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Exclusive: Steve Ballmer on acquiring Kawhi Leonard & Paul George, the Lakers, and playing in ‘this crazy place’ called Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES – On Tuesday night, Kawhi Leonard and the LA Clippers begin their journey towards their first ever NBA Championship against the Los Angeles Lakers. Fans from both teams will show up rocking their respective L.A. team’s gear and will be on their feet for most of the night, regardless of who they’re cheering for. The Clippers, however, will have at least one superfan sitting courtside: owner Steve Ballmer.

For the first time since purchasing the team back in 2014, the ever-enthusiastic Ballmer has a team that is legitimately expected to compete for an NBA Championship. The team he took ownership of five years ago, led by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, looks entirely dissimilar to the current team led by Leonard and Paul George.

The one constant, however, is head coach Doc Rivers leading the charge through two very different eras both on and off the court.

Rivers somehow led the Clippers out of the Donald Sterling era, and did so during a hard-fought seven-game playoff series against the Golden State Warriors. Getting through that while successfully coaching his team was just one example Ballmer saw before purchasing the team and throughout his first few years with the team.

“I remember the first year and I was all excited game after game,” admitted Ballmer to ClutchPoints during lunch with media in Hawaii. “Doc said, ‘Steve you just have to calm down. You really have to calm down. There are 82 of these. You just got to calm down.'”

Doc Rivers, Steve Ballmer

Over the years, Ballmer has really gotten to know Rivers and what makes him such a special, high-respected, and incredibly-desired coach by players, past and current, around the NBA.

“Doc is a larger than life figure,” said Ballmer. “He has a lot of presence, great command, connects super well with people. Ironically, he’s told me he’s an introvert. I’d say I’m an introvert and you probably wouldn’t believe either one of us, my guess. But he’s got that good balance of refreshing himself and thinking himself and then just being great. Great with people and able to get people galvanized around something.

“You get wisdom out of talking to Doc. He has been a leader of men – and I say men in this context because we’re really talking about basketball – in so many different ways. And leadership experience, whether you’re studying somebody that’s a CEO or a political leader or a general, people learn things and I find there’s a lot I’ve benefited from him on that, just me as a person.”

These kinds of compliments about Doc Rivers should come as no surprise after the successful career he’s had as a coach highlighted by the 2008 NBA Championship, but some have forgotten. Despite years of regular season success, the ‘Lob City’ Clippers were a failure due to their inability to win a title together. Heck, they couldn’t even reach the Western Conference Finals despite holding a commanding 3-1 lead over the Houston Rockets in the 2015 Playoffs.

The lack of playoff success fell square on Doc’s shoulders, as Rivers was also largely responsible for the roster construction, having been named the President of Basketball Operations in 2014. He gave up the position prior to the 2017-18 season, and Lawrence Frank was elevated to the role.

From that point forward, Rivers was able to showcase his spectacular coaching prowess while Frank was able to build a championship contending team in the future. The team then brought on NBA legend Jerry West as a consultant. Ballmer has made countless moves to retain or bring in talent to make this the best run organization not only in sports, but in the world.

Jerry West, Steve Ballmer, Clippers

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“I think the most important thing that, No. 1, is getting everybody in a place where they can be most effective. Lawrence, who Doc had hired already when I got there, having Lawrence move into his role, Doc in his role, bringing Gillian into her role. We’ve got a real strong team. Jerry in his role. So formulating that team at the top and really getting the right people, doing the right stuff.

“The second thing I would say is setting the tone culturally. There are three aspects. No. 1 we invest for the long term. We’re not stupid, but we invest. No. 2, we’re willing to grind. We’re workers. We work hard no matter what position. We’re in it and we’re all in. And No. 3, we’re willing to be bold. And the bold moves… in a way, owners have to buy into bold moves. That’s my belief.”

That brings the Clippers to where they are now: with two of the best players in the NBA competing for a championship in what’s considered one of the best run organizations, top-to-bottom.

Another aspect of team ownership Ballmer had to learn, specifically with this team, is the unusual fact of having another team in the same city that a majority of fans love.

The Clippers have been the better team in Los Angeles for the better part of seven years, making strides gaining fans with their play, the giving back they do off-the-court to the community, and a revamped social media presence. Despite being the team playing better basketball in L.A., the Lakers’ popularity hasn’t dropped off, and has possibly even increased despite their poor play.

“That is a bizarre thing,” said Ballmer when asked about sharing a city and arena with the Lakers. “That I will tell you is a bizarre thing. I’ve never even fathomed the concept until I bought the Clips of actually having two teams in one sport in the same city.”

Los Angeles is a global hotspot where fans from all over the world visit and even move to. In personally visiting Seattle twice in the last year, I was a bit taken aback. Upon stepping off the plane, the first two things you see are Seattle Seahawks gear (especially during the season) and Seattle Supersonics gear.

That last part shocked me. Ten years removed from losing their team to the Oklahoma City Thunder, locals in the Pacific Northwest still rock their Supersonics gear with pride. Ballmer shared the same sentiments regarding the city-team relationship.

“Look, I grew up in Detroit. You don’t have anything but Pistons fans. I moved to Seattle, you had nothing but Sonics fans and now Seahawks fans. That’s it. One team, you root for your darn team, you might [be frustrated by] your team, but they’re still your teams.

“This crazy LA place… You’ve got two teams because it’s so damn big and you’ll get folks who are pretty rabid. They read the same publications. Sometimes, when they play each other, they come to games, you run into somebody on the street.”

Steve Ballmer, Clipper

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

As most fans know, being a fan of the Clippers means coming to watch games during the worst possible days and nights.

“The fact we play in the same building, we get the worst nights,” said Ballmer. “It’s Monday Night Football? Who’s gonna play? The Clippers. That’s true by lease. Our lease says we get the least favorable nights after the Kings and the Lakers. That’s an unusual thing. If you look at all the statues that are outside, you’re not gonna see any Clippers statues out, so there’s that. There’s the aspect of being the team that has not had the big success. You have people in the same community that pick teams. That’s odd. You don’t get quite the sense that everybody’s coming together. I’m not saying it’s bad, but it was certainly an adjustment for me, something for me to get my mind around like, ‘what do you mean you’re not cheering for our team?'”

If you’ve seen Ballmer on the sidelines or on TV during a game, you’ve seen him on his feet cheering most of the night. He’s the team’s owner, but he’s possibly their biggest fan. As their biggest fan, Ballmer was less than excited to see Kawhi Leonard boo’d at a recent Los Angeles Rams home game.

“I wasn’t there, but Kawhi was at the Rams game and he was getting… booed?! What the hell are you doing?” he asked in frustration.

Ballmer then smacked the table with leftovers on it three times.

“That’s our freakin’ guy! That guy is awesome!

“I didn’t happen to be at the game, but it’s kind of like what… what’s wrong with you?”

Thus is the life of being a fan or a member of the L.A. Clippers, as Ballmer has found out over the last few years. There is no easy way to root for the the Clippers. Patrick Beverley said it best in SI’s latest feature on the new-look team.

“To live in L.A. and root for the Clippers, you have to be a different type of person,” Beverley told SI. “We haven’t won anything, we don’t have banners, we don’t have our own arena. To live here, to be born and raised here and be a Clipper fan and have to go through that every day—think about that. That’s a constant battle. Those are the type of fans we have.”

Clippers fans will be the first to tell you how grateful they are that Ballmer showed up when he did and decided to bid a whopping $2 billion on their team. Although they were championship contenders at the time and in Los Angeles, their ownership was considered a dumpster fire by many around the NBA. The tapes that came out about Donald Sterling only worsened the outlook.

Ballmer has also developed a greater appreciation for fans after interacting with them over the last few years.

“If you’re a Clipper fan, mostly what people would say to me is, ‘hey, we’re glad you bought the team.’ I have had almost nobody come to me and say, ‘Oh! You shouldn’t have done this!’ Which I guess will be… ‘You should’ve traded for so and so… You should have done this! You should have done that!’

“I’ve been in, what would I call it, kind of a quiet period on that kind of stuff since I bought the team since people are still our fans. Our historical fans are still so happy to be in a different environment even though the team started having its success what two or three years before I bought the Clippers. The team was on a good progression even though everybody knows we never got lift off on that progression. The second round was all we were able to get done.”

Now the Clippers have both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on the same team. Can you guess who’s been just a *little* excited about it?

“I love the fact that we got Kawhi and Paul George,” said Ballmer with a deep smile. “Both two-way players, both guys who were a little overlooked in college. Those guys, VROOOM, they just kept coming and coming and coming! Now you’ve got two guys who are amongst the very, very, very, very best in the NBA.”

Ballmer prides himself on having a great relationship with players and coaches. He checks in with players very often, most times not even discussing basketball.

Steve Ballmer, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Lawrence Frank, Clippers

Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times

“Obviously one of the things for me as owner of the team, I think it’s very important for me to put effort into to connect with our players and particular our top players and I’ve done that,” relayed Ballmer. “Since I bought the team, every summer we sit down with Chris or Blake or D.J., J.J., Lou, Pat. Same kind of connection with Kawhi and Paul and a lot of these guys.

“I’m getting to know Kawhi. I mean, we sat, obviously in our presentation, we had an opportunity and I’ve taken the opportunity to sit down and chat and that’s great. He’s a private person and I respect his privacy.”

The 63-year old owner isn’t applying any pressure on the new-look Clippers. That’s just not his style. However, the bottom line is simple for Ballmer, who measures success in the only way possible in sports.

“Like every season, and this is not complicated in sports, it’s about the simplest thing in the world in sports,” explained Ballmer. “In business, of course, we’re all about increasing our profits and this and this. But, oh, we missed it, we didn’t get this quite right, we’ll fix it next time. No, sports is pretty simple. You won, or you lost. So what do we want to do? We want to win. And you can’t say, well, all right we’ll get back in the lab and we’ll retool.

“This year, we hope to advance a lot — a lot, a lot. And win a lot of games, especially at the right time of year.”