On May 29th, 2014, Steve Ballmer purchased the Los Angeles Clippers from Donald Sterling for $2 billion. The purchase came after weeks of agony for not just the Clippers and their fans, but the entirety of the NBA. Donald Sterling’s inept, entitled, racist, and hateful persona had finally been completely exposed. His legacy was a stain on the league, and his ineptitude was evident in his franchise’s historical lack of success. Undoing 33 years of mismanagement was a job that was never going to be completed overnight, but Steve Ballmer came about as close as anyone could to accomplishing just that.
Mismanagement is a generous description for the Donald Sterling era that defined the Clippers for more than three decades. During this time, the Clippers weren’t just bad, they were the worst. In Sterling’s 33 years as owner, the Clippers had just a .371 winning percentage which was dead last in the NBA by a considerable margin. The idea that nobody wanted to play for the Clippers was more true during this time than ever.
A few sporadic bright spots graced this dark period, but none were sustainable or dominant enough to shed the label of league’s worst franchise. It’s that public perception from both fans and media that has been the biggest contrast between the Sterling era and the ever-ascending Ballmer era.
In 2015, not long after Ballmer took over as chairman, Michael Jordan used the transformation of the Clippers to describe what he hoped to accomplish as owner of the Charlotte Hornets. The great Michael Jordan looked to the Clippers as a goal to strive towards. While the arrival of Blake Griffin and Chris Paul were the driving forces of the newfound on-court success, league-wide respectability has grown as a product of Ballmer’s professionalism and passion.
When comparing the on-court success of the Clippers from Sterling’s 33 seasons to the last five that Ballmer has been the head of, the contrast could not be more apparent. In Sterling’s 33 seasons, the Clippers finished above .500 in just five of them. Since Ballmer’s arrival, the Clippers have already matched that mark with a winning season in each of the five seasons since Sterling’s departure. However, this is the NBA. They don’t give out banners for consecutive winning seasons. With the Clippers stuck in the realm of basketball purgatory, Ballmer made it his goal to ascend them into contention.
In this era of the NBA, championships are only being won by a handful of superstars. Since 2012, there has not been a championship won without one of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Steph Curry, or Kevin Durant. It is almost certain that unless a team has one of these players, or they’re Golden State and have two of the four, they will not be NBA champions. For a team like the Clippers, who have been historically unable to attract talent, how does one of these four championship caliber players end up on their roster? The answer: It starts at the top.
Regardless of the lack of publicity Donald Sterling’s racism and ineptitude had amongst the general public, both of these were well known facts throughout the NBA and their players. In an article for The Players’ Tribune, former Clipper Darius Miles shares a story of a pre-season game from his rookie season that perfectly encapsulates the league-wide disdain for Donald Sterling.
“Then we played against Houston, and Moe Taylor had just left the Clippers to go there in the offseason, and this man is looking like he just escaped from a kidnapping or something. He drops like a 30-clip on us, and after every bucket, he’s running past Donald Sterling’s seat, grabbing his damn nuts. We’re like, Bruh. This is not normal. That’s when we knew: Something is going on here” Miles said.
Miles continued by sharing some of his own stories about Sterling, when he would come into the locker room and make dehumanizing comments about the players. According to Miles, and many Clippers both before and after him, this type of occurrence was not unusual. Players talk, word spreads, and Donald Sterling’s racism was far from a secret.
With all that was going on, Sterling still lucked his way into the Lob City era. Blake Griffin became an instant sensation, and Chris Paul fell into their lap as well, igniting the most exciting era in Clippers’ history. However, as previously mentioned, the titles in this era of the NBA are being won by four guys. As great as CP and Blake were, neither were a tier-1 star in their time with the Clippers. By the time Ballmer arrived, the championship window was nearly slammed shut. With the collapse in 2015, and the injury misfortune in 2016, Lob City had ran its course.
As everyone knows, the dismantling of that era started the next year. By 2018, not a single member of the Lob City big-3 was on the roster. It is now 2020, and the Clippers are widely considered the favorites to win the championship. In this era of the NBA, that is only possible one way: Players want to play for you. As an owner of a franchise, if you can’t get LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Steph Curry, or Kevin Durant to want to play for you, there’s an extremely minimal chance you can win an NBA championship. Being the owner of the Clippers, there isn’t the historic benefit that the Lakers have. If a player wants to be a Clipper, it is because they truly believe in what they’ve built. That is what Steve Ballmer has done.
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George would have never teamed up to play for Sterling’s Clippers. The contrast between the two eras could not be more drastic. Ballmer has a legitimate passion for his team, and would not be stopped until they were revered as one of the league’s most respectable franchises. Five seasons into his tenure, and he has placed his team in a real position to win the title. By his first decade, he is on pace to have the team in their own state of the art arena. These are the culture-shifting moves that have transformed the Clippers from the worst franchise in the NBA, to a place that one of the best players in the league wants to build a dynasty. Changes of this magnitude can only start at the top.
It is for all of these reasons that those who hate on the Clippers are blinded by either jealousy or ignorance. Not a single Clipper fan denies their team’s history is the worst the NBA has to offer, but the current Los Angeles Clippers are not even recognizable to those who have known the team solely from the Sterling days. In just six years, they have evolved from a historical loser with sporadic and short-lived bright spots, to a championship favorite with arguably the greatest player in the world.
Hate on that if you will, but if you’re hating on the Clippers, you’re hating on the biggest comeup in sports history.