Steve Ballmer’s voice tends to rise without warning, often mid-thought, like a verbal volcano.
“The first regular-season game, I’m excited for that,” the new Clippers owner said Monday morning, referring to the Oct. 30 opener against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the team that left Ballmer’s beloved Seattle in 2008.
Then it was as if someone handed Ballmer a bullhorn in his seat in the Lexus Club inside Staples Center.
“HA!” he continued, at what seemed like 30 decibels louder. “I’M EXCITED AS A CLIPPER AND I’M EXCITED AS A SEATTLEITE! I’M EXCITED!”
Ballmer’s enthusiasm was the one constant during a nearly 40-minute interview with The Times a few hours before he chest-bumped and high-fived fans at a whirlwind welcome rally. The former Microsoft chief executive touched on topics including Coach Doc Rivers’ future, the possible use of technology to enhance the fan experience at Staples Center and erstwhile co-owner Shelly Sterling’s continued presence at games.
“She and me and the NBA all agreed she can come to games as part of the purchase consideration and that’s quite reasonable,” said Ballmer, whose $2-billion acquisition of the Clippers from Donald and Shelly Sterling closed last week. “Donald was banned, not Shelly. But I own the team, I’ll make the decisions about where we take the team. They’re the former owner; I’m the new owner.”
Told that some people lump Shelly in with her estranged husband because she was a party to his shenanigans for more than three decades — including one alleged incident in which she posed as a housing inspector in an attempt to oust minority tenants — Ballmer said he was only “looking forward.”
“We’ve gone through a period of lemons; I’m in the lemonade business and I’m excited about the future,” Ballmer said. “The league is fine with their decisions, I took that as my guide and we’re driving forward under new ownership — thankfully under the same basketball leadership but under new ownership.”
Rivers remains the Clippers’ coach and president of basketball operations, much to Ballmer’s relief after Rivers openly mulled quitting in the wake of Donald Sterling’s racist remarks toward blacks that earned him a lifetime ban from the NBA.
Ballmer would not comment on a possible multiyear extension for Rivers, perhaps in part because the parties have not held an in-depth conversation since Ballmer assumed control of the team.
“Everything I know about Doc, I’m just 100% behind,” Ballmer said of Rivers, who has two more years left on his contract. “I think he’s phenomenal. I’m lucky he’s got a contract that runs a little while longer, but we have plenty of time to talk and I look forward to doing that.”
As he munched on mini-muffins and sipped Diet Cokes, Ballmer mulled the ways in which technology could make games more enjoyable for fans at Staples Center.
“The courtside seats, they pass out the statistics between quarters,” Ballmer said. “Come on, there’s got to be a better way that’s more inclusive and more involving. There’s more data. Not every fan wants that stuff, but the guys that want it are the diehards.”
Ballmer mentioned Microsoft Surface tablets, devices that have allowed NFL teams to review plays in high-definition, full-color images. He was hopeful that something similar could eventually be used by NBA fans at games.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles basketball fans find themselves confronted by an evolving test of allegiances not nearly as one-sided as only a few years ago: Lakers or Clippers?
“The way I get it, the only people who get to decide that are the faaaans,” Ballmer said, drawing out the final word for emphasis. “We win ballgames, we’ll get our rightful deserts locally, nationally. They tell me you can’t win a division or a championship if you only beat the teams in one city, so we’ve got a lot of guys we’ve got to beat.”
Fans can reach Ballmer at two email addresses he readily disclosed — email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org — and might receive a personalized response from the owner. He even read one letter aloud during the fan festival from a longtime season ticket holder who wanted to know what kinds of changes were in store.
Ballmer hopes to attend as many Clippers games as possible, given that he has a son entering his sophomore year at a Seattle-area high school. He said he’ll occasionally be “down and back in a day” so that he can also attend his son’s basketball games.
The owner said he had not spoken with once-skittish sponsors about sticking with the Clippers, but he wasn’t worried.
“I’m a confident guy that we have a great product, I’m a confident guy that we’re going to have a lot of viewership and fanship,” Ballmer continued, and here came that pump-up-the-volume cadence again, “and I’m confident in my ability AS A SALESMAN TO GET PEOPLE FIRED UP!”