Steve Ballmer owned the stage. He held a microphone in his hand, but he didn’t need it. His voice filled the room. It was a party, Ballmer was the host and everyone was going to hear him.
He begged fans to get loud, to get out of their seats and to make some noise. He clapped his hands together harder and more violently than anyone else under that roof.
He praised last year’s team, but talked about wanting more. He lusted after the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy. That was the goal, the standard to which the Clippers would be judged.
As Ballmer yelled, Doc Rivers laughed while the team’s all-NBA players smiled and smirked, seduced by the multi-billionaire’s energy.
He did all of these things nearly five years ago when Ballmer first introduced himself to the city as the Clippers’ savior, his $2 billion purchase from Donald Sterling the first step in a desperately needed organizational cleansing.
It’s why Wednesday felt so familiar, a room soaked in optimism and promise loving every Ballmer exclamation. But this wasn’t just the celebration of a high-priced acquisition or two – this was the Clippers’ governor celebrating the organization’s validation and growth.
Forget the notecards and the prepared remarks, Ballmer thought. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are Clippers.
“Pretty cool. Pretty damn cool,” he said before unleashing his inner Ric Flair. “Wooooooooo!”
As much as Wednesday was about Rivers regaining his reputation as a championship-level coach after two-straight expectation-defying seasons, or the Clippers finally taking advantage of their desirable zip code in ways they couldn’t with free agents Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Kevin Durant, this was more about Ballmer and the power of ownership, the positive impact the person signing the checks can have on his investment.
Ballmer’s catchphrases – remember, it wasn’t too long ago when the former Microsoft exec uttered the word “relentless” at every chance – finally came to fruition on the court after the Clippers shed the superstars that laughed and smirked with him five years ago.
The Chris Paul trade loaded up the Clippers with three valuable role players in Patrick Beverley, the Clippers’ heartbeat, and expert bench scorers Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell. That deal two summers ago helped the Clippers redefine themselves as a “blacktop team” – the kind that would do anything just to keep the next five from taking their place on the court.
“It’s how I play,” Leonard said.
The Clippers’ on-court attitude, particularly last season when they put their chest directly into the Golden State Warriors’ and surprised the defending champions in a competitive first-round series, caught George’s attention, too.
But the Clippers’ couldn’t have gotten to the six-time All-Star without Blake Griffin and the haul they got for him – and the haul they later got for Tobias Harris, who was in the original Griffin deal along with the first-round pick that turned into Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
While the Paul deal was a no-brainer,the Griffin and Harris trades took real guts and confidence that Lawrence Frank and the Clippers’ deep front-office roster could turn those assets into something special.
But before that chance could come, the Clippers made do with what they had, creating the kind of team stars like Leonard and George wanted to be a part of – something the Clippers did more out of necessity than out of brilliance.
When the Lakers added LeBron James last summer and Anthony Davis earlier this month, general manager Rob Pelinka built the roster around the stars, speaking to them about the right kinds of players to fill out the roster around the All-NBA guys.
The Clippers approach was different. It relied on Beverley’s grit, Williams’ scoring, Harrell’s intensity, Landry Shamet’s shooting and everything that made last year’s team special in the hopes of landing their top targets.
“You could just see their connection on the court, everybody on the same page, everybody pulling for one another, everybody elevated their games,” George said. “To be part of that camaraderie, to be a part of what they already had and sprinkle in what we have to offer, that’s what made it such an attractive spot.”
Five years ago when Ballmer led a fan rally to announce his presence, he made a vow.
“We’re going to be bold,” Ballmer said. “…Bold means we’re going to be willing to take risks.”
The Clippers’ bright future? It’s limited now. Their best young player and their best draft picks have been routed to Oklahoma City to acquire George and ensure that Leonard would come on board. It’s a risk, but it was the kind of risk Ballmer was always going to take.
As the introductions began Wednesday, Ballmer sat on stage, energy flowing through his veins. He snarled a little and rocked forwards in his chair as Frank and Rivers talked about the team that would be on the court next season, one that should give the Clippers their best chance at winning a NBA title.
And like a bull inside the chute, when it was his turn, he busted through the gates, showing the enthusiasm and passion that has the Clippers in the best position they’ve ever been in.
“You don’t think we’re going to win some ballgames this year with Paul and Kawhi on our team? We’re going to win some ballgames,” he said. “There’s only a few games we need to win. This last game played during the NBA season, that’s the game we gotta win.”