentially impeached by commissioner Adam Silver, stands as the landmark day in franchise history, which admittedly didn’t have much competition for that honor.
“Everything changed,” Rivers said. “The climate, the culture, the way we did business, everything. He’s been a godsend.”
Well, truthfully it took some time, as Ballmer was content to sit tight at first and refrain from making any rookie mistakes. He likes to say he was born on third base as chairman because the Clippers at the time had Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan and were constant winners. Yet, for all of its promise and highlight plays, "Lob City" never even reached the Western Conference finals. When it was time to break up the gang, it was essentially Ballmer Time: Time for him to put his stamp on the club to fit his vision and expectations.
He discussed this and more in a recent sit-down interview, where Ballmer as usual was a bundle of live wires, peppering some of his comments with a loud voice whenever he wanted to stress a point. (Those will be indicated heretofore by ALL CAPS.)
“Sports is about the simplest thing in the world,” he said. “In business you can always say it’s about increasing profits. In sports it’s simple. You either won it or lost it. So our goal is to win. It was our goal last year and next year. Every year. I don’t like the idea of taking a step back to take a step forward. We’ve been able to put ourselves in position where we didn’t have to do that. It fits with my desire to continue to advance and advance. And this year WE COULD ADVANCE A LOT MORE.”
Once again, Ballmer was just getting warmed up.
“My past business experience is sort of like this: I used to say to people, 'You have to get into the weight room for business. You have to have muscle.’ We’ve built that muscle on the basketball side and now on the business side. It’s nice to be in alignment. We have a great opportunity because we have the infrastructure in place, we have a solid path forward. I feel good that WE GOT THE MUSCLES AND THE TOOLS to be a good organization and basketball team for as long as we can.”
Without luck you’re not going to achieve great success. You can’t fool yourself. Same thing in sports. The ball bounces in or out. That’s going to happen in all parts of life. But I like having the excitement of promise and expectations.”
Ballmer was born in Detroit where his father was an executive at Ford; to this day, Ballmer honors those roots by driving only Ford cars, currently a Lincoln MKX. He was a math magician very early, graduated No. 1 in his class in private school (scoring perfectly on the math portion of the SAT) and got his degree in mathematics and economics at Harvard.
There, he befriended a student named Bill Gates, and when Gates years later asked him to join a start up, Ballmer dropped out of Stanford grad school to become Employee No. 30 at Microsoft.
Ballmer wasn’t always so ebullient; he said he was unnaturally shy as a kid and even now insists he’s an introvert but breakthroughs in school and then business eventually unleashed the volcano inside.
“The enthusiasm comes in part with confidence and non-diagnosed ADHD perhaps from childhood,” he said with a laugh. “I certainly exhibited TENDENCIES WHICH MY MOTHER FELT NEEDED A LITTLE TREATMENT from time to time although I never had any. Even when I started in business, as I felt better and more capable, I lost some of the shyness.”
Ballmer is generous and giving with his wealth, all for good causes. Why not put those billion blessings to positive use? He and his wife form one of the largest philanthropic families in the country, the Ballmer Group. It supports the arts, education, technology and the less fortunate. With the Clippers he increased the staff by 45, almost unheard of, but was needed; the Clippers counted the paper clips under Sterling’s watch. When Rivers heard his unemployed protege, former Cavs coach Ty Lue, wanted back in the game, he wasn’t sure if Ballmer would agree to that. There was no opening on the coaching staff. Ballmer told Rivers to get him anyway.
“I don’t want to give anyone the wrong impression,” Rivers said. “People might think Steve is just a blank check. He’s not. He wants you to tell him why and show worth. And then if he sees there’s worth, he’s going to do it. What I love about him is he doesn’t want an average guy. He wants the best guy in the league and it doesn’t matter if he’s with another team, pay him more and get him.”
Rivers and Ballmer’s relationship is solid enough where Ballmer makes a point to stop by Rivers’ office before every game. A year ago, Ballmer appeared at the door and seemed … rattled. Moments earlier, in a show of pure disrespect, Griffin -- traded by the Clippers to the Pistons months earlier -- rudely brushed off Ballmer’s conciliatory attempt at a handshake by sprinting to the visitor’s locker room. The video of that went viral. Rivers felt awful for Ballmer and said Griffin’s actions were “not cool at all.”
There’s another more serious clash in the works. Ballmer plans to build the Clippers’ new arena just a 3-point shot away from the Forum in Inglewood. The Forum is owned by James Dolan, chairman of Madison Square Garden and the Knicks, and he is crying foul. This is already in litigation, putting the league in an uncomfortable spot, although there is no sweat on Ballmer’s brow.
“We’re on a path where we think we can build the arena no matter what happens with litigation,” he said. “Suffice to say the other side is just trying to slow us down a bit. BUT WE’RE GRINDERS. We’re long term players and grinders. You want to hit us in the nose? OK, we’re going to keep moving. YOU CAN’T KNOCK US DOWN. I’m not sure they understand what they got themselves into.”
Fighting words for sure. By now it would be foolish for anyone to think Ballmer cannot produce results when it comes to the Clippers and his grand plan to elevate them in the NBA’s rafters and, sneakily so, claim a large slice of the Los Angeles basketball market from you-know-who.
“I love the culture of our team and that happens to be the way I think about myself -- not that flashy in a way,” he said. “I like the idea you can be great but also be a grinder. I love the fact we got Kawhi and Paul, both two-way players who were a little overlooked in college. Those guys kept coming and coming and then BOOM.”
In the summer of 1980, the year after Ballmer joined his college pal from Harvard, IBM was developing the first personal computer but needed an operating system. A company called Digital Research had one but couldn’t strike a deal with IBM, which turned to Microsoft for help. Microsoft didn’t have one but knew of a small company that did. Microsoft bought the rights and developed the operating system which was ultimately used by IBM computers. It launched a billion-dollar corporation.
“That was our luck,” Ballmer said. “We spent $48,000 to buy an operating system that became the backbone of the business. Microsoft does $10 billion in profit every year. So we did a lot of good things at Microsoft, but if (Digital Research) had just conducted themselves NICELY to IBM, I’m probably not even sitting at this table.”
It taught Ballmer that no master plan is foolproof, even one that added Leonard and George to a Clippers team that won 48 games last year.
“Without luck you’re not going to achieve great success,” he said. “You can’t fool yourself. Same thing in sports. The ball bounces in or out. That’s going to happen in all parts of life. But I like having the excitement of promise and expectations.”
He reminds me in a whole different way of Kevin Garnett when I had him with the Celtics. I’d tell our staff there’s no way that guy is that freaking intense. And then, after a week, I said, 'Wow, he’s maybe more intense than I thought.’ Steve’s that way.”
When the Clippers first met with Leonard in free agency last summer, stakes were obviously high. Leonard was their No. 1 target for months but the Lakers wanted him, too. To Ballmer, it was a Microsoft shareholders meeting all over again and he seized the opportunity to go ALL CAPS and leave an impression on the quiet star. He essentially made another video, one in which Rivers said: “He was so charged. I think he rehearsed. I didn’t know if this was good or not.”
Rivers recalled those initial days shortly after Ballmer purchased the team, when the coach pleaded after a game with the excited new boss to slow down, that there are 81 others in a season.
“When I get on my cell phone after a game where my friends saw Steve cheering as he does from his seat, my texts are hilarious,” Rivers said. “I love it because it’s pure. He reminds me in a whole different way of Kevin Garnett when I had him with the Celtics. I’d tell our staff there’s no way that guy is that freaking intense. And then, after a week, I said, 'Wow, he’s maybe more intense than I thought.’ Steve’s that way.”
Evidently, Ballmer rubbed Leonard the right way during that crucial initial get-together, and here they are.
There is one more video to be made, one that would surely blow all others away for page views and creativity and viral madness. And that video, if and when it happens, would be at a Clippers’ championship parade, right at the end, where players and coaches take the microphone and address thousands of fans.
In the past, the NBA has seen its share of entertainment from those scenes: Mark Madsen’s awkward dancing, Shaquille O’Neal’s “Can you dig it!” scream, and last July in Canada when Leonard poked fun at his own strange laugh.
And so: Imagine Steve Ballmer on that stage.
It’s enough for a Lakers fan to root for the Clippers to win a title just to witness the possibilities.
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