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Stunned by Clippers deal's dollars, wondering how it makes sense

Los Angeles ClippersNBASportsColumnTelevision IndustryPro BasketballBasketball
Clippers go from second most-popular team in town to most expensive team in NBA history
Can Steve Ballmer make Clippers deal work?
Bill Plaschke: Are the Clippers really worth $2 billion?

It is the sort of unimaginable leap that would make even Blake Griffin proud.

In less than two months, the Clippers have gone from being the second-most popular team in their own town to the most expensive team in NBA history. In the time it takes to say "Sterling, Silver and Stiviano," they have gone from hard-luck losers to billion-dollar babies.

The Clippers curse has been at least temporarily swallowed up by the Clippers purse, which was bulging with Thursday's news that the team has been sold to former Microsoft executive Steve Ballmer for $2 billion.

Leave your jaw on the floor. It's all true. The Clippers. Two billion bucks. No NBA championships. Two billion bucks. No appearances in the conference finals. Two billion bucks. No league most valuable players, no Staples statues, and no real national love until their owner became the most disliked man in America. Two billion bucks.

We all know how Donald Sterling feels about blacks. Now we'll find out if he has a higher opinion of green.

The deal was brokered by Clippers co-owner Shelly Sterling and, depending on whom you ask, may need approval by her husband. Donald Sterling has been banned from the league for making racist remarks on an audio recording that also led the NBA to vow to strip his family of ownership.

Representatives for Donald Sterling have claimed that he won't give up the team without a fight, but here's guessing that getting $2 billion for a team that cost him $12.5 million in 1981 — a team he mostly ran like a true Clip joint — would be enough to convince him to slink away.

The NBA would have to then approve Ballmer as an owner, but here's guessing that would also not be a problem considering he was already vetted last year when he was part of a group that attempted to buy the Sacramento Kings.

So the good news is that there are now 2 billion reasons for the Sterlings to disappear. But the uncertain news is, what does that price mean for the team they are leaving behind? In other words, are the Clippers really worth $2 billion? How on Earth can even a brilliant former Microsoft boss crack the code to make this kind of deal work?

Ballmer does realize that he paid the highest price for an NBA franchise that isn't even the most liked team in its own gym, right? A team whose players are actually booed when they show up at Dodger Stadium? The national perception of the Clippers may have changed overnight, but locally, the Los Angeles pro basketball landscape still belongs to the Lakers. The Clippers are still 16 titles behind the Lakers. For the foreseeable future, the ceiling on the Clippers' ability to make money will always be the Lakers.

In this environment, what sports TV network will pay Ballmer the kind of money he might need to recoup his investment? If the folks at Time Warner Cable had trouble initially selling the Lakers to pay-TV operators, why on Earth would anyone think they could make it work for the third-string Clippers?

Even amid the excitement of their franchise-best record last season, have the Clippers become the sort of viewing habit that would make consumers complain if they weren't on television? Quick, what channel are they on right now? A more recent example of this potential Clippers problem can be found with the far more popular Dodgers, who were purchased for $2.15 billion, a price that led to an expensive TV package that most pay-TV operators just won't accept.

Life for Clippers fans at Staples Center may have also just gotten a lot tougher. One of the reasons the Clippers have become such a hot ticket is because, compared to the Lakers, they've always had reasonably priced seats that have helped their everyman fan base. How much will Ballmer have to raise those prices? He's worth $20 billion, but here's guessing that for all the sympathetic love showered on the team in the wake of Sterling's remarks, Ballmer isn't buying it as a charity.

There is also a fear, however remote, that Ballmer could eventually move the team back to his home in Seattle, especially considering he wanted to do the same if he had bought the Sacramento Kings. Fans can trust the NBA wouldn't sell the Clippers to Ballmer if he was going to move them, and they certainly wouldn't be worth anything close to $2 billion in Seattle. But still, there will always be that nagging wonder. Remember, for years the league wanted Sterling to move to Orange County and out of the Lakers shadow. How will Ballmer like life in that shadow? How does Microsoft like life with Apple?

If one can get past the price tag and out-of-town ownership, this sale does offer plenty of room for hope. Maybe Ballmer would hire the sort of smart front office that can take advantage of the Lakers' dysfunctional family ownership. Maybe by treating the Clippers like the most expensive prize they have become, Ballmer can help them find the lasting popularity that Doc Rivers, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin deserve.

If nothing else, maybe Ballmer can finally give Clippers fans a stable courtside presence. If this sale goes through, there are two midcourt seats that may have just opened up. The Clippers might not be worth $2 billion, but the imminent, permanent exile of Donald and Shelly Sterling would be priceless.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter: @billplaschke

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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