As the CEO of Microsoft, Steve Ballmer was famous for delivering wildly enthusiastic corporate speeches that might have been better suited to a sports coach. Now, as the incoming owner of the beleaguered Los Angeles Clippers basketball team, he has found his new niche. On Monday, during a rally at the Staples Centre in Downtown Los Angeles, Ballmer addressed Clippers supporters and colleagues with a pep-talk every bit as passionate as his Microsoft keynotes.
The 58-year-old emerged on stage to the sound of Eminem’s Lose Yourself, high-fiving ecstatic fans. He gave out his email address to the crowd – insisting they call him Steve, not Mr Ballmer. In one of the more heated passages of his 13-minute speech, he promised that under his ownership, the Clippers would be “hardcore”. He said: “Something knocks us down and we’re going to get back and keep coming and coming and coming and coming... Hardcore, baby! Nothing gets in our way, BOOM! Keep coming. Hardcore. The hardcore Clippers, that’s us.”
This is the same Steve Ballmer whose appearances at Microsoft events could be so brash and bombastic that they often went viral. In one famous example, his blue shirt drenched in sweat, he clapped as he chanted the mantra: “Developers, developers, developers, developers.” In another, he yelled maniacally: “I. Love. This. Company!” On Monday, he offered variations on that theme: “I love basketball,” he cried. “I love Los Angeles!”; “I love this team!”
While Mr Ballmer’s public persona is undoubtedly energising, some of his employees have said that in private, his boundless enthusiasm can also become a fiery temper. In a sworn affidavit, one former Microsoft worker, Mark Lucovsky, revealed how Ballmer reacted in a 2004 meeting when he told him he was leaving to work for Google. The then-CEO allegedly threw a chair across the room, shouting, “I’m going to f***ing kill Google!” (Ballmer has since described the account as a “gross exaggeration”.)
Clippers fans will be heartened to learn, however, that their new owner’s loyalty is not an act. Ballmer grew up in Detroit, where his father was a manager at the Ford headquarters; he still drives Ford cars. He lived in the same dorm as Microsoft founder Bill Gates at Harvard, and dropped out of an MBA to join his college buddy as the company’s first business manager in 1980. Twenty years later, he was appointed its second CEO.
Critics of his reign have said he lacked his predecessor’s vision, and that he presided over a decline in Microsoft’s influence in the age of the internet and the iPhone. The late Apple founder Steve Jobs told his biographer Walter Isaacson that Microsoft had become “mostly irrelevant” in the 21st century. “I don’t think anything will change at Microsoft as long as Ballmer is running it,” Jobs said.
Ballmer left his CEO role at Microsoft in February as the world’s 34th richest man, with an estimated fortune of approximately $20bn. Today he resigned from Microsoft's board - ending a 34-year association with the company - but remains its biggest shareholder.
Owning a basketball team was a long-held ambition, and last week he finalised his purchase of the Clippers for $2bn (£1.2bn), four times the previous record price for an NBA franchise.
At the fan rally, he recalled a quote from the former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who said, “Optimism is a force multiplier.” And Ballmer is nothing if not optimistic. The Clippers franchise, which began in 1970 as the Buffalo Braves, has never won the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy. At one point, Ballmer shouted: “I’ll boldly say that the Clippers will win many, many, many, many more Larrys in the next 26 [years] than in the last 26!”
The opportunity to buy the Clippers arose when its previous owner, real estate mogul Donald Sterling, was banned by the NBA after a tape emerged of him making racist remarks to his girlfriend.