Reports that Steve Ballmer, 58, the former chief executive of Microsoft, has submitted the winning bid for the Los Angeles Clippers may represent the culmination of a long quest to become involved with pro sports.
And that desire to be a part of the sports scene isn't entirely surprising for a man many have described over the years as the head cheerleader for Microsoft.
An outsized presence, Ballmer is a native of Detroit who attended Harvard University, where he helped manage the football team and worked for the student newspaper. But most critically, he lived down the hall from a nerdy young math whiz named Bill Gates. While Gates dropped out to return to his Washington state hometown and start a computer company, Ballmer continued on to graduate and later attend Stanford University to get his MBA.
In 1980, Gates persuaded his friend to quit and become the 30th employee and first business manager of the company now called Microsoft. Over the next two decades, the pair became an essential force in ushering in the PC-era of computing. The franchise they would build around the Windows operating system created a company feared throughout Silicon Valley, and one that made them -- along with co-founder Paul Allen -- fantastically wealthy.
Over this stretch, Ballmer gained a reputation for having a, well, exuberant personality. At sales meetings, he rallied the company’s sales force by jumping around the stage and shouting. He also filmed a number of zany Microsoft promotional videos that have long since gone viral, in which he can be seen hawking early versions of Windows with the vigor of a used car salesman.
In January 2000, Ballmer succeeded Gates as CEO of Microsoft, a job he held until February. While the company’s revenues and profits continued to expand throughout Ballmer’s tenure, there was a sense that the company had fallen behind in a number of key technologies, such as Internet services and search (to Google) and mobile computing (to Apple). He found himself haunted by pronouncements he made such as this one in 2007 that turned out to be spectacularly wrong:
"There's no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share," he told an interviewer. "No chance."
Though supporters believed that Ballmer’s successes, such as launching the Xbox and pushing the company deeper into business-related computing markets, were never fully acknowledged, Ballmer decided last year he would step aside because he believed the negative perceptions of his leadership would always color outsiders’ view of the company.
Since joining Microsoft, Ballmer has made the Seattle area his home. Microsoft co-founder Allen used some of his fortune to buy the Seattle Seahawks and Portland Trailblazers.
Ballmer had previously attempted to join Allen in the ranks of sports franchise owners. Back in March 2008, Ballmer committed $150 million toward renovating the local basketball arena to keep the Seattle SuperSonics from leaving town, an effort that failed. Two years ago, Ballmer agreed to invest in a new arena in Seattle to lure a franchise back to the city. And last year, he joined a group of investors who planned to buy the Sacramento Kings and move them north. That all hints at what he might have planned for the Clippers.