Say what you will about Steve Ballmer as an NBA owner, the man brings passion. And optimism, unrelenting optimism. He is as competitive as any owner, and he wants not just to win but also to break out of the enormous shadow of the Lakers in Los Angeles. Oh, and he also brings money — enough of it to change the direction and perception of a franchise.
That’s where the new Clippers arena in Inglewood — the Intuit Dome, just blocks from the Forum where the Showtime Lakers played — comes in. Staples is the building that Shaq and Kobe built, that the NHL’s Kings ownership paid for and runs, and where the Clippers were (and are) the third wheel roommate. Ballmer recognized the situation and had the money and will to get the land, get approvals, and get his new building under construction.
“This stadium is about being optimistic about our team,” Ballmer said. “It’s about being optimistic about our fans. Get in the building, pump up, make energy,” Ballmer added, clapping his hands. “Your energy can feed our team to greater success.”
That energy has turned the Clippers team from a laughing stock around the league — and PR disaster — under former owner Donald Sterling, into the kind of team a superstar like Kawhi Leonard chooses and brings Paul George with him. While it still seems strange to long-time NBA fans, it is now a reality: Today’s players see the Clippers as a player-friendly and well-run organization in the second biggest market in the nation. If/when Leonard gets healthy, they are title contenders, too. The Clippers have carved out a new identity.
They also are not the Lakers in this market. Los Angeles is a Lakers market. Take it from someone who grew up in Los Angeles and still lives in Southern California, the Lakers are a part of the city’s fabric in the way no other sports franchise is (maybe the Dodgers are close). They are the generational team where dads take their children to see this team play (as my father did). It’s the team families sit around and watch together during the playoffs. From Magic and Kareem and Showtime, through Shaq and Kobe, up to today with LeBron James, the Lakers are a star-studded, winning, well-run franchise at the heart of the city.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for another team in town. There absolutely is, and Ballmer gets it (kind of — nobody is a fan of the Lakers and Clippers both).
“It’s a big market,” Ballmer said. “There’s plenty of fans that can be fans of the Clippers and Lakers. But we want to tell you who we are. I think there are many folks in LA who identify with this notion of being the underdog, the person who strides. It’s almost two LA’s. It’s not all showtime and movie business. Our fans are grinders.”
“I’m optimistic about our team,” added Ballmer. “I’m optimistic about our team success, and that optimism is a force multiplier. In many ways, the reason we did this is consistent with that optimism as a force multiplier approach.”
Ballmer’s optimism has built a team that sells out Staples Center, that has its own stars, and that is carving out its own place in Los Angeles. This team is never moving to Seattle, and that “joke” is tiresome. The Clippers are legit, and they are staying in L.A.
And pretty soon, thanks to the optimism and drive of Ballmer, the Clippers will have their own home, too.