Column: A bold-school Steve Ballmer steals show at Clippers’ Fan Festival
He entered from the stands, swaggering into Staples Center through the crowd like a prizefighter in dress slacks, pinstripe shirt and Clippers cap.
A rap song screamed and the balding middle-aged man screamed with it, weaving through stunned and laughing fans with high-fives, fist pumps, chest bumps and gyrations.
He was a human Lob City, a guy who leapt on the stage and threw down thunderous alley-oop cheers and promises and faith. He was part weird, part inspirational and, quite wonderfully, all Clipper.
Meet Screamin’ Steve Ballmer, the Wolf of Figueroa Street.
“We’re going to be hard core! Hard core! Hard core!”
“We’re going to keep coming and coming and coming and coming and coming!”
The song that accompanied the new owner’s official introduction at the team’s Fan Festival on Monday afternoon was Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” and that is exactly what Ballmer did, the former Microsoft executive disappearing into the form of a sweating, cheering, desperate fan who just happened to fork over $2 billion to actually buy the team.
He lost himself, but surely found the respect of a Clippers nation that can finally unite outside the shadow of the deplorable Donald Sterling and under the spotlight of a guy who is just as loud and loony as they are.
“Nothing gets in our way! Nothing gets in our way!”
“Boom! Keep coming! The hard-core Clippers, that’s us.”
“If you’re not being bold, you’re being timid, and the L.A. Clippers are going to be bold!”
During an hourlong event that featured appearances by Coach Doc Rivers, eight Clippers players and even Mayor Eric Garcetti, Ballmer stole the show with a boldness that included everything from a guaranteed victory to a gratuitous shot at the Lakers.
In referring to the team’s opening-night game Oct. 30 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team that was transplanted from his beloved Seattle, he shouted, “I’m going to love beating the old Seattle basketball team, get our first win in the first game of the year.”
In reading an email from a fan, he paused to allow some of the several thousand fans to fill in the blanks.
“Clipper fans can’t stand….” he said.
“The Lakers!” several voices shouted.
“You got it,” he said.
Throughout it all, he repeatedly led the crowd in cheers for the Larry O’Brien NBA championship trophy.
“I love.…" he screamed.
“Larry!” the fans shouted.
In all, it was perhaps the most bizarre yet appropriate introduction for an owner in this town’s history. The players seated on the stage, including stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, looked as bemused as inspired. The post-rally buzz from Lakers fans was typically negative, with Ballmer’s rant being compared to those of the late Chris Farley’s Matt Foley character from “Saturday Night Live.”
Certainly, at times Ballmer came across as awkward and overbearing. Indeed, it felt strange to welcome the new owner of a championship-type professional basketball team with a high school pep rally.
But of all the things that might have been lacking Monday, one thing existed in abundance. It was unabashed Clippers pride. For the first time, it seemed as if the Clippers were embraced not as the second team in town, but as the only team in town.
There was enough pride that they filled up the lower bowl end zone on a Monday in the middle of August — “It was awesome, I was shocked, I really was,” said Rivers. “In the middle of the summer, no basketball going on?”
There was pride reflected in Garcetti’s talking as if this were a one-team town, saying, “Today we are one city united behind the Los Angeles Clippers.”
More than anything, there was pride in ridding themselves of the pathetic Hollywood groupie Sterling and welcoming a nutty tech nerd who really thinks their favorite team is worth $2 billion. In following Ballmer, Clippers fans can drop any notion that their team should be imitating the Lakers and finally celebrate their differences.
“You’ve been here all along … but now we can actually say, ‘We’re Clippers,’” said Rivers to the crowd.
Now, of course, Ballmer must back up this enthusiasm with the smarts to allow Rivers to run the basketball operation without interference. He should start with taking Rivers’ advice and pick his courtside seat on the other side of the court from the Clippers instead of behind their bench, which is where the NBA’s other wildly enthusiastic owner, Mark Cuban, sits when watching his Dallas Mavericks.
“I don’t know if I can take that energy,” Rivers said.
Ballmer must also listen to Rivers and resist any urge to change the name of the team, a possibility he left open during the post-rally news conference. In one breath he said, “Why would you take the hottest brand in basketball and change it?” but then added that he would “listen” to other ideas.
Rivers perfectly explained why the name should not be changed, noting that history will not accurately reflect the difficulty of their journey if they lose their identity.
“You also look at it like, it’s a name of survival,” Rivers said. “We’ve gone through a lot of stuff. If we do it right, the name can stand for something.”
On one of the oddest yet most inspiring days in franchise history, that name stood, and screamed, and clapped, and beamed. A history of shame has been replaced with a boisterous hope. Thirty years after Donald Sterling brought the Clippers to Los Angeles, perhaps they are finally here.
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