Plaschke: Clippers owner Steve Ballmer puts jeering Lakers fans on notice: He's coming for you

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Los Angeles, CA. September 16, 2021: Clippers owner Steve Ballmer taels with the media after a virtual tour of the Intuit Dome, the future home of the Los Angeles Clippers. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)
Clippers owner Steve Ballmer talks to media members during a virtual tour of the team's new arena, Intuit Dome, that is scheduled to open in October 2024. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Lakers fans, Steve Ballmer is coming for you.

Lakers fans, Steve Ballmer has a team that finished last season better than your team, and he’s building an arena that will be nicer than your arena and he’s constructed a roster that will last longer than your roster.

Lakers fans, Steve Ballmer knows this is exactly why you jeered his Clippers so loudly last spring, turning the town against them even as they crept to within two wins of the NBA Finals.

He gets your hate. He accepts your boos. And he’s coming for you.

“Why did so many in the town cheer against us?” the Clippers irrepressible owner asked in an interview with The Times on the eve of training camp. “At some points it gets like this ... for a long time the Clippers were nothing, so nobody had to pay attention, and for people who had been Lakers fans forever, there’s no threat.”

He paused and smiled.

“We’ll, we’ve gotten pretty good,” he said. “We’re actually serious, you can see we’re serious, we’re not the old screwed-up franchise in town, we’re getting our act together and I think because we’re getting our act together, it gets people like, ‘C’mon, you can’t get your act together, it’s just my team, my team is the only one that matters!’”

He kept smiling.

“No, we’re coming,” he said. “We’re coming.”

So all those Lakers fans who booed you in sports bars, and all those radio hosts who ripped your success on “Los Angeles” sports talk radio stations, and all those Lakers honks who wanted you to lose even though you wore the name of their city on your shirts and their favorite team was already eliminated ... all those people were actually scared of you?

“A little bit,” said Ballmer with a chuckle. “A little bit.”

He explained, saying, “We’re going to provide some competition. I don’t mean for fandom in the city, I mean we’re going to be real competition in this league. It’s not like the Clippers for the first whatever number of years where you can just write them off at the beginning of the season, we’re going to be a serious competitor and people aren’t used to that.”

Ballmer said he knew that when he bought the team from Donald Sterling, he was signing up to be in a purple-and-gold shadow. But even he was surprised by a city that didn’t simply ignore his team, but was openly hostile to them, as if the Clippers had numerous NBA titles and presented consistent competition.

“I have been surprised by animus from Lakers fans, and my message has sort of been, why, you don’t have enough confidence in your guys?” he said. “There are 29 other teams you have to beat to win a championship, but you must be pretty worried about us. The Lakers are a great organization, a great franchise, but Laker fans, you must be a little worried about us.”

Um, er, Lakers fans should be worried.

Entering his seventh season of ownership, Ballmer has put the Clippers on the most stable ground in franchise history. He’s not going anywhere. With money and commitment from the league’s richest owner, the Clippers as a competitive entity aren’t going anywhere.

The $2 billion arena in Inglewood, scheduled to open in 2024, is not just a game changer, it’s a franchise changer, with his team’s presence now as solid as the unbroken 51 rows of stands in one end zone that will be known as, “The Wall.” They will no longer be a distant third tenant at Staples Center. Their nomadic existence will finally come to rest in a basketball palace.

“This is just another step in building our own identity. We’ve got to get out of the shadows,” Ballmer said. “We’re building our own home-court advantage. That building says we’re different. We‘ve finally got our own schtick.”

The arena investment puts an end to the lingering question that Ballmer could move the team to Seattle. That’s not happening. Ballmer claims it was never happening.

“Nobody can be confused anymore,” he said. “I never even thought about it. Not once.”

The breaking of the Western Conference finals jinx last spring also puts an end to the question that the Clippers can be built for a championship. Although they will wait a year because of star Kawhi Leonard’s knee injury, they’re rigged for the future. Ballmer agreed to the notion held by many that if Leonard had not become injured during the second round of the last year’s playoffs, the Clippers could have even won it all.

“I think we would have,” he said. “But would have, could have, should have ... but put it this way, we would have been right there.”

Ballmer acknowledged that he considered changing the team’s name to coincide with the move to Inglewood, all in hopes of rebranding and separating themselves from 37 years of Los Angeles failure. But, no, with the recent success and growing fan base, even the historically cursed, “Clippers” are here for good.

“I thought about it, you’ve got to think about it,” Ballmer said about the changing the name. “When I first got the team, I thought about it in the sense, 'Is the brand tarnished?' ... But the brand is better known because it is tarnished. 'But is it tarnished?'”

He added, “But we’re through all that, our Clipper loyalists won’t want us to change the name of this thing, there’s no push for that. I’m hopeful we’re going to win a championship with that name in the next few years. Why walk away from that?”

It’s impossible to walk away from Ballmer and not be inspired by the Clippers' future. Fans can certainly dislike the Clippers players — it was written in this space that they never should have re-signed that sourpuss Leonard — but it is extremely difficult not to appreciate the emotional energy and financial commitment of their owner.

He’s much more than a red-faced, fist-pumping character bouncing on the baseline. He splendidly represents this city’s drive to succeed, it’s mandate to entertain, it’s will to win. He has spiritedly thrown his plentiful financial resources into what was seemingly a losing proposition, and created not only a good basketball team, but now what could be the finest basketball arena in the country.

You can ignore it, you can dismiss it, but, seriously, if you consider yourself an Angeleno, how can you not respect it?

Of course, Lakers fans found a way to boo it, using the internet to pile on the perceived awkwardness of the Clippers’ Friday groundbreaking ceremony because it dared to include a band that was ignored by the glum Leonard. Even LeBron James piled on with a disparaging tweet that was startlingly misguided.

While Ballmer’s promises of Inglewood community improvements will be closely monitored and judged as time passes, for now, he’s creating jobs, he’s creating entertainment, and he’s making a huge commitment to the city on behalf of a basketball team that the city largely dislikes.

He’s a true believer, and it’s hard not to believe in that.

“Hey man, we’re in,” he said. “We’re not cheap and crappy. We’re in.”

Los Angeles, Steve Ballmer is coming for you.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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