Monson: Steve Ballmer has good reason to drop $2 billion on Clippers
Published: May 31, 2014 03:53PM
Updated: May 31, 2014 10:49PM
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Steve Ballmer is CEO of Microsoft.

Steve Ballmer is a crazy man.

A ridiculously smart, wealthy crazy man, but a crazy man, nonetheless.

A ridiculously smart, wealthy crazy man with passion and vision and a mathematical and business acumen that’s off the charts, but a man cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, nonetheless.

What other kind of man, other than a complete whack-job, loads up $2 billion for a basketball team like … the Clip Joint? Who does that? That’s almost four times more than the previous record for the most cash spent on an NBA team. Donald Sterling bought the Clippers for $12 million and now they’re worth in excess of 166 times that? What? Who else would pay more for that historically abysmal dump of a franchise than any other amount paid for any other franchise in any league ever in North America, except for one: the L.A. Dodgers?

The Clippers have never belonged in the same sentence with the Dodgers.

Until now.

If somebody had told me in the 1980s that the Clippers would one day be sold for that kind of cake, I would have guessed that a fool with more money than brains overpaid by about $1.9 billion. In those days, the Clips were a sad group, a club that was a punch line, a team that couldn’t win, not because it didn’t have decent players, rather because it had no steady competitive commitment.

A comedian once told a joke about the Clippers, noting that the team, in an attempt to get guns off the streets of L.A., was offering tickets in exchange for the guns. “The only problem with that,” he said, “is that after you watch the Clippers play, you need a gun to kill yourself.”

Not exactly politically correct, but, when we’re talking about Donald Sterling and the Clippers, well … you know.

Back then, when it came to the hardwood, the Lakers ruled Southern California. They were Page 1. The Clippers were a skid mark. They were Page 15.

From 1985 to 1990, L.A.’s second NBA team won 143 games and lost 349. Over that same span, the Lakers won 371 and lost 121, not including playoff games. Of course, there were no playoff games for the Clippers.

In the 44-year history of the Clips, stemming back to the old Buffalo Braves, then to the Clippers in San Diego and Los Angeles, their cumulative winning percentage rests at 38 percent. Their overall record is 1,360-2,200. They’ve made the playoffs just 10 times, three in Buffalo and three over the past three seasons, getting bounced in the first round four times. In between, there was mostly a whole lot of ineptitude. The Clippers have never made it to the Western Conference finals.

Ever.

Owning the Clippers seemed to be Sterling’s foothold/entryway to hosting parties in Beverly Hills that drew in Hollywood’s rich and famous. The club made money because of the L.A. market, but it never did anything of note on the court.

Ever.

A few years ago, when the Jazz were facing the Lakers in the playoffs, they worked out at the Clips’ new practice facility on Centinela Avenue in Playa Vista. It was a beautiful structure, with sparkling gyms and posh rooms to train and lounge. Near the entry, there was a huge trophy case built into the wall. It was empty.

That shouts about as loud as anything the legacy of the franchise.

The $2 billion franchise.

When other NBA owners heard that number, they probably did a dance. It’s like somebody in your neighborhood selling his house for three or four times what was expected. If the Clippers are worth that, what are the Lakers or the Celtics or the Knicks or the Heat worth? Most teams don’t have that enormous L.A. market, but many of them have more storied histories.

What Ballmer, the former CEO of Microsoft who has tried to buy teams in the past, needs now is a vote of approval from the NBA Board of Governors. If he gets it, which he will, he’s in.

“I love basketball and I intend to do everything in my power to ensure that the Clippers continue to win — and win big — in Los Angeles,” he said.

Unless he moves the club to Seattle.

Anybody who’s ever watched Ballmer’s presentations in online videos can see the outrageous enthusiasm the man has. He really loves basketball.

That passion reminds me of the late Larry Miller, who spent nowhere near the money for the Jazz in his initial investment that Ballmer is shelling out for the Clippers. But the money Miller did pay — more than double his net worth for the first of two $8 million installments — was a far greater risk. He borrowed the money. Ballmer is worth an estimated $20 billion.

I asked Larry once what the thrill was in owning an NBA team. Why would he, back before he was an extraordinarily rich man, take that kind of risk?

“Just ’cuz,” he said, grinning. “Maybe I was a little crazy.”

Still, the Jazz were never an expensive toy for Miller.

He wanted the team because he was hyper-competitive, he loved sports and he saw the value to the community. He also saw a business opportunity, a chance to jump in on a growing investment. He figured the worth of NBA franchises would ride a rocket — and they did.

They still are.

“I saw the big picture,” he said. “Where others saw nothing, I saw something. … It gave me a sense of ‘I can do it, whatever it is.’”

More than anything, though, Miller said his buying the Jazz was an emotional decision.

“I just wanted to own the team,” he said. “For me, it became a passion.”

Steve Ballmer has his passion now, too.

Two billion bucks worth.

Why?

For the best reason of all: Because the crazy-smart, crazy-wealthy, crazy-crazy man wants to.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone.