Steve Ballmer set his sights on a National Basketball Association championship yesterday during his first appearance as the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, saying the team won’t be “stuck in the past.”
Ballmer, the former Microsoft Corp. (MSFT:US) chief executive officer known for high-energy salesmanship, bounded onstage at a Staples Center rally attended by about 3,000 people, many wearing red “We Are Clippers” T-shirts.
“I couldn’t be more honored or excited or fired up to be here,” Ballmer said after tearing off his team cap to show his bald pate. “It’s fantastic for me to have this opportunity.”
Ballmer, 58, bought the Clippers for $2 billion -- about four times what anyone’s ever paid for an NBA team. His chance came when fans and the NBA soured on previous owner Donald Sterling, who was banned for life and fined $2.5 million after a tape of him making racially derogatory comments was made public. His wife, Shelly Sterling, went to court to compel him to sell the franchise he purchased in 1981 for $12.5 million, and Ballmer’s acquisition became official last week.
“We’re looking forward, everything’s about looking forward,” Ballmer said from the stage, where he was joined by eight players and the head coach, Doc Rivers. “I think if you’re not being bold you’re being timid. And the L.A. Clippers are going to be bold.”
There were a few boos when Ballmer admitted he still lives in the Seattle area. He promised he wouldn’t move the Clippers.
“I’m going to love beating the old Seattle basketball team,” he said.
With a fortune estimated at $20.7 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, Ballmer is the richest NBA owner. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who owns the Portland Trail Blazers, is second with $16.3 billion.
The Clippers had just two winning seasons in the first 26 years in Los Angeles -- the team moved from San Diego in 1984 -- and often labored in the shadows of Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers have won 16 NBA championships, one shy of the Boston Celtics’ record tally, and the Clippers have never made it to the finals.
Still, there have been three winning Clippers seasons since 2011, and divisional championships in 2013 and this year.
Ballmer told reporters after the rally that he would work to lift the team to “higher heights.” He said he wouldn’t micromanage, noting that he has a limited understanding of basketball despite attending about 100 games last year.
He has hasn’t had a one-on-one conversation with Rivers, the coach, about next season, he said. Rivers, who’d threatened to resign if Sterling remained the owner, said that now he could return to thinking about basketball and not controversy.
“Cleveland is building this crazy basketball team,” he said of the Cavaliers, where LeBron James is returning after four seasons with the Miami Heat. “I get to think about that.”
Ballmer has the incentive to spend to keep the Clippers on the right trajectory, said Fernando Guerra, director of the Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University.
“A new owner who is incredibly charismatic and dynamic is not going to want to lose,” Guerra said. “He’s going to spend money not to lose.”
Before Ballmer’s buy, the top price paid for an NBA team was $550 million for the Milwaukee Bucks in April. The owners are Marc Lasry, co-founder of Avenue Capital Group LLC, and Wesley Edens, co-founder of Fortress Investment Group LLC. (FIG:US)
The Clippers sale was completed about 16 weeks after the gossip website TMZ published an audio file of Sterling chastising a girlfriend for associating with black people and attending games with them, and complaining that she’d posted on Instagram a photo of herself with NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson. Players and fans were outspoken in their demand for change and the team lost four sponsors, including Virgin America Inc. and and Mercedes-Benz AG.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti referred to it in remarks before Ballmer’s introduction at Staples, saying, “Clippers fans, welcome to the future. The old mold has been broken. We stood strong and we stood together.”
Ballmer joined Microsoft as employee No. 30 in 1980, having been persuaded by the company’s co-founder, Bill Gates, to drop out of Stanford University business school. He led the company’s sales force, then became president before taking the reins as CEO in 2000.
Ballmer was famous for his exuberant performances while at Microsoft, with some of his most sweaty, shouting, stomping exhibitions going viral. He jumped out of a cake at Safeco Field in Seattle at the 25th anniversary party. He and Gates used to make videos for employees, like one in which they spoofed the witless losers from “The Night at the Roxbury.”
He retired in February, after Microsoft struggled with the transition to tablets and smartphones.
The Clippers start the the 2014-15 regular season on Oct. 30 at Staples, against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“We don’t live for fan rallies,” Ballmer said. “We live for parades.”
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