LOS ANGELES — Steve Ballmer has only been owner of the Los Angeles Clippers for roughly two months but the legend of his passion and enthusiasm proceeded him from his days leading technology geek pep rallies as chief executive at Microsoft. Earlier this month, Ballmer was at it again, screeching into the microphone and pumping up the crowd during an event that seemed part campaign stomp, part cleansing ritual for season-ticket holders at Universal Studios.
Ballmer stepped up to the stage with Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” blaring in the background and played up to a fan base eager to end the Donald Sterling era and start anew. His voice started cracking as he described his long-awaited chance to be an NBA owner as, “kind of job, kind of hobby, kind of an adventure.” Unsure if the crowd could hear him, Ballmer got some laughter and applause when he said, “I’ll do without a mic if I have to.”
The excitement Ballmer brings with him is palpable and it has already permeated fans, and more importantly, the team for which he paid a record $2 billion.The Clippers are going to need more than an excitable, big-pocketed owner to bury the franchise’s mostly mediocre history though. And now, with Ballmer’s words serving to perfectly set the stage for the Clippers’ campaign to come, it is up to a ready-made contender to uphold its end of the bargain.
“The only thing we can promise you is we are going to be hardcore, committed. Guys are going to get after it with all their hearts and souls. We are going to do the best anybody knows how to do and keep our fingers crossed for everything else.” – Steve Ballmer
Following a flame-out, a spark
After serving as the Celtics’ mouthpiece after the Boston Marathon bombing rattled his final season in Boston, Clippers Coach Doc Rivers was better prepared than most when it comes to managing a team in the wake of a crisis. But even that on-the-job training couldn’t have prepared Rivers for the release of an audio recording that captured Sterling’s racist diatribe. It forced Rivers to shield his staggered players by speaking on their behalf while dealing with his own concerns about even sticking with the organization — all in the midst of a first-round playoff series with the Golden State Warriors.
“It was a big difference between ‘I don’t feel like it’ and ‘I don’t want to,'” Rivers said of the two incidents. “Because last year was an, ‘I don’t want to’ thing – or I shouldn’t because I don’t want to represent this.” He concluded his thought by running his finger across his Clippers T-shirt.
The Clippers players wrestled with not playing and staged a quiet protest against Sterling by wearing their T-shirts and warmups inside out and tossing them at midcourt before an eventual 21-point loss.
“You don’t wish that on anybody,” Blake Griffin said of the Sterling incident. “But distractions are a part of basketball. Unfortunately, ours came at a bad time.”
“It was real, that’s for sure,” Jamal Crawford said of the emotional stress the players encountered while trying to compete last postseason. “When you’re on the inside, you’re trying to lock in. From the outside, people was like, ‘This is bigger than basketball.’ It was really bigger than basketball.”
Ballmer has quickly worked to establish relationships with his basketball staff and players, passing on a level of zeal that has been infectious. It’s a passion never possible under Sterling.
“It’s been great,” Griffin said. “I mean, his enthusiasm alone is what sets him apart from a lot of owners. His willingness to do whatever it takes to win and his genuine interest. All of the things you see, all of the excitement, all that is genuine. It’s not like he’s doing it for us, or for the crowd. He’s really that excited.”
Rivers had two years on his contract after last season but Ballmer signed him to a five-year extension shortly after purchasing the team. “It just feels like, and I don’t want to get into anything where I’m killing Sterling, but it feels like our franchise is more stable,” Rivers said. “They believe Steve is going to do everything in his power to make this a championship team. There are still no guarantees but he’s still going to do everything that an owner can do. And to me, as a player that would make me feel very good.”
Enduring the Sterling incident helped bring the Clippers closer despite them coming up short of their championship goals last season, losing to Oklahoma City in the second round. “I don’t know if it helped us or hurt us. I don’t think it hurt us. I hope it helped us,” River said. “I just think when you go through adversity and come out on the other end, you’re better for it.”
“I got some coaching from the league office. They say, ‘You are not really an owner yet.’ I said, what do you mean I’m not an owner yet? I think I’m an owner. They said, ‘Until you’ve actually been through the experience of one win and one loss, you’re not an owner.’” – Ballmer
Proving themselves in the present
More than “Donald Sterling,” “Game Five” is the two-word phrase the Clippers have been unable to avoid this preseason. The Clippers blew a seven-point lead with less than 50 seconds remaining in the pivotal fifth game of their conference semifinals series against Oklahoma City. The loss haunted the team – especially all-star point guard Chris Paul – for the entire offseason. Before the Clippers had their first training camp practice in Las Vegas, Rivers broke down the blunders, bad breaks and questionable calls during a lengthy film session.
“It was tough,” said Paul, who committed two turnovers and fouled Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook on a three-pointer that set up the decisive points during the meltdown. “I done seen it more than anybody. Nobody can tell me how I played more than me. We could’ve won the game, but at the same time, Game 5 wasn’t an elimination game. We still had Game 6. We didn’t win that game also.”
Rivers hopes the sting of the Game 5 loss will inspire him to make amends the way other greats have done in the past.
“The same thing Isiah took from the Boston game,” Rivers said, alluding to Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference finals, when Larry Bird stole Isiah Thomas’s inbound pass and fed Dennis Johnson for a layup that propelled the Celtics to a seven-game series win.
Thomas led the Pistons to three straight Finals appearances and back-to-back championships in 1989 and 1990 after committing the most memorable turnover of his career.
“It’s not much different,” River said. “Great players aren’t perfect. And they get over it and they build. It makes them better, I think. Not only Chris but our whole team. Chris got a lot of the heat for that, but it was a whole team effort. We made a plethora of mistakes. Including coaching.”
“We want to play in April, in May, in June. We really want to do that. You’ve got to make sure everybody’s pushing and pushing to get better and improve every day, and if we do that with the talent we have in place, with a little bit of good luck, we’re going to be the last guys playing.” – Ballmer
Visualizing a fantastic future
Clippers newcomer Spencer Hawes attended the banner ceremony for his hometown Seattle Seahawks last month, so when Rivers rented a suite at Staples Center to watch the Kings raise their Stanley Cup championship banner two weeks ago, the reserve center made sure he was in attendance.
“That’s the ultimate goal as an athlete,” Hawes said, “and when you’re that close to it, it makes you want it even more.”
Utilizing the visualization techniques that he learned playing for Pat Riley, Rivers wants his players to see themselves as champions. Before leading the Celtics to the title in 2008, Rivers took Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen through a duck boat tour through Boston and explained that it was same route the Red Sox and New England Patriots took for their championship parades. After taking over the Clippers last year, he asked his players to design a parade route through Los Angeles.
“It’s got to be a true visualization,” River said. “I can’t have them visualizing that we’re going to build a rocket ship and go to the moon. They wouldn’t believe that. But when it becomes believable, then you have a chance.”
Veteran swingman Matt Barnes said anything less than a championship would be a failure, but Paul was more cautious when asked about his expectations for the upcoming season.
“Everybody got an opinion of who’s going to be this and who’s going to be that. You’ve got to play the games,” Paul said. “I don’t even want to say why we’re going to be the team. We got to do it. That’s the thing I’ve learned. It’s too much talking.”
Crawford said there is a “different vibe” surrounding the team, though most of the core remains intact. The Clippers have already been through a season learning Rivers’s schemes, have bonded through collective adversity, and have a new owner committed to winning.
“Timing sometimes is perfect and sometimes you have to make the timing right. In Boston, the timing was perfect. Kevin, Paul and Ray were ready to be led,” Rivers said. “We have a lot of expectations. … But I’m a big believer winning should be hard. Nothing worth a grain a salt is easy.”