High bidder Steve Ballmer aims to right the Clippers’ ship
The NBA announced that the sale of the Clippers was all but done Friday, and billionaire technology magnate Steve Ballmer said he is ready to pull the franchise out of chaos and “live out the dream and make this kind of America’s team.”
The former Microsoft chief executive, who bid a record $2 billion, described “a big, bold dream for the Clippers” that included winning NBA championships. He talked about turning the team into a role model of inclusiveness, after a month of unrest that followed the release of an audio recording of team co-owner Donald Sterling chastising a female companion for socializing in public with African Americans.
Even as Ballmer spoke, a furious contest was mounting between the two co-owners of the team. Shelly Sterling conducted the sale at a breakneck pace and said she had the sole control of the trust that owns the Clippers. Donald Sterling, 80, the longtime co-owner, charged that his wife had illegally pushed him aside.
Shelly Sterling had asserted herself as the lone trustee of the Sterling family trust after doctors evaluated her husband earlier in May and found that he was no longer able to conduct normal business affairs, according to people familiar with the situation.
The Sterling trust allows for the transfer of control to the other member if one is found unable to perform standard duties, said those sources, who asked not to be identified because of the confidential nature of the trust. Donald Sterling’s attorney called the assertion that his client could not handle his affairs “absurd.”
Donald Sterling’s lawyers filed a lawsuit Friday afternoon in U.S. District Court, alleging that the NBA, Commissioner Adam Silver and others had violated his constitutional rights because the recording that touched off the scandal — made by his companion V. Stiviano and posted on the website TMZ — had been made in secret and without his permission.
The suit asked for Sterling’s reinstatement from a lifetime ban, lifting of a $2.5-million fine and more than $1 billion in damages. It said that Sterling’s privacy rights had been violated and that the NBA action was “grossly discriminatory” in comparison to sanctions levied against players who had made comments insensitive to gays, the disabled and others.
A statement from the league Friday said that a dispute over ownership had been resolved with Shelly Sterling and the Sterling Family Trust, and that the agreement included the sale to Ballmer, pending approval from the other NBA owners. That is considered likely because Ballmer was vetted by the league and owners last year, when he tried to buy the Sacramento Kings. The deal is expected to close July 15.
In light of the “binding agreement” to sell the team, the NBA said it would withdraw its charges against Donald Sterling and cancel a hearing set for Tuesday, at which Silver had been prepared to ask the league’s owners to vote to strip both the Sterlings of the team.
On a quiet but nonetheless triumphal tour of L.A. on Friday, Ballmer jumped from a meeting with The Times, to an hour-long session with Mayor Eric Garcetti, to a session with Dick Parsons, the former Time Warner executive installed by the NBA as the Clippers’ interim chief executive.
If he was nonplused by the tumult surrounding his acquisition, the 58-year-old Seattle resident kept it mostly under wraps, conceding only that “this is one of the more complex situations I have ever been involved in.”
Ballmer promised Friday he would keep the Clippers in L.A., gushed about the city where he said he will now spend considerable time and suggested he would pay what it takes to land top free agents. He said he is confident he can make money, despite paying more than experts said the franchise was worth.
He defended the $2-billion price tag, which was nearly four times more than the previous record sale of an NBA club. He said that he paid for what the team can become in the future.
“I’ve got big dreams for the team. I’d love to win a championship. I’d love the Clippers to be the most dynamic, vibrant team and name in professional sports. But I got a lot to learn,” he said.
Ballmer said that the sales price was not unsettling to someone, like him, from the tech world, where many breathtaking price tags are based on future potential earnings.
The longtime right hand of Microsoft founder Bill Gates was the only bidder for the Clippers who made his offer without partners. He beat out one team led by entertainment mogul David Geffen (offer: $1.6 billion) and another led by investment manager Tony Ressler (offer: $1.2 billion.)
Ballmer offered reassurances that he had no intention of moving the Clippers to Seattle. He suggested he is embracing Los Angeles as a second home and can make the business work best in the second-largest media market in the country.
“The only way any of this makes sense — my desire to spend time in Los Angeles, this team, its aspirations, this community, this purchase price, any of that — is to really kind of live out the dream and make this kind of America’s team, the Los Angeles Clippers.”
Shelly Sterling, 79, her lawyers and representatives of Bank of America pushed a fast-track sales process that began last Thursday, when Donald Sterling sent a letter to NBA headquarters in New York, authorizing his wife to sell the team that he bought for $12.5 million in 1981.
In the midst of the Clippers second-round playoff game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on May 11, Ballmer sat with his USC-student son beneath one basket when the commissioner summoned him up for a chat.
With NBA great Magic Johnson, Disney chief executive Robert Iger and other luminaries sitting in the neighborhood, Silver made clear that Ballmer’s offer for the Clippers would be welcome, as would bidding by others.
But Ballmer, recalling the moment with a loud burst of laughter, said he didn’t want to linger too long. He preferred his seats closer to the floor.
Shelly Sterling met Ballmer at her beachfront home near the Malibu Colony on Sunday, then had dinner with him that night at Nobu. Ballmer said he went to the offices of her lawyers just before midnight Thursday to sign the deal.
Sterling, a close partner with her husband of 58 years in building an apartment empire around Los Angeles, had earlier signaled that she wanted to hold on to as much as 20% of the Clippers. But after the NBA deemed such an arrangement unacceptable, she gave in.
Still, she got an important tacit agreement from the league and Ballmer — that, with NBA assent, she would be welcome at Clippers games, perhaps sitting in a courtside seat as a sort of “owner-emeritus.” Ballmer said the co-owner deserved credit because she “put the Clippers first,” in agreeing to sell the team and “give the Clippers the best path forward.”
Staff writers Nathan Fenno, Andrea Chang and Victoria Kim contributed to this report.
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