LOS ANGELES — April 29, 2014 feels like a distant memory now for the Los Angeles Clippers and their fans, and not just because that day came four months ago.
That was the day that thousands of Clippers fans shuffled ambivalently through LA Live, past angry protesters and into Staples Center for Game 5 of the team's first-round playoff series against the Golden State Warriors—their first home game in the aftermath of Donald Sterling's explosive comments hitting the airwaves and sending shockwaves throughout the world.
Some were dressed in black that day. Others wore shirts denouncing the Clippers' now-former owner. Everyone had something different to say about Sterling, the team and the NBA's response to the controversy.
All of that seemed little more than the remnants of a bygone era on Monday, Aug. 18, 2014. Just about every Clippers fan who streamed out of Staples Center after the team's Fan Festival on this day had nothing but glowing reviews for the owner.
Not Sterling, of course, but former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.
"I thought that Steve Ballmer was just superb and enthusiastic and wonderful," said Aisha Mori, a Clippers fan since 2004.
The Clippers themselves, including head coach Doc Rivers, referred to the Sterling debacle that resulted in his long-overdue ouster as "The Clutter" during the proceedings.
The franchise was nothing if not "cluttered" during the Clippers' second-round playoff run: cluttered with curious media reporting on a story that touched on a lot more than just sports, with fans, players and staff who weren't sure how to feel and with controversy unlike any the NBA had yet seen.
That clutter was gone, replaced by a clarity of vision, purpose and passion brought to bear by Ballmer. His romp of high fives and chest bumps through the crowd on the way to the podium couldn't have been more different than what Clippers fans came to expect from Donald Sterling in his public courtside appearances.
"He's amazing," Martin Fuentes, a season ticket holder since 2009, said of Ballmer. "He definitely energizes a crowd, definitely a real fan and [I'm] looking forward to the next season."
Such words would've seemed not only unusual, but downright ludicrous if spoken about a Clippers owner at any point in the past 33 years. Sterling was almost universally reviled by Clipper Nation, forcing fans into an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance in supporting an enterprise that lined his pockets—and will do so even more now, with Ballmer's $2 billion payout enriching the Sterling family trust.
In truth, the Clippers might never be truly cleansed of the residue from the Sterling era. Ballmer sees no need to rename this team, despite its long history of losing for a man who's become persona non grata in America. "The Clippers are the hottest brand in basketball pretty much right now," Ballmer insisted at a press conference after the event.
The Clippers haven't exactly untethered themselves from the tainted Sterling name, either. Shelly Sterling, Donald's estranged wife, squeezed plenty of perks out of the deal she helped usher along, including a pair of courtside seats and the title of "Clippers No. 1 Fan" (h/t ESPNLosAngeles.com's Arash Markazi):
Shelly Sterling's reputation, beyond her official fandom, has also been called into question. According to The Los Angeles Times' Nathan Fenno, Sterling was party to the housing discrimination for which her husband was taken to court by the Federal Housing Administration in 2009:
In a 2009 deposition, a tenant at one of the Sterling’s apartment buildings in Los Angeles County said that Rochelle Sterling called him a “black m—f—” during a discussion at the building.
Ballmer, though, insisted that Shelly's role in this process warranted some sort of salvation. "Without her, this deal does not get done," Ballmer said.
Indeed, it was Shelly's victory over Donald during a recent probate trial in Los Angeles Superior Court that paved the way for Ballmer to take control of the team.
Even with Shelly's ongoing involvement, much has changed for the franchise's identity since those fateful days in late April.
"It's almost like now they can say it and be proud of it, and I'm happy for them," Rivers said about those Clippers faithful who were wary of touting their fandom during those troubled times.
To that effect, Clippers fans have nothing to worry about now. Ballmer reiterated that he won't be moving the team closer to his home in the Pacific Northwest. "Seattle is not where the Clippers are going to play," he said.
Instead, he hopes to be leading "I love Larry" chants—many of which he led during the Fan Festival—down Figueroa Street. The "Larry" in question is the Larry O'Brien Trophy, which is awarded to the NBA Finals champion every year.
If there's any concern about Ballmer, it's his lack of experience in the basketball world. "Everyone has more experience in what they're doing than I do in what I'm doing," Ballmer added.
Then again, he's not unfamiliar with the NBA as an enterprise, to say the least, not after trying to move the Sacramento Kings to Seattle in 2013.
More importantly, Ballmer seems to have the fire and the drive to cement the Clippers' burgeoning spot on the basketball map. Time and again, he used the word "hardcore" to describe his approach to his latest enterprise.
"I love basketball," Ballmer went on. "My passion, in a sense, is for things I get involved with."
"I won't be able to watch the Clippers dispassionately because I care. I'm involved."
Which the Clippers and their fans never could and certainly won't say now about their former owner...what was his name again?
A distant memory—that's what.
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