Steve Ballmer bounced out to center stage, punching his fist in the air and soaking up roars from a gathering of Clippers’ season ticket holders and fans. “Let me be clear,” the team’s owner proclaimed in a booming voice. “I’m fired up tonight.”
He wasn’t kidding.
The event Wednesday night at Novo at L.A. Live was billed as “The Playbook,” a conversation with Lawrence Frank — the Clippers’ president of basketball operations — and icon Jerry West, a team consultant. Ballmer made it feel more like a pep rally crossed with a tent revival, complete with devout responses from the Clippers faithful. “We know we’ve got to earn everything in life,” he said at one point, and someone in the crowd yelled, “Yes!” When he said, “Nothing comes to us for free,” an emotional voice cried, “Right!”
He held an audience of about 2,500 in the palm of his never-still hands. He promised no miracles, more hot dogs and a tough-minded team backed by a front office that finally has salary-cap flexibility and is eager to dive into the anticipated 2019 free-agent bonanza. “You’ve got to take the payroll down to take it up. We’re going to recruit our asses off, whatever it takes to give you the best team that we can give you year in and year out,” he said.
Ballmer also vowed that the Clippers won’t tank to get a better draft pick. “That ain’t us. Nuh-uh, no way,” he said. “People can do it their way. We’re going to be good our way. We’re not going to show up and suck for a year, two years. I think we got higher expectations on us than the long, hard five, six years of absolute crap like the 76ers put in. How could we look you guys in the eye if we did that to you?”
West, subdued by nature, enjoyed Ballmer’s animated delivery. “Being around him is like a breath of fresh air,” West said, smiling. “He’s like this all the time. I told Lawrence, ‘If he goes home, can you imagine his wife having to hear this all the time?’ She’s very quiet, by the way.”
We’re moving to Inglewood come hell or high water. We gotta have a house.
Ballmer’s wife, Connie, has remained in the Pacific Northwest, where he rose to become Microsoft’s chief executive officer. That has long provided a basis for rumors that Ballmer would move the Clippers to Seattle, but the exit he plans only involves leaving Staples Center, where the Clippers rank below their co-tenants, the Kings and Lakers, and often get unfavorable home dates.
“I love L.A. I also love my wife, by the way, but I love L.A. and I don’t want there to be any mistake about it. We want to be part of the fabric of this community,” said Ballmer, who stepped down as Microsoft’s CEO early in 2014, shortly before he rescued the Clippers from the clutches of disgraced Donald Sterling and bought the franchise for $2 billion.
“We’re moving to Inglewood come hell or high water,” he said of a proposed arena near the site of the stadium being constructed for the Rams and Chargers. “We gotta have a house. So we’re working on a plan to get our own house. We want to get our own house. It turns out the way this works in L.A., which is much beloved to me, that if you start now you might be done in six years.” He then urged fans to contact their Assembly representative and state senator to urge approval of legislation that would accelerate the process. He probably inspired more than a few emails and phone calls.
With less flair but more detail than their boss, Frank and West praised guard Jerome Robinson, drafted 13th by the Clippers, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the No. 11 pick whom they acquired from Charlotte. Both emphasized the team’s depth. “I’m not here to blow smoke toward anyone. I think this team is really going to be fun to watch,” West said. Frank added, “I think we’re going to put ourselves in great position to compete for the playoffs.”
Fans seemed to buy into the Clippers’ reinvention after the flameout of the Lob City era, a five-year period in which the Clippers clearly outperformed the Lakers but still didn’t get a championship banner. “I think they’re just moving a lot of money for cap space in order to probably get Kawhi Leonard. We’ll see. We can be patient,” said Chanda Rutherford of Compton, a seven-year season ticket holder who attended with her Laker-fan husband, Travis.
I think we’re going to put ourselves in great position to compete for the playoffs.
Mark Westfall, a South Bay roofing contractor and 30-year Clipper season ticket holder, also was optimistic the Clippers can capitalize on the two max contract slots they’ll have next year. “I don’t care what the Lakers have done and what Houston’s done, I don’t think anybody’s going to beat Golden State,” said Westfall, who cheered Wednesday alongside his wife, Cathy. “I think Golden State’s window is going to eventually close and the Clippers are kind of setting themselves up to go on maybe a little run after their window closes. And we’ve got Jerry West. And I believe in Jerry West.”
Getting more hot dogs but fewer wins next season could turn out to be palatable if the Clippers can reel in some difference-makers with those max salary slots. Until then, Ballmer’s team will be challenged to put on as good a show as he does.