LOS ANGELES — Steve Ballmer doesn’t know as much about NBA basketball as he thinks he should.
The new owner of the Los Angeles Clippers was cut from his high school team as a freshman, and he doesn’t have much experience playing the sport that he just invested $2 billion in. Despite attending "100-plus basketball games" last season — most of which were for his son’s high school team — and having a burning passion for the game, Ballmer doesn’t consider himself an expert on in-game strategy or navigating the treacherous salary cap.
But what Ballmer’s comments and overall performance at Monday’s Clippers Fan Festival at Staples Center showed arguably is just as important, if not more, than his deep pockets and love for basketball: a sense of self-awareness.
His decision to greet fans with high-fives and chest-bumps, as Eminem’s classic pump-up song "Lose Yourself" blared in the background, was exactly the type of grandiose display one would expect from a Ballmer-led pep rally. He didn’t adhere to the standards of normal business or ownership conduct — he stretched the boundaries as far as he could and then some.
Over the next 20 minutes, Ballmer went on to predict a victory against the Oklahoma City Thunder — "the old Seattle team," as he called it — on opening night; he promised to build a championship winner by any means necessary, even if it means spending into the luxury tax; and after a 26-year season ticket holder asked about what to expect with the future of the franchise, he proudly guaranteed that the future of Clippers basketball would be much better than the past.
"I’ll boldly say that the Clippers will win many, many, many, many more Larrys in the next 26 years than in the last 26," Ballmer yelled to a crowd of 4,500 diehard Clippers fans."
There has been incessant speculation that Ballmer would move the franchise to Seattle, where he has resided for 34 years. But he maintained his position that the Clippers are staying in Los Angeles for a variety of reasons, hoping to ease the concerns of worried Clippers fans: "I love Los Angeles. Yes, I live in Seattle. We’re not moving the Clippers to Seattle for a hundred reasons."
New NBA owners traditionally make splashy transactions within a year of purchasing their team, as they try to flex their basketball knowledge and prove their commitment to winning. More often than not, though, the moves end up being short-sided, or even worse, misguided; and the franchise pays the price in the long run.
Ballmer won’t be taking that approach, though. His long-term vision for the Clippers, more so than his brash behavior, revealed just how forward-thinking he really is.
The NBA’s championship trophy, named after former commissioner Larry O’Brien, is Ballmer’s only goal. He simply calls it "Larry", and even started an "I love Larry!" chant at the beginning of his pep talk to inspire the fans.
Ballmer admitted that he won"t be making many basketball decisions on his own, and that head coach and president of basketball operations Doc Rivers would have the final say on most matters. Ballmer’s rationale is simple in his eyes — Rivers is an expert on the NBA, a head coach with championship experience, while Ballmer is just a fan with limited knowledge and experience owning a team.
"Most of what you learn running any organization is what it takes to make the organization successful. … You need to have a point of view. I have no point of view on how you win basketball games with the right mix of players — Doc does.
Ballmer energetically kicks off ‘new day’ for Clippers, writes Rahshaun Haylock.
"So I know the principle is you’ve got to have a point of view, and I’m very grateful we have such an expert who has a point of view. You’ve got to be hardcore, you’ve got to be bold. Those things are going to work," Ballmer told FOX Sports Prime Ticket.
Ballmer’s candid and realistic approach is refreshing, if nothing else. He envisions the Clippers becoming a first-rate organization, which stems from being organized, passionate and professional from the top on down.
"It all starts with having an attractive product," Ballmer said. "That means a winning team with great people playing for the team — great individuals, in addition to great basketball players — with great leadership performing well, where the fan experience is unparalleled.
"That’s where we start. That’s where I’d start in any business; making sure we deliver what our customers want. I think what our customers and fans want is a first-class team, with a first-class performance, doing its best and better and better and better. We got deep last year; we’ll go deeper this year."
The former Microsoft CEO clearly knows how to run a successful business, how to delineate power and responsibility, how to be bold and ahead of the curve, and, of course, how to inspire an amped crowd at a fan pep rally.
But he also understands his limitations, and doesn” plan on overstepping them.
Ballmer will take a hands-on approach on the business and technological side of the franchise — where he has decades of experience — and leave the roster construction and game plan to Rivers and his staff.
While Ballmer’s energy and emotion made headlines and stole the show, his self-awareness and trust in the intelligent, experienced basketball minds around him is one of the keys that can propel the Clippers to their goal of winning Larry.