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The Los Angeles Clippers haven’t had many — or rather, any — moments that would qualify as a seminal achievement for a franchise that entered the NBA as the Buffalo Braves 44 years ago. And until the Clippers can finally hang their own championship banner inside the building they share with a franchise that owns 16 titles, expunging Donald Sterling and replacing him with new owner Steve Ballmer will have to suffice.
At no other point has the team been filled with such promise and opportunity.
Despite his kicking, screaming and courtroom swinging, Sterling is no longer the face of the team he embarrassingly ran for four decades until a recorded phone conversation captured his hateful, racially inflammatory comments and resulted in his ouster from the NBA.
On Tuesday, the league announced that Ballmer, the former Microsoft chief executive, had closed the deal on his record $2 billion purchase and is now owner of the team. Ballmer takes over at a time when the Clippers are perfectly positioned to flourish on the court and become more profitable away from it.
Sterling’s past frugality, poor treatment of his players and former employees — and even worse handling of tenants of his housing developments — gave the impression his only contribution to the Clippers over the years was in opening his mouth to make a few irresponsible comments to V. Stiviano. But Sterling actually leaves with the franchise in its best state since he purchased it in 1981.
All-stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are both signed to maximum-salaried contracts for the next four years. Doc Rivers, one of just four active coaches to take a team to an NBA championship, is calling the shots on the floor and in charge of basketball operations as team president. The Clippers opened a practice facility in 2009 that is the envy of many around the league. And they now have an owner whose passion and enthusiasm has been captured on YouTube in those maniacal screams and sprints at company pep rallies for Microsoft. In a statement released by the team, Ballmer stated he will be “hard core” in giving the team what it needs to be successful.
Though the Clippers would basically need a decades-long run that is the exact opposite of the Sterling era to even think of approaching the historical and cultural significance of the Lakers, Ballmer’s new team has never been more relevant, more discussed and more primed to claim this current era as its own.
After winning the Pacific Division and at least 50 games for the second year in a row, the Clippers have focused on much bigger goals than just being the best team in Los Angeles. Jack Nicholson attended a playoff game last year, so that pretty much settles that. But with Kobe Bryant’s mammoth contract limiting the Lakers’ ability to improve over the next few years and this past summer proving that stars are more attracted to winning than the glitz of purple and gold, the Clippers won’t have to worry about being usurped in the standings or passed in the championship chase by their hometown rival any time soon.
Other than the three times they won the No. 1 overall pick, the three other times they advanced to the conference semifinals and the one time that former NBA commissioner and recent Hall of Fame inductee David Stern decided that they – and not the crosstown Lakers – would receive Chris Paul via trade, the Clippers haven’t had much to celebrate. Since one-fifth of the franchise’s playoff appearances have occurred in the past two seasons and the Clippers have managed to remain a running punchline even in good times, a few have pushed for Ballmer to change the Clippers’ name. But sustained success under Ballmer could certainly change the perception of the Clippers’ name — a monumental and lasting achievement given the team’s dubious history. Undoing years of failure, years of second-tier treatment, years of Donald Sterling — that could be Ballmer’s legacy. Given all that has happened the past five months, that could be the greatest victory of them all.
Sterling based his identity on owning the Clippers because it provided him, at least in his own mind, a level of prestige that couldn’t have come simply by being a billionaire. NBA commissioner Adam Silver knew which punishment would hurt most when he handed out a $2.5 million fine and a lifetime banishment in the immediate aftermath of those TMZ released tapes.
During his regrettable reign, Sterling wasn’t upset that people made fun of the Clippers so long as they were talking about them. He could live with the ridicule if he continued to have his courtside seat and post-game locker room access.
The financial windfall that comes with Ballmer’s purchase couldn’t compensate for the attention and adulation that came with owning one of 30 teams that bottles and sells cool. For that reason, Sterling will continue his fight in court but he can only assume damages; he can never reclaim the team after a judge shut down his attempt to block the sale last month.
The Clippers are finally at the forefront, prepared to leave behind a less-than-glorious past while Sterling has been reduced to background noise. As Rivers said in the statement, “This is an amazing new day in Clippers history.”