Monday was a new day for the Los Angeles Clippers franchise, as Steve Ballmer was formally introduced to fans at the Staples Center. I watched the telecast in Los Angeles, and it was an incredible sight. Even before Ballmer emerged through the crowd, the energy in the building jumped out of the screen. Eight Clippers players made it on stage (C.J. Wilcox, Reggie Bullock, Jordan Farmar, Jared Dudley, Matt Barnes, DeAndre Jordan, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul), and head coach Doc Rivers went from threatening to leave in the event of Donald Sterling’s retention to cracking jokes to the young guys about what “Larry” is.
Ballmer’s powerful entrance swept the stage like Matt Foley entering a living room. As soon as Rivers introduced Ballmer, Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” hit, and Ballmer surely lost himself in the moment. High fives and clapping preceded Ballmer’s primal volume and enthusiasm, and while his exuberance should not come as a shock to those who have seen him on stage before, it was still a refreshing sight to see and hear all of that vitality translate to the National Basketball Association. When Ballmer said that he couldn’t have been more honored, excited, or fired up to be here, you believed it – you feared for his health otherwise.
Now, a big part of this rally was to celebrate how #ItsANewDay. But what does this new day look like for the Clippers? Today, it is enough for Steve Ballmer not to be Donald Sterling. Moving forward, what are Ballmer’s expectations, and what are the expectations in general for a new owner to make their mark, be successful?
Let’s use four categories to evaluation ownership: Plan/Mission, Personnel/Character, Innovation/Ethics, and Tradition/Reputation.
You ideally want to see a detail-oriented leader in charge of your organization.
You want to see an ownership group put the right people in appropriate roles and value the input of those individuals consistently. They strive to be right and fair by them, and support them in a way that maximizes their ability.
You want to see an overseer that thinks outside the box, is visionary, and creative. To reach those means, he has the integrity to imagine progressive solutions while staying within the lines.
You want to develop a legacy over the course of an owner’s tenure that conveys a culture of winning on and off-the-court of play. While the bottom line is important for the business side of things, all sports organizations have a tangible goal every year: to win a championship.
These are subjective goals that I have developed. Ballmer knows a thing or two about developers, and he knows that he has inherited a valuable asset in Rivers. Ballmer and Rivers look like they have clicked, and that should go a long way in terms of the Clippers’ basketball operations being about the basketball side and not ownership. Ballmer wants to be bold, but not bold for the sake of being bold.
A good show of transparency for Ballmer was mentioning Seattle. Ballmer has lived there for over thirty years, and he wouldn’t let Clippers fans boo the city. (Not that Clippers fans have much to boo Seattle for anyway. They DID get the SuperSonics to take Benoit Benjamin.)
Ballmer was unsuccessful in trying to acquire the Sacramento Kings with Chris Hansen, and the Milwaukee Bucks went off the market as well. While he hopes Seattle gets a team, he reassured fans that he’s not moving the Clippers. He even doubled down on the Seattle tip, mentioning how he wants to beat the team that moved from Washington in the first place: the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Western Conference runner-up who conveniently open the season against the same Clippers they eliminated in May. That’s nice of Ballmer to use a potential controversy in his ownership as a means of stirring up a relevant rivalry series.
Ballmer is apparently a stats junkie, and he wants to see how fans can get the best experience. As long as the former Microsoft CEO’s plans end up better than the Zune, that’s a cool thing to inticipate.
Perhaps the most important part of Ballmer’s introduction was the reality that the Sterling family is still associated with the Clippers, as Shelly Sterling retained the titles of “Clippers Fan No. 1” and “Owner Emeritus” as part of the sale. (Yes, that means Clipper Darrell is still being disrespected by the Sterlings.)
Ballmer deferred his thoughts on that matter to Rivers, who mentioned, “Without [Shelley], this deal doesn’t get done.”
He later added, “She wants to be a fan…What’s wrong with being a fan?”
Shelley’s presence, especially courtside, is going to be uncomfortable for those who understand that she was complicit in many of Donald Sterling’s transgressions. As Clipper Darrell said, “it’s always a reminder of Donald Sterling.” But to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs. Clearly, this is Ballmer’s team. The news that Ballmer is giving up his seat on Microsoft’s board of directors is another move that shows he is making the Clippers a priority.
Keeping those four tenets of ownership in mind, it will take at least five years to gauge the impact Ballmer can make. The excitement of the honeymoon surely lasts in less time than that. The Sacramento Kings and new owner Vivek Ranadive had their own rally in Sacramento last spring, and while the jury is still out on the Kings long-term, the only real excitement for the Kings now is the fact that their basketball team wasn’t on borrowed time for once this offseason.
Ballmer isn’t taking over a Sacramento situation—the Clippers are a top-five NBA team. While Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban took over the worst team in the 1990s, he got to work with one of the best coaches in NBA history (Don Nelson) and the future of the power forward position (Dirk Nowitzki). In six years, the Mavs were NBA Finalists. 11 years later, they were champions. Cuban hasn’t been the perfect owner, but he’s been perfect for Dallas.
Ballmer can be the same. He just needs to be perfect for the Clippers. Time will tell how many Larrys that means.