LOS ANGELES — Steve Ballmer was at his coastal home about two hours outside Seattle when he got the phone call he had been waiting for.
Dennis Robertson, Kawhi Leonard’s trusted uncle and adviser, called the LA Clippers owner around 11 p.m. to inform him that Leonard was joining the Clippers. Ballmer didn’t want to wake his wife’s family sleeping in the house at the time, but he reacted the only way he knows how — he let out a scream.
“Yeah, a little bit,” Ballmer said laughing loudly before clapping his hands while seated in the Blue Chips conference room in the Clippers’ downtown office. “There were people sleeping. But I did not wake anybody up.”
The Clippers, though, woke the NBA world up late on July 5 when they got a long-awaited free-agent commitment from Leonard and sent five first-round picks, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari in a blockbuster trade for Paul George.
On Wednesday, the Clippers introduced Leonard and George to the local media, and the news conference felt like a celebratory pep rally. Ballmer, unable to contain his trademark enthusiasm and energy, shouted and implored students and team employees who attended at the Green Meadows Recreation center to stand up and cheer.
Then on Thursday, Ballmer unveiled to ESPN renderings of the designs of his proposed new arena to be built in Inglewood, California, by 2024. Ballmer’s Clippers have a superstar duo in Leonard and George and are a title contender, and he has visions of opening a state of the art, 18,500-seat arena complete with corporate headquarters, a team training facility that will be designed down to the detail of how many paces it takes a player to walk from locker room to the home bench, a sports medicine clinic, community courts, park spaces, educational facilities, restaurants and shops on 26 acres in Inglewood.
Madison Square Garden, which owns The Forum in Inglewood, filed a lawsuit in California Superior Court in March against the City of Inglewood and Inglewood Mayor James T. Butts Jr., alleging that they held secret negotiations with the Clippers about building a new arena adjacent to the Forum and the site of the Los Angeles Rams’ future home.
MSG has owned the Forum since 2011 and reportedly has invested $100 million in redeveloping the property in cooperation with the city. The lawsuit alleges that Inglewood and its mayor violated their contract with MSG that the city would not attempt to develop another concert venue that would damage the Forum’s business, particularly with concerts. The suit also alleges Inglewood and its mayor entered secret negotiations with the Clippers regarding 15 acres of property where overflow parking had been leased by the Forum.
“We won’t go into the details of any of the legal things but we feel good that we will be able to build our building,” Ballmer said. “Litigation is never a good thing. Madison Square Garden is certainly going to oppose in every way they can. They will continue to oppose us in a variety of different ways and yet we feel confident that we will be able to get our building built by 2024 which is when our lease ends at Staples.”
“It’s about protecting the Forum,” Ballmer added of MSG’s lawsuit. “They don’t want another concert competitor… I understand that interest. What I don’t understand is a litigious approach to that. I don’t understand that. We had the same issue at Microsoft. There are people who had a problem. OK, work it through. But getting litigious, that makes everything awkward.”
Things also got a little awkward between Ballmer and the Los Angeles Lakers when it came to the new proposed arena. The Los Angeles Times reported that music business mogul Irving Azoff, who has close business ties with the Forum and MSG and is close friends with Dolan, pitched the idea of the Lakers moving back to play at their old home, the Forum, in an effort to keep the Clippers from building a new home in Inglewood.
The Times reported that the Lakers are believed to be discussing an extension to their lease with the Staples Center, which goes through 2024-25. But the report also revealed emails between Azoff and Lakers’ controlling owner Jeanie Buss and her longtime confidant and Lakers’ executive director, special projects Linda Rambis that referred to Ballmer as “Ballz or “Balls” while expressing surprise about his plan to build a new arena.
Ballmer said Buss called him to follow up “apologetically.”
“That email thing was weird,” Ballmer said. “Let me just say it was weird. I don’t know what they were trying to do precisely.”
Ballmer had a sense of humor about everything.
“First I’ll just say, Jeanie was very nice,” he added. “She followed up apologetically about that. Actually my initial reaction was they misspelled it — with a ‘z.’ My initial reaction was, ‘z?!?!’ With my last name, I won’t say I haven’t been called that before in my life. It is not the first time I have heard that.”
Ballmer, who will have the billion-dollar project completely privately financed, visited between 13-15 arenas and facilities including Milwaukee, Detroit, the University of Oregon, Indianapolis, Charlotte, Utah, Portland and Dallas in hopes of getting a feeling for what he wants his arena to look and feel like.
Ballmer wants one end of the court behind the basket to have stands that go from the bottom to the top without any suites or tiers to simulate a college basketball home-court like advantage and feel. He calls it “the Wall of Sound.”
“I want it to be a noisy building I really want that kind of energy, think Oracle has been that way, Utah has got good energy, Portland has got good energy,” Ballmer said. “I think our Clipper fan base is a little more tenacious. They’re people decided they’re sticking with us and now I think we are will get new kinds of fans with Paul and Kawhi joining us but I think it is a hard core fan base. I think that we can get real noise, real energy in the building.”
During the Clippers’ free-agent meeting with Leonard, Ballmer showed a couple of renderings of the arena design to Leonard. Leonard asked if the new arena will really happen.
“This is really going to happen,” Ballmer told Leonard. “Obviously we have to go through the process, entitlement process, the lawsuits that Madison Square Garden has brought but we are feeling confident that we can build our stadium in Inglewood.”
A brand new arena slated to open in 2024 wasn’t a major factor in Leonard’s decision. But Ballmer wants Leonard and any future free agents and players to know that the Clippers are committed.
“I don’t want to say it was a major milestone in the meeting but we did share because it is another statement that we are really committed,” Ballmer said. “I don’t know how it’s humanly possible but I still occasionally get a question about it will your team move to Seattle? We are building our billion dollar-plus house here in Inglewood, California.”