After the drumline and dancers filed off a scaled-down basketball court, but before Kawhi Leonard and Paul George closed the groundbreaking ceremony of the Clippers’ long-planned Inglewood arena by dipping chrome-tipped shovels into dirt, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer told his audience about his favorite elements of the billion-dollar Intuit Dome.
The 18,000-seat arena’s architecture will seat fans closer to the court, and Ballmer’s voice rose to his trademark, excitable bellow while describing the potential for similarly roaring acoustics. He promised state-of-the-art technology. While describing the building’s 1,500 bathroom fixtures, one of the world’s wealthiest people noted he was “not ashamed to admit actually I’ve become a real obsessive about toilets.”
“I like to think about it as a basketball palazzo, an homage to the game of basketball,” Ballmer said Friday. “It’s not the Hall of Fame but with as many championships as we’re going to win here, it’ll be better than the Hall of Fame.”
At the mention of championships, of which the Clippers have earned none in their 51-year franchise history, a roar of noise swallowed his last words, the volume coming only months after the team’s first conference final appearance. George and Leonard watched from seats along the model court’s baseline.
Yet what Ballmer made clear he liked most was that his team will have the $1.8-billion arena complex all to itself.
“We want to build a home that is of our own, that sets a standard for us,” Ballmer said. “We don’t play in anybody’s shadow.”
The unmistakable theme of the ceremony, which was lent the air of a pep rally by seats filled by local and state officials, players and team executives, and hand-picked fans, was a building of the Clippers’ own, a billion-dollar acknowledgement of the team’s eagerness to create its own space away from Staples Center and its co-tenant arrangement with the Lakers, Kings and Sparks once their lease ends in 2024. The team’s entire basketball and business operations will be housed underneath one solar-panel-clad roof.
No longer will statues honoring other teams’ icons and successes sit outside the doors of a franchise still searching to end its title drought.
“If you share a building with not one but two teams, it’s a very difficult task, it really is,” said Jerry West, a consultant to Ballmer and Clippers executives since 2017. “For the players when they go in [to Intuit Dome] they know this building is dedicated to them. Nothing else is going to matter. They can have what they want around, they can have their own identity without having to you know, look at all the Laker greats that have played up there [in the rafters] and the enormous success the franchise has had, and also the Kings themselves.
“It’s like separating — I guess a family gets too large, you’re separating your families and they have their own home now and this is what he’s doing.”
Unlike former Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who considered the possibility of a move to Orange County at various points after moving the team to Los Angeles in 1984, Ballmer said he initially planned to stay downtown long-term upon purchasing the team in 2014, even going so far as to tell Gillian Zucker, the team’s president of business operations, during her job interview not to consider the idea of a Clippers-only arena.
But within barely a year, after what Ballmer called a nudge from his college friend and the team’s vice chairman, Dennis Wong, top Clippers officials were driving around Southern California scouting locations out of a belief that within a crowded market, there was a need to energize and distinguish the team’s “identity.”
Inglewood Mayor James T. Butts recalled a January 2016 meeting with Ballmer and Wong at the Marina del Rey Ritz-Carlton to discuss an arena whose construction is beginning now, near the intersection of Inglewood’s South Prairie Avenue and West Century Boulevard, only after a winding journey and years of costly legal fights largely with Madison Square Garden Co. That hurdle was cleared last year when Ballmer purchased the MSG-controlled Forum for $400 million in cash in a deal that resolved the legal disputes. The Clippers did not take possession of the final parcels of the necessary 28-acre plot until this summer after the city of Inglewood sought the remaining pieces through eminent domain.
“Mayor Butts,” Ballmer said, laughing slightly. “Boy, we’ve been through it.”
Only three years remain to deliver “the singular, best place for fans and players throughout the world,” Ballmer said. The arena will feature a two-sided, oval-shaped scoreboard featuring 44,000 square feet of LED lighting, which is about seven times larger than most NBA scoreboards, and a roof covered by the name of Intuit, the Silicon Valley-based software company best known for TurboTax, whose rights partnership lasts 23 years for an undisclosed sum.
Ballmer said he wants a 4,700-seat section behind the opposing bench dubbed “The Wall,” reaching 51 rows high at a steep slope, to become synonymous with the arena like Fenway Park’s left-field wall or Duke University’s student section.
He said Thursday that the team will have a contingency plan in case of delays, but was confident they would move in on time to allow customers to watch from “courtside cabanas” modeled after field-level suites in the NFL, or seats throughout the bowl with two inches more legroom than is typical. Fans will pick what they please from “smart” concession stands that will charge customers automatically without the need of a checkout line or wallet, “technology willing,” Zucker said. Five courts will dot the property, with two for community use.
“I feel a little bit like a kid on Christmas: You see that big present sitting there, you know it’s not time to open it yet so what do you start doing? You rip the paper, you look inside,” Ballmer said. “The only problem we have right now is it’s three years before we get a chance to open the damn thing.”
About a dozen people lined Prairie Avenue before Friday’s event, holding signs criticizing the looming construction and its potential affect on Inglewood residents. Inside the groundbreaking’s tent, Ballmer reiterated that he will contribute $80 million toward affordable housing in the area.
While the Clippers discussed their intentions as a good neighbor, the inconveniences they feel amid their current living arrangement was apparent. The Clippers and Lakers are the only NBA teams that share a home court and the Clippers have long felt frustrated that a deal struck long before the current ownership took over gives the Lakers and Kings first priority in scheduling. It did not take Ballmer long to become dissatisfied with less lucrative game days and tipoff times, such as weekend afternoons.
“I attended a whole lot of 12:30 p.m. games with sleep-deprived players rubbing bleary eyes in timeouts,” Ballmer said. “Don’t like those 12:30 p.m. games on Saturdays and believe me, in our own building we don’t have to play as many.”
Said West: “The Clippers have been in a great building in Staples but when you are the third tenant in the building, I mean my goodness we have the worst schedule every year.”
Even Clippers home games can feel tilted against their favor. Former coach Doc Rivers was heavily criticized for his decision to cover the Lakers’ banners and retired jerseys that hang in the Staples Center's rafters during Clippers home games. In 2018, when Leonard grabbed a microphone at midcourt to welcome fans before his first game as a Clipper, the cheers for the franchise’s most prominent free-agent signing were met equally by boos from Lakers fans.
As Leonard said in a team video, future fans’ team of choice “better be the Clips.”
Intuit Dome represents a billion-dollar bet by Ballmer on a building he hopes will sound all season as Staples Center did last June, when even Ballmer’s noise was drowned out by a booming roar as the Clippers secured their first conference finals berth.
“If you’ve been around this city the Lakers are probably the most favorite sports team of all and I don’t think that’s what [is in] Steve’s timeline,” West said. “He wants his own identity.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.