Steve Ballmer tears up during his Microsoft farewll address. Credit: Credit: Microsoft
Imagine that — a Seattle guy buying a California pro sports team.
For years, the sun-kissed business monarchs came north with their millions to amuse themselves with the moss-covered fishermen and lumberjacks. Sam Schulman, Danny Kaye, George Argyros, Ken Behring, Joe Roth: They couldn't buy into the sports action in the home state, so they went rogue in a place that defined wealth in clams dug instead of clams banked.
Seattle sports fans often seemed at the mercy of guys whose priority diversions were tee times at Riviera Country Club and jet-set "safaris" with women who had to sign non-disclosure agreements.
But now, Steve Ballmer, Detroit-born but Seattle-monetized, outspent California's barons for the NBA Los Angeles Clippers. The most misbegotten pro sports franchise in America, suddenly a free agent after its owner was illegally and preposterously exposed for being himself, was even more preposterously worth $2 billion. The agreement to purchase was first reported by the Los Angeles Times Thursday afternoon.
Think about it: Every owner in the NBA, which includes Seahawks owner and Seattle guy Paul Allen, will be significantly wealthier in equity because Donald Sterling, a man who sat among them for more than 30 years, was too stupid to know it was a bad idea to be a bigot.
These people will be enriched because a Seattle guy, who in 2008 and 2013 tried to make the NBA work here, got so fed up with his hometown he took his billions to Los Angeles, where he blew up the entire sports world's sense of financial value by exploiting Sterling's absence of humanity.
This story could get more astonishing, but only if Jack Nicholson becomes the Clippers coach.
For Seattle sports fans eager for a return of the Sonics, there is no joy in seeing one of their own out-dilettante SoCal's Botoxed gentry. Ballmer was Seattle's muscle when it came to getting the NBA back to town. He partnered with Seattle native Chris Hansen to seek an arena in SoDo and relocate the Kings from Sacramento, a futile 15-month saga that previously led the Can You Top This? list of implausible sports-business stories.
When Sacramento, led by Kevin Johnson, an ex-NBA star turned Sactown mayor and forever the pet of former commissioner David Stern, found the money and the arena plan one year ago to keep the Kings, it was the beginning of the end for Ballmer's Seattle ambitions.
For years under criticism from shareholders, employees and the tech industry for his leadership at Microsoft, Ballmer reluctantly announced in August he would be retiring. The stock price shot up 10 percent on the news. By February, the shove out the door was complete, with remarkably little ceremony, all of it dry-eyed, given his 14-year tenure at the helm.
After Hansen came under fire of his own for foolishly allowing some of his money to be used in an anti-arena campaign in Sacramento — he was fined $50,000 by state election officials — the arena project was further slowed by the inevitable Seattle process (an environmental impact statement) as well as smarter opposition. Then he lost his biggest political proponent, Mayor Mike McGinn, who was defeated in his re-election bid.
Somewhere last summer, Ballmer pulled away from the Hansen project. During the winter, he put in a serious bid for the only other NBA team known to be for sale, the Milwaukee Bucks. He lost that one too, when a couple of New York guys paid $550 million to buy the team, plus another $100 million toward a new arena. That was the record price for a franchise, until Thursday.
In April, the Sterling storm hit the NBA, a league that took great pride in its progressive actions on diversity, inclusion and globalization. Suddenly the owners found among them a Confederacy general still fighting the Civil War — even though anyone who dealt with Sterling over 30 years was surprised at nothing on the recording made public by his archivist/lover/arm-candy/model/whatever.
New NBA Commissioner Adam Silver quickly stripped Sterling's epaulets — ordering a $2.5 million fine, a permanent ban and a launch of a fast plan to unhitch Sterling from Clippers' ownership. Silver was lauded for his decisiveness, which was curious since a sponsor boycott was underway and a player boycott was hours away. What else was Silver going to do — say, "Tut, tut"?
In true Microsoft fashion, Ballmer sensed vulnerability and went nuclear with a C-bomb — cash. Last week, he signaled everyone to seek shelter when he told the Wall Street Journal that he wanted to be an NBA owner and if it wasn't in Seattle, "so be it." He also said moving the Clippers from LA would be "value destructive." Then Thursday … boom.
For those who aren't following the NBA, the Clippers and Lakers share Staples Center, which was built to house both, and are huge financial successes. If Ballmer/Hansen couldn't get the failing Kings out of Sacramento, there is no pry bar in the cosmos stout enough to force the NBA to move the Clippers out of LA.
If it seems as if he has quit on Seattle . . . well, he has. As someone acquainted with Ballmer put it to me recently, "If he sits courtside in Seattle (as team owner), he's surrounded by Microsofties. If he sits courtside in LA, he's surrounded by Hollywood celebrities."
For as ruthless as Ballmer was in business, he's not in business anymore. He has $20 billion, no job and would like to be liked. And the NBA really likes him, because he's already been vetted and can write one check to buy the team without seeking permission from anyone.
By agreeing to buy the Clippers for more than the huge Sterling real estate empire is worth (an estimated $1.9 billion), there is no public tussle, no vote to strip Sterling, no court fight. And since the NBA's annual showcase, the Finals, begins Wednesday, the NBA will dissolve all red tape to get the Sterlings on their way to the new digs in hell.
But $2 billion will buy a lot of air-conditioning. And the episode offers inspiration for all of us who wish to say something profoundly moronic and be rewarded.
As for Hansen, there are still a lot of rich Seattle guys who want the NBA to return to Seattle. If only to beat the Clippers. That will make Seahawks-49ers seem like grade-school dodgeball.