Steve Ballmer: Just Your Average, Everyday Billionaire Who Saved the Clippers

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterOctober 30, 2014

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

BELLEVUE, Wash. — One of the ways Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer connects the dots from his old world to his new one is how deeply both sets of people are into their stuff.   

"Tech's a little weird," Ballmer said. "If we made sofa covers at Microsoft, I wouldn't know about passionate customers. But tech guys are a little more similar to sports guys. They have their religious biases and their camps and their traditions."

Precious few of the fanatical folks—whether software engineers immersed in code or face-painting fans at the arenas—take a normal conversation, however, and break suddenly out mid-sentence and TALK LIKE THIS!

Ballmer describes himself as an "effervescent, positive guy." That's like saying he isn't low on cash.

When Ballmer gets himself revved up, as the tech sector knows and the sports world is learning, he bursts into a cross between Mark Cuban and John Madden. (For the record, Ballmer's description of Cuban? "Quite energetic.")   

"He is the most enthusiastic person I've ever met," commissioner Adam Silver recently told B/R. "I sat with him at a Clippers game before he bought the team, and he was bellowing so loud, people kept looking around, like, what's that noise emanating from my row, and it was Steve yelling and screaming with crazy enjoyment and enthusiasm."

Sitting inside the floor-to-ceiling windows in his 40th-floor penthouse office condo that Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson might've been a step slower than Ballmer in buying, Ballmer has reached one of those moments when the ice in his tea pinballs inside the glass and his baby blues begin to bug out…

He has flashed back to eighth grade, a meaningful formative moment rising out of all the data and analysis in that big brain, and he's already grinning and guffawing and rambling, "I remember the day…it's so vivid in my mind..."

He was not a good athlete. He was running track in hopes of slimming down but also because he enjoyed being part of a team.

"Every day, every practice, every race, everything, I came in last," he said. "Dead last."

But then...

"One day, coach blows the whistle. The other kids are goofing around. They don't take off. I was probably 80 or 100 yards out—of the 400 or so—before they ever started."

Ballmer is so excited he throws in irrelevant details ("you had to be 14 in the state of Michigan to run the quarter-mile"), and he gets ahead of himself as he remembers the dirt trail and the little creek and then the tree. By the time he finishes the story, he'll be wheezing as if he has actually run because he has been laughing so hard.

Though a strong believer in the value of teamwork, Ballmer has long trusted his own decisions no matter the outside perception.
Though a strong believer in the value of teamwork, Ballmer has long trusted his own decisions no matter the outside perception.Jeff Chiu/Associated Press/Associated Press

"The tree was maybe 40 yards from the end," he said. "Everybody had caught me by the tree. Everybody had caught me BY THE TREE!"

But they wouldn't pass him, not on that day.

"These two guys—the quarterback of the football team and this greaser who was still on the track team—they say, 'Anybody who passes him, we're gonna kick your ass.' They wanted me to have my one moment in the sun. They liked me, even though I was just about the worst guy on the track team. Chris Pagnucco and Mike Zazo.

"And nobody passed me. I won one. It was as hard as I'd ever gone—just to win one. And I had AN 80-YARD HEAD START!"

However many billions of dollars he has now (Forbes estimates his worth at $22.2 billion), however many lives he has streamlined through his work innovation, it's the sort of moment that stands above.

Better than regular life.

In Ballmer's case, it's doubly meaningful because the path was cleared by his people skills—the real reason, beyond his perfect score on the math portion of the SAT or his perfect timing with Microsoft in the early 1980s, that Ballmer has made his life into such a success.

Now Ballmer, 58, is in search of something similar to that day at East Junior High in Farmington, Michigan.

Maybe Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, the guys Ballmer calls perhaps two of the top five players in basketball today, are about to set him up for his next moment.

Indeed, same as Chris Pagnucco and Mike Zazo, they have reason to believe in Ballmer.

Blake Griffin and his Clippers teammates have publically expressed great enthusiasm for Ballmer's arrival to L.A.
Blake Griffin and his Clippers teammates have publically expressed great enthusiasm for Ballmer's arrival to L.A.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

There would not be many more personal sports highlights.

The 1988 marathon he finished in four-and-a-half hours definitely qualifies, but the pounding of training took its toll. Ballmer will lift up the bottom of his pants to show you how one ankle bows in now.

"That's pre-arthritic," he said. "I try not to run at all."

So the outside shot that used to be pretty decent has lost its pop. Oh, how he used to love backing in and hitting his little hook shot. ("I've got a big butt.")

The bum ankle definitely means no more pickup basketball, as used to be part of his ritual at 6 a.m. every Wednesday morning.

"It was a lot of fun," he said. "It was A LOT OF FUN!"

But Ballmer has long been able to find fun in tracking sports, too.

Long before he got his Seattle SuperSonics season tickets in the late '80s, he made $12 a game to count rebounds and assists at the scorer's table for the Harvard basketball team. And he was big into APBA, the stats-based, dice-rolling game that was one of the antecedents to fantasy sports of today. Ballmer played the basketball, football and especially baseball versions.

He grew up following the hometown Detroit Pistons most, and when Microsoft business sent him back there three years ago for a meeting with former Pistons great and current Detroit mayor Dave Bing…

"For me that's DYING AND GOING TO HEAVEN!" Ballmer said. "Ha ha!"

Bing, the Microsoft search engine, is not actually a tribute to the former Piston, but just talking to Ballmer offers a pretty encyclopedic picture of basketball history. It is evident that talking about it warms him, too.

Connie Ballmer's love of basketball helped convince her husband to focus on acquiring an NBA team.
Connie Ballmer's love of basketball helped convince her husband to focus on acquiring an NBA team.Francois Mori/Associated Press/Associated Press

"I was into it as a kid," he said. "Every Christmas, it was always the Celtics on TV on Christmas Day. I remember the floors. I remember fighting with my mother and dad whether I got to watch, because there was always family stuff to do—and I wanted to watch the game. It was always the Celtics."

If you're getting the feeling that he's kind of an everyman sports guy except for the genius part and being ranked Forbes' 32nd-richest person in the world, he is.

Ballmer's love for basketball was sparked anew when his oldest son played basketball instead of football.

"You follow your kids a little bit," Ballmer said. "That gets you switched on."

And if there's a real reason why Ballmer now owns an NBA team instead of an NFL team, maybe it's this simple one: "My wife really likes basketball a lot better than football."

Make no mistake, though. He is fascinated by basketball for the same reason he knew early on he wanted to take his extreme intellect in the direction of building groups and businesses: the people.

"Basketball's kind of unique," he said. "You don't play with helmets, so you can really see the facial expressions. There's a little more human drama, human emotion. You've got more independent decisions you have to make."

For as much as Ballmer likes team games, there is something about playing golf now and depending on no one else. He is aware of the focus on himself and Bill Gates as the tech world's Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. He can joke about having to "go a little toe-to-toe with our board" to get Microsoft's acquisition of Nokia, the mobile company, done.

"I'm not the greatest at working deliberately in collaboration with others," he said.

He owns the Clippers all by himself, untethered.

Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates.
Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates.TED S. WARREN/Associated Press/Associated Press

"When I ran Microsoft, you could say I felt accountable only to myself, and of course there were tens of thousands of shareholders that I was accountable to!" he said, laughing. "But the thing I learned there was, you've got to be 'to thine own self be true.' And if your shareholders don't like it, they should remove you.

"In this case with the Clippers, there's only one shareholder. That's me. And so...TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE!"

Ballmer has already ignored the advice of Microsoft cohort/Portland Trail Blazers owner/good friend Paul Allen to have a separate head coach and general manager, going all in to extend Doc Rivers' contract as coach and president of the Clippers' basketball operations through 2019.

Rivers said it wasn't a complex negotiation. It went like this:

Ballmer: "I want to give you more years."

Rivers: "OK."

Rivers' explanation is similarly simple. Having traded Donald Sterling for Ballmer, Rivers sees the job differently.

"Now with the new ownership, it just felt like that's something you want to be a part of," Rivers said.

Said Ballmer: "When you lose confidence, you've got to change the people. I'm lucky. Somehow I was birthed into a situation that has one of the most awesome basketball leaders and basketball minds around in Doc Rivers, and I feel very fortunate about that."

Doc Rivers' contract extension talks with Ballmer didn't involve much negotiation.
Doc Rivers' contract extension talks with Ballmer didn't involve much negotiation.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

It was Allen who has long been lobbying Ballmer to own a team—and publicly vouched for Ballmer in a statement before the sale was finalized: "Steve Ballmer would make an excellent owner for the Los Angeles Clippers. I encouraged him to consider acquiring an NBA team because of his strong passion for the game."

It's not unlike how then-Lakers owner Jerry Buss once upon a time encouraged Sterling to join the fraternity of NBA owners, ironically.

Ballmer remembers Allen's specific words as they flew together to watch the Blazers and Pistons in the 1990 NBA Finals: "You'll love it, Steve. You'll have fun."

Ballmer didn't seriously consider it for a long time because he had "a very full-time job." Also, his kids were still young—and he recalls David Stern telling him once: "Unless you're OK having people come up to your kids at brunch and complain about what their dad is doing with the team, you shouldn't own a team."

Ballmer tried to support the Sonics staying in Seattle but wasn't willing to be a front man. With his company exit planned, Ballmer was sitting courtside at a University of Washington basketball game (three seats down from Bill Russell, Ballmer is giddy to add) in early January and received an email about pursuing the Milwaukee Bucks. Ballmer still initially said no because it "felt wrong" to pursue it while still CEO of Microsoft.

Come February, though, Ballmer was huddling with NBA commissioner Adam Silver and being told not to expect expansion or a move to Seattle.

"I started counting, 'Which are the teams closest to Seattle?' And Milwaukee, actually, that's not bad," Ballmer said. "That's eighth closest to Seattle!"

Shelly Sterling agreed to sell the Clippers to Ballmer for a record $2 billion after her husband, Donald, was recorded making racially insensitive remarks.
Shelly Sterling agreed to sell the Clippers to Ballmer for a record $2 billion after her husband, Donald, was recorded making racially insensitive remarks.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Ballmer hopped into pursuit of the league's lowest-valued franchise, but it wasn't until the Sterling controversy arose, and with it grander opportunity in Los Angeles, that something truly felt like a fit.

"I just had to take this one," Ballmer said. "No matter what."

Ballmer liked the warmer weather and the safety from people wanting to talk tech deals with him. He actually spent three of the most unsuccessful months of his life living in L.A., a young man idling before going on to the Stanford Graduate School of Business, "because I thought I wanted to be in the movie business."

This time around, Ballmer is at a slightly different place in life than parking cars at charity auctions and reading scripts for free and networking out of need.

He is not, however, any less ambitious.

Not that many people can pull off an I'm-so-friggin'-rich-and-happy laugh. Sterling sure couldn't.

Yet there is nothing villainous about Ballmer as he revels in his confidence that the Clippers are "more likely than not, worth $2 billion plus some appreciation." His joy over this unique new toy is pure.

Ballmer led Microsoft for 14 years after Bill Gates handed over the reins to the company in 2000.
Ballmer led Microsoft for 14 years after Bill Gates handed over the reins to the company in 2000.Joerg Sarbach/Associated Press/Associated Press

"It's an investment of money," Ballmer said. "Most people won't understand that, can't get that. But the truth is people usually don't lose money on sports teams, net, with the way these teams appreciate. It's different than buying something that gets used up and you have nothing left. This is a valuable asset.

"It's not just a fun way to spend money; you might actually make money—and have fun. The notion that you make money and have fun, that's mind-blowing. But people miss that. You can MAKE MONEY AND HAVE FUN!"

Winning, naturally, is the most fun. Even Sterling started to realize that in the final stages of his 30-year Clippers ownership, increasing the payroll and actually taking a slight luxury tax hit for the first time ever last season.

Ballmer has all sorts of ideas to gain ground on the Lakers in the local market—although Ballmer has to thank Buss for that $5 billion, 25-year Lakers regional TV deal establishing a sweet market when the Clippers' deal is up in two years (when Kobe Bryant is planning to retire). The most fundamental way the Clippers under Ballmer will challenge the Lakers is spending as much money as necessary to put out a great product.

Ballmer, actually, was a little chagrined when he figured out definitively that today's NBA, under the latest collective bargaining agreement, is such a long way from the one Buss used to dominate in large part because of his dollars.

"It's not like trading baseball cards in the old days or even playing fantasy," Ballmer said. "Because of the cap and everything else, you don't have infinite flexibility in what to do. Turns out, [it] doesn't give you as much flexibility as I might have thought.

"It gives you a chance to spend more money on your own guys. It doesn't give you a chance to go get other guys' guys with great flexibility. You have to have cleared flexibility to do that, even if you're willing to pay. It's actually more important to be smart than it is to be generous under the system.… It's weird relative even to what I was thinking, even though I'd studied the thing a little bit."

Ballmer's introduction as the Clippers' new owner overshadowed the presence of his players at the team's fan fest over the summer.
Ballmer's introduction as the Clippers' new owner overshadowed the presence of his players at the team's fan fest over the summer.Jeff Gross/Getty Images

What is safe to say is that the Clippers' days as the penny-pinchers of the sports world are over. They will be a true large-market team, something Ballmer was already ribbing small-market Allen about when they watched the Clippers-Blazers Oct. 12 exhibition game in Portland together.

Ballmer may be a rookie owner, but he also stands as America's wealthiest sports owner.

"The average fan thinks the brute force of what you're willing to spend matters more than it does," Ballmer said. "I don't think the brute force matters as much as I wish it did, almost."

Besides building up the Clippers fan experience as soon as possible (renting out Universal Studios Hollywood for a night for Clippers season ticket holders was one preseason perk) and being an outsized head cheerleader ("if you're not being bold, you're being timid—and the L.A. Clippers are GOING TO BE BOLD!" he hooted at an offseason fan rally), there's something else.

It makes just as much sense as benefiting from Ballmer's wallet.

Asked about the game heading increasingly in the direction of advanced statistical metrics, basically his spreadsheet-mastery wheelhouse, Ballmer uncharacteristically doesn't say much...which is telling.

"I have played with the analytic tools. Yes, I have," he said. "I'll know those numbers very well."

Ballmer readily acknowledges the Clippers venture does not prevent him from doing something bigger and better with his time and money now.

"I'd like to try to understand the opportunity for civic contribution for somebody who is not a politician but has some time, some energy, some brains and some means," he said.

He does not shout the last part, but his "means" are well understood.

To that end, Ballmer is taking meetings, reading books and tooling around on his Microsoft Surface tablet to figure out how he can meaningfully help the world from his place in it.

"I'm more of a save-the-world person than Ballmer is," his wife Connie recently told Forbes, "so I need him to catch up with me. It's all really new for him."

He is well aware, though, how powerful this other little part-time venture with the Clippers could be along that landscape of change.

"I think people are kind of rooting for us," Ballmer said. "They're rooting for the guys who had to go through what these guys had to go through; they're rooting for good things for them.

"Has nothing to do with me. Whoever came in, unless they were screwball, people wanted to root for this team based upon the fact that people in America aspire for the place to be better than the environment these guys were in."

He is a salesman with a heck of a product to push.

But it's about more than that with Ballmer. It always has been.

He's a people person, and his real business is encouraging like-minded optimism.

Whether you embrace him as a flamboyant frat brother or respect him as a gifted intellectual, whether you're the quarterback of the football team or a working-class kid with goop in your hair, there's a place on his team for you—and vice versa.

His team is now the Clippers, and his fun with them is just beginning.

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.


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