You may have heard that Steve Ballmer Monday blew the doors off Staples Center in Los Angeles with weapons-grade bombast. Many a current and former Microsoft employee smirked and shook their heads as their former boss and new owner of the NBA Clippers set off all the ooga horns at his introduction to fans.
“We’re going to be hard core! Hard core! Hard core!” he yelled. “We’re going to keep coming and coming and coming and coming and coming!”
“Nothing gets in our way! Nothing gets in our way!”
“Boom! Keep coming! The hard-core Clippers, that’s us.”
Those fans who didn’t dive under the seats at the sight of the one-man rampage delighted at the antics. So did Microsoft shareholders, who are quietly counting their dubloons after the stock price soared 43 percent since the announcement that he was retiring as strongman after 14 years.
They remember similar lava flows surrounding Ballmer’s 2007 claim that, “No chance that Apple iPhone is going to get any significant market share.”
Beware, Clippers fans, of Ballmer forecasts.
Then again, this is sports, where bombast is coin of the realm. Today’s prediction is tomorrow’s skit on the “Tonight Show” and the world moves on.
Since almost no one has more coin or more bombast than Ballmer, his stewardship is going to be fun to watch, especially for the most misbegotten franchise in modern American sports. It took former commissioner David Stern manipulating the trade of Chris Paul to pull the Clips from the sub-basement of the outhouse. Then they fell back in, temporarily, thanks to human sludge Donald Sterling.
But Ballmer’s petty cash fund of $2 billion rescued the Clips, LA and the NBA from further slime, and raised the equity value of just about every major pro sports franchise a little bit. But in Seattle, the NBA wound opened a little wider.
If there were to be another team in Seattle, Ballmer is the guy the NBA wanted, for all the obvious reasons, some of which were visible in the mist of flying spittle and sweat at Staples Monday. In his brief partnership with Chris Hansen in an attempt to relocate the Kings, Timberwolves and Bucks, Ballmer would have been the face of the franchise that would have replaced the Sonics.
That doesn’t mean Hansen can’t do it with other partners, but the hard road became harder. Hansen did himself no favors within the NBA when he was caught attempting to manipulate a potential vote in Sacramento by giving funds to an anti-arena enterprise. It wasn’t that they were offended by Hansen’s ploy — they probably admired the chutzpah — but they were torqued that he was caught publicly, admitted the misdeed and paid a fine.
In the cutthroat world of pro sports ownership, that was pure amateurism.
But when Sterling’s racist bleats lowered the bar to a shameful new low for owners, they struck quickly via commissioner Adam Silver, banning Sterling for life. Ballmer, with some experience at the hostile takeover, cut his ties with Hansen and swooped in with predatory swiftness.
The $2 billion move astonished the sports world globally, on multiple levels. But here in Seattle, there was historical irony — the two richest guys in town who like sports can’t do anything to bring back the Sonics because they own NBA teams elsewhere.
Another with a basketball jones, Paul Allen, in the 1980s had the same fervor as Ballmer, absent the histronics. But he wasn’t wealthy in 1983, when billboard baron Barry Ackerley bought the Sonics from Sam Schulman. Sometime after Microsoft went public in 1986, Allen was plenty wealthy. But his offer to purchase the team was rejected by Ackerley, who took it as an insult and moved Allen’s season-ticket seats off the Coliseum’s front row.
Allen in 1988 took his millions south and spent 70 of them, then an NBA record, to buy the Portland Trail Blazers from Larry Weinberg. Allen has held them for 25 often-tumultuous years. He came to ultimate success with his 1997 purchase of the Seahawks, but remains unfulfilled in his deepest sports passion.
So next season when the Blazers play the Clippers, there will be more at stake than a win or a loss. It will be a clash of the titans borne of the little software shop in Redmond. Shards of ego will fly so intensely that public safety will be threatened. Allen and Ballmer are reportedly friendly, but this is sports, where both set the standard, a quarter-century apart, for extravagant pursuit of a passion.
Seattle, chin in palm as Hansen tries to get a shovel in SoDo dirt before his children have children, gets to watch. And somewhere, Jay Gatsby is chuckling.