Thu 23 Apr 2015
Clippers owner Steve Ballmer greets the fans as he is introduced at their home court at Staples Center in Los Angeles. Photo: Wally Skalij
Speaking last month to a few hundred MBA students at the University of Southern California, Steven A. Ballmer, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, broke into verse.
He recited a snippet of a song from the Broadway musical “Pippin”: “Rivers belong where they can ramble. Eagles belong where they can fly. I’ve got to be where my spirit can run free. Got to find my corner of the sky.”
It’s sort of a privilege, sort of a duty, sort of a burden. How do I make a difference?
Ballmer sensed his audience was more attuned to cloud computing, which he seeded while running Microsoft, than to Stephen Schwartz’s “Corner of the Sky.” And so he supplied some context, explaining how Pippin, the son of King Charlemagne, engaged in a lifelong quest for fulfillment.
Ballmer might have been talking about himself. Retired from Microsoft, where he was employed for 34 years, the last 14 as its chief executive, Ballmer has spent the first several months of his retirement pondering how to grow a personal legacy through philanthropy.
“What is it like to be rich beyond belief?” a student asked him.
Ballmer, a billionaire, answered: “It’s sort of a privilege, sort of a duty, sort of a burden. How do I make a difference?”
Eleven months ago, Ballmer won a bidding war for the Clippers. He bought the franchise for $US2 billion in what was considered part business transaction, part act of beneficence, after the Clippers’ longtime owner, Donald Sterling, incurred a lifetime ban by the NBA for making racist comments that were recorded and made public.
The official transfer in August of the team to Ballmer, whose Swiss-born father worked for the US Army as an interpreter in the Nuremberg war crimes trials, was seen as a clean break from the Clippers’ desultory past. In Ballmer, 59, the team acquired a loud and proud leader. He was more inclined to show his enthusiasm than his navel, unlike Sterling, who at Ballmer’s age was still wearing shirts unbuttoned to his waist.
Phoenix Suns forward Reggie Bullock said Ballmer drew attention in his own way on game nights.
“He has a very distinctive voice,” said Bullock, who was a Clipper until a trade in January. “It sounds like he’s howling at the moon.”
With his manic enthusiasm and deep pockets, Ballmer was going to swoop in and pry Los Angeles from its decades-long love affair with the Lakers. That was the plan, anyway. But even though the Clippers finished with 35 more victories than the Lakers, they trailed their fellow Staples Center tenants in the local regular-season ratings.
The Clippers are a reflection of their new owner, all right. But it is not the goofy, giddy guy seen gyrating like a giant inflatable tube man near his baseline seat – most memorably during a January halftime performance by the singer Fergie that prompted real estate mogul Donald Trump to describe Ballmer as “an embarrassment to rich people.”
Ballmer emphasized to the USC students the need to be “tenacious and hard core” in the pursuit of their goals. It is a message his team seems to have absorbed. Matt Barnes and Blake Griffin were fourth and fifth in the NBA in technical fouls in the regular season with a combined 25. Nine Clippers had more technical fouls than any single player on the San Antonio Spurs, their first-round playoff opponent. The Clippers beat the Spurs, the defending NBA champions, in the opening game of the best-of-seven series. Game 2 is Wednesday night.
Ballmer commutes to games from his home in Seattle. He travels by private jet, explaining, “Time is our most precious commodity, and there are conveniences that wealth brings to essentially get you more time.”
It is one of Ballmer’s few outward displays of wealth. His wardrobe is more J.C. Penney than J.Crew. The security guard standing outside the Clippers’ locker room during one homestand marveled at how effortlessly Ballmer blended into the crowd on game nights.
For the mathematically gifted Ballmer, sports have always served as his main medium of communication. In high school, he said, the first varsity letter he earned was in track.
“The coach gave me one in 10th grade,” he said, “because a guy had made a scoring error and deprived us of a point. I was helping out as the manager and I discovered the error and the coach said, ‘I guess you scored a point for us in a meet,’ and gave me a letter.”
Harking back to his days as the manager of his high school basketball team, Ballmer sometimes attends Clippers practices and retrieves basketballs for the players during drills.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Doc Rivers, the Clippers’ coach, said. “The guy’s worth $US24 billion. I have to think if I had $US24 billion I probably would be different. I hope not, but I probably would be. He’s the most normal $US24 billion guy I know.”
At Microsoft, Ballmer was known as a charismatic speaker, the P.T. Barnum of the techie set.
During one company meeting at Safeco Field, he saw an employee snapping a picture with an iPhone from Apple, a competitor. He confiscated it and playfully pretended to stomp on it in a scene caught on the baseball park’s giant video screen.
In front of a roomful of people, Ballmer is at his communicative best: funny, engaging, expressive. In a sit-down interview in January, Ballmer rocked back and forth in his chair with his arms held stiffly at his sides as he answered questions.
Ballmer refused to make his wife, Connie, or three sons available to be interviewed. He also declared his youngest son’s high school basketball games off-limits to a reporter.
“Sports is the easiest thing for me to bond with the kids over,” he said. “Academically, I probably grind them a little more.”
After their games, Ballmer said, there is what he described as “the debrief,” which is a sacrosanct part of the drive home. He said: “I’ll ask, Where do you want to start? Are we going to start with the team’s performance, or your performance? Offense or defense? Then we go through the team, we go through him, every kid, how we think he did.”
Ballmer added, “The debrief of the game in our family is always as important as the game itself.”
With the Clippers, Ballmer took a more hands-off approach.
“He’ll say, ‘Is it all right to come in and say hi?'” Rivers said. “And I say: ‘You’re the owner. You can barge in.’ And I mean that. I tell him all the time, he made an incredible commitment. I want him to enjoy it. I want him to come and do whatever he wants. I want to hear his opinion. He’s smarter than me.”
Blue collar roots
Ballmer was raised outside Detroit, where his father, Frederic, was a manager at Ford Motor Co.
“When he was up, he was up,” Ballmer said of his father. “When he was mad, you knew it.”
He chuckled. “I think I’m a little like my dad. When I’m up, I’m up. When I’m down, I’m down.”
His family lived comfortably, he said, but was not well-off. He said he was able to attend private school with the help of academic scholarships.
“My dad was an immigrant who came here with nothing and worked his way up as a payroll clerk for Ford,” Ballmer said. “I’m going to guess he probably maxed out around $US45,000 a year.”
Ballmer said he did not believe his father finished high school.
“He never told us for sure whether he graduated or not,” he said. “Even in his last days, my sister and I tried to get him to ‘fess up.'”
Ballmer said his father spoke rarely of his interactions with the Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg.
“He saw a guy get hanged,” he said. “That did come back to him later in his life. When he was sort of older and closer to his own death, the visualization of seeing this guy hang. …” Ballmer’s voice trailed off.
‘You need to buy this team’
Rivers said he first crossed paths with Ballmer in 2008, during the SuperSonics’ last season in Seattle. Ballmer, a SuperSonics season-ticket holder, had seats next to the visitors’ bench.
When Boston came to town, Rivers, then the coach of the Celtics, said he turned to Ballmer and said, “Hey, you need to buy this team and keep it here.”
“Only if you coach the team,” said Ballmer, Rivers recalled.
“Well, that’s not going to happen,” Rivers said. “That was our introduction to each other.”
Ballmer did not remember the meeting. He clapped gleefully as the story was relayed to him.
“Doc doesn’t make things up,” he said. “That’s not his style.”
One of Ballmer’s first moves as owner was to award Rivers a $US50 million contract extension that runs through the 2018-19 season. Amid the chaos created by Sterling’s racist remarks, Rivers emerged as a calming presence. From his days at Microsoft, Ballmer recognized that he had a strong brand asset in Rivers.
“You’ve got to build an interesting product, have a brand that people can understand, try to build a product that can be successful,” Ballmer said. He added: “There’s a natural shorter product cycle because players get older. I think the notion that you have to be tenacious and hard core really applies. You can’t be ripping things up and starting over again.”
Not an A-team
Ballmer earned his undergraduate degree from Harvard, where he lived down the hall from Bill Gates. Ballmer attended Stanford Graduate School of Business for a year before dropping out to join Microsoft, which Gates had founded along with Paul Allen.
“When I joined Microsoft we were not an ‘A’ team,” Ballmer said. “We were doing some ‘A’ work because we had three ‘A’ players. We weren’t very deep. We had three or four guys, all guys who were amazing, and then we had a bunch of people who were mediocre or worse.”
The same could be said of Ballmer’s Clippers, who have an MVP-caliber player in point guard Chris Paul, a multifaceted offensive player in Griffin and a tough matchup in center DeAndre Jordan. The drop-off in talent after that is precipitous.
“We’re trying to get better,” Ballmer said. “We’ve got some of the most exciting players in the league. Our team is better than it was at the beginning of the year, no question.”
The Clippers are not Ballmer’s first flirtation with Los Angeles. Before he enrolled at Stanford, Ballmer – a second cousin of the comedian Gilda Radner, who died in 1989 – came here with the notion of breaking into the movie business.
“I thought it would fit well with my personality,” Ballmer said.
A summer spent reading scripts and parking cars at private functions for meal money convinced him otherwise.
“I got enough of a flavour to know the movie business probably wasn’t going to be a compelling enough thing for me to not go ahead and go back to Stanford,” he said.
At USC, a student in the audience stepped to the microphone, produced a billed cap and said: “Hi, Steve. How are you doing? I’m going to put this hat on real quick.”
Squinting from the stage, Ballmer said, “It looks good, but what is it?”
“It’s a Warriors hat,” the student smugly replied, referring to the Golden State team, which led the Western Conference in the regular season with 67 wins.
“Next!” Ballmer bellowed. “Go, Clippers! Go home, Warriors!”
The New York Times