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At L.A. Clippers, Steve Ballmer Prizes Team Tested by Adversity

Industries Reuters

After Steve Ballmer plunked down $2 billion for the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers, fans might expect the former Microsoft chief executive to be hitting the reset button on a team that has been through a nasty public fight over racism.

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Don't bet on it. That experience, Ballmer knows, makes his team unique, and it will be part of the story he tells to earn one thing that was not guaranteed by the record price tag: a fan base that will sustain the team for years to come.

"I think people understand we are a different kind of team," Ballmer told Reuters on Wednesday, sitting on the Clippers practice court.

"We are born in a funny way, and the guys have all had to live through something not only on the court but off the court together that requires a deeper kind of commitment."

What they endured was former owner Donald Sterling's published racist comments and his refusal to sell the team after being banned for life by the NBA. With Ballmer securing the team through a deal with Sterling's estranged wife, the Clippers now open their next season on Oct. 30.

Ballmer says he is pleased with the basketball side of his new venture, his first after 34 years working at Microsoft Corp, from the very beginning with friend and co-founder Bill Gates. He has signed Coach Doc Rivers for another five years, and has star players Chris Paul and Blake Griffin anchoring one of the league's strongest teams.

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But the man who helped sell personal computing to the masses knows he has to sell a team that has long been overlooked and overshadowed by its more famous L.A. rival, the Lakers.

Ballmer, 58, is a renowned salesman, carrying intense kinetic energy in his hulking frame as he strides across the court. He relentlessly talks about "the fan experience" and says he's not competing against the Lakers, but against the 29 other NBA teams.

"Engaged fans actually help the team, team gets better, fan experience gets better, fans get more enthusiastic," he said. "It's like voom, a perpetual motion machine."

DITCH THE IPADS

Ballmer promises that whether the fan comes to the arena, or cheers from the couch, or follows on a smartphone or tablet "you are going to have the best experience and that is not just the best in L.A."

The mobile experience is something Ballmer knows intimately and he acknowledges that under his leadership at Microsoft it was something he did not get right. Competitors such as Apple Inc< AAPL.O> and Google Inc seized the mobile revolution and put pressure on Ballmer to innovate. He stepped down as CEO in February after 14 years.

"And do I wish a higher percentage of today's mobile devices were ours and we had birthed that category?," he mused. "Yes, of course I do."

Ballmer left the board of Microsoft last month but is still the largest individual shareholder, with about 4 percent of the company worth $15.7 billion.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the Clippers will be a Microsoft organization. The son of a Ford Motor Co manager, he's always been a company and product loyalist, banning his own family from using Apple's iPhones.

"Most of the Clippers are on Windows, some of the players and coaches are not," Ballmer said.

"And Doc kind of knows that’s a project. It's one of the first things he said to me: 'We are probably going to get rid of these iPads, aren’t we?' And I said, 'Yeah, we probably are.' But I promised we would do it during the off season."

(By Mary Milliken and Eric Kelsey; Editing by Ken Wills)