STAPLES CENTER IS quiet on the first day of October, except for the roar of Steve Ballmer flooding through the walls of a second-floor conference room. Ballmer, 58, a Harvard graduate who succeeded Bill Gates as Microsoft CEO for 14 years before retiring last February, now has a much easier act to follow. He is replacing Donald Sterling, the Clippers' owner for 33 years, who was forced to sell the club during the off-season due to racist remarks captured on an audiotape. Ballmer swooped in with a $2 billion bid—the highest sale price in NBA history yet still less than 10% of his reported net worth. Ballmer ranks 18th on the Forbes 400, but he does not exactly come across as a lacquered corporate mogul. Ballmer introduced himself to fans at an August pep rally, swaggering through the crowd to Eminem lyrics and bellowing into a microphone: "We're going to be hard core! Hard core! Hard core! We're going to keep coming and coming and coming and coming! Boom!" He loves onomatopoeia.
In a one-on-one interview Ballmer is no more reserved, repeatedly rising from his chair, pumping his fist and raising the volume as he reflects on his journey to the NBA and his hopes for the newly hard-core Clippers.
Did you play basketball growing up?
SB: I played in ninth grade. I was big—I probably weighed 195 my freshman year—but I had no lift. I didn't think I would make the JV in 10th grade, so I decided to bear down on track and field instead.
What's the job description of the student manager for the Harvard football team?
SB: That's where I learned public speaking. I did the announcements every day in the dining hall. I had to get up in front of 100 guys, always at lunch or after a team meal. "Hey, listen up!" [They'd say] Oh, manager, shut up! Manager is not a revered position, let's put it that way. "You gotta be at the bus at six! If anybody needs their ankles wrapped, get here early! And we're having steak pregame!" I had to be the loudest guy in the room.
You made a play to keep the Sonics in Seattle and to bring the Kings to town. What drew you to the NBA?
SB: Paul Allen [owner of the Trail Blazers and the NFL's Seahawks] told me for years, "The NBA is a lot of fun. You should own a team." But I had a full-time job, and I had [three] kids. I think it's kind of weird being an owner with your kids around. My wife and I set it aside. By the time I had two kids out of the house, I said, "Well, O.K., let's bid on one of these things."
As you were following the Donald Sterling saga last spring, when did you go from thinking it's a sad situation to thinking it's a great opportunity?
SB: I didn't see it right away, but my son did. He's in college, and he called me at 7:30 on that Saturday morning. Guys in college don't get up on Saturday mornings to call their dads. He said, "Dad, the tapes are out, they're bad and you've got to be ready. You want to own a team. You love L.A. This team is going to sell." I said, "Oh, Peter, come on, it's not going to sell." He said, "Listen to the tapes." I wasn't as sure, but when I listened, I said, "He's right. I better be ready."
What kind of owner do you want to be?
SB: [Seahawks coach] Pete Carroll is my neighbor and friend. When I made the bid, he said, "[General manager] John Schneider would love to tell you how we do it down here." I was sitting in Pete's office with him and John when we got word that the case was over.
What advice did they give you?
SB: Bet on people. If you want to be the general manager and the coach, that's great. Otherwise, pick your guys and bet on their leadership.
You gave fans your email address. What's in those emails?
SB: There's relief. There's thanks. There's congratulations. There are a lot of suggestions: Rebrand this, make this trade. The only problem is, I get a lot of spam now.
Does the dynamic with the Lakers matter?
SB: I don't think so. Our goal is to compete with 29 teams, not one. But how people in Los Angeles self-select to be a Clippers fan or Lakers fan is interesting. I did a poll of a thousand Angelenos who have any basketball interest. We found that people are very open-minded. There's a lot of hope for the Clippers and interest in what the new team is going to look like.
You've had massive success in your field. Can you relate to an organization that's endured what the Clippers have?
SB: Absolutely. Remember, Microsoft is sort of a funny leader. We've enjoyed enormous success, and yet we've also taken body blows from people like the Apple crowd not thinking we're good enough. Microsoft tromped on Apple for years, and Apple is doing a little better right now. In that battle people would probably liken Apple to the Lakers and us to the Clippers, even though we've had a lot of success and made a lot of money. We've taken blows and had to PSSSH!—like a freight train! BMMM!"
Sterling had owned the Clippers since 1981. When a culture is in place for that long, how quickly can it be changed?
SB: The team culture changes every four or five years whether you want it to or not. But changing the culture with the fans is the hardest part. Can they accept that this is a dynamic franchise, a relentless, driving team? That doesn't mean you won't get setbacks, but we're so darn committed, so darn hard core, we're going to be fun and exciting!
What do you love about that phrase hard core?
SB: Bill Gates and I used it back in college, and we used it a lot at Microsoft. "We've got to be more hard core than the other guy!"
What's a hard-core owner do?
SB: Support his guys the best he can, give them every opportunity to win and give the fans the deepest, richest, best experience. I've spent most of my time learning what other teams do and how you make the best experience for the person in the stadium, the person watching at home and the person who is in neither of those two places but may dial in and watch from something later.
Fourth quarter, Game 7, call goes against your team. How do you react?
SB: I'm pretty excitable, but I don't give anybody a hard time. I'll give my own guys enthusiastic support—"Come on, boys! Get lower! Get down more!"—but I'm not as much a guy who jumps on a ref.
I sense you may go through some shirts, though.
SB: Funny story. We were doing a Microsoft company meeting. This was '89, '90, '91. I was either engaged to my wife or just married. I gave a speech, and I was wearing a dark blue shirt. The speaker after me was Dana Carvey, the comedian, who was there for entertainment. He gets up onstage and says, "If Mrs. Ballmer is in the audience, I just have three words for you! Sniff. Arrid! Sniff. Extra! Sniff. Dry!" She was mortified. I really pitted that shirt out.
"Changing the culture with the fans is the hardest part.... We're so darn committed, so darn hard core, we're going to be fun and exciting!"