In L.A. Since the ’80s, the Clippers Are Finally Planting a Flag

LOS ANGELES — Steve Ballmer, the owner of the N.B.A.’s Clippers, is known for being a wacky guy. He sits courtside at home games and punches at the air wildly, leaping from his seat, dancing and shouting.

He is intense.

He once said he wanted to put spikes in the seats at the Clippers’ next arena to keep fans up and cheering. But he swears it was just a joke.

What he really wants, and won’t get, is for the seats to vibrate.

“Haptic feedback,” he said. “You know, BRRR.”

If Ballmer had it his way, the whole city would buzz with excitement about the Clippers, the perennially unloved and underachieving little brother to the Lakers. He is spending his considerable energy, and billions of his fortune, to carve out real space for the Clippers in a crowded Los Angeles sports market.

“What does it take to succeed when you’re behind?” Ballmer, 66, said. “Well, it takes a while. You have to be patient. It takes a while to capture people’s loyalties. You have to be successful. You got to build a good product, which means we have to have good teams out there year in and year out. Got to win championships.”

He added: “I have to live a long and full life so we can get there.”

The Lakers have spent decades establishing their identity as one of the N.B.A.’s glamour franchises. They are the team of Showtime, of championships, of the league’s biggest stars, like Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Hollywood’s elite come to their games to see the show and to be seen.

The Clippers have struggled to define themselves, but since Ballmer bought the team in 2014 its reputation has started to change.

Stars like Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have chosen to join the Clippers. The team is preparing to leave Arena, which it shares with the Lakers and other teams in downtown Los Angeles, for a glittering new arena 11 miles away in Inglewood in 2024. The once-dominant Lakers have made the playoffs just twice since Ballmer bought the Clippers, creating an opportunity for the Clippers to gain ground among local men’s basketball fans.

They have a tough history to overcome.

The Clippers owner Steve Ballmer has become known for his constant presence on the sidelines, though usually not like this: He’s often one of the most rowdy fans in the building.Credit…Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

The Clippers made only four playoff appearances between 1984-85, when they moved to Los Angeles from San Diego, and 2010-11, the season before they traded for the All-Star point guard Chris Paul. The Lakers won eight championships during that period.

“The Clippers always been looked at as the other team,” said Paul Pierce, the Hall of Fame player who grew up in Inglewood and spent the final two years of his 19-year N.B.A. career with the Clippers.

There were moments when the Clippers flashed into the imagination of the basketball world. In the early 2000s, a group of young players — Darius Miles, Lamar Odom and Quentin Richardson among them — earned fans’ adoration with their fun personalities and the playing style of an ultra-talented pickup team. But the Clippers made the playoffs only once in the first decade of the century.

“The Clippers never really had a place, you know what I mean?” said Baron Davis, 43, a retired two-time All-Star guard who grew up in Los Angeles and played for U.C.L.A. “And I knew when I signed with the Clippers, my goals in three years, four years, we wanted to make it another destination in L.A.”

They did not become serious contenders until they traded with New Orleans for Paul in December 2011 and ushered in the so-called Lob City era, named for the way Paul would connect with the high-flying forward Blake Griffin for thrilling dunks to punctuate fast breaks.

That period coincided with a downturn for the Lakers, opening the door for some fans, particularly younger ones, to choose the Clippers.

“The Lakers sucked when I first started watching basketball,” Charlie Muir, a high school senior, said at a recent Clippers game. He added: “I saw the Clippers. They had, like, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin. It was Lob City era so it was really exciting to watch.”

The teams that included Paul and Griffin had their best shot at winning a championship in 2014, but fell short and had to deal with a scandal. During the playoffs that season, TMZ published audio of the team owner Donald Sterling making racist remarks about Black people.

Blake Griffin, left, and Chris Paul, not shown, brought the Clippers into the so-called Lob City era in the early 2010s as they often connected for alley oops.Credit…Chris Carlson/Associated Press

Ballmer’s son called him within two days of that story breaking.

“Dad, that team’s going to be for sale,” Ballmer recalled his son saying. “You need to buy it.”

Ballmer, a basketball fanatic who is a former chief executive of Microsoft, lived in Seattle and had grown up in Detroit, so he wasn’t familiar with the dynamics of having two major teams from the same league in the same city.

“The notion that, like, somebody you run into on the street might be against your team, to me, that was like, whoa, zany,” Ballmer said.

For years, Loyola Marymount University published the results of an annual survey that asked Los Angeles County residents which sports team with Los Angeles in its name was their favorite. In 2014, when there were eight such teams, 6.7 percent of respondents chose the Clippers, significantly less than the Lakers (42.9 percent) and Major League Baseball’s Dodgers (33.8 percent) but still more than the five other teams.

By 2021, the Lakers and Clippers had become less favored and the N.F.L.’s Rams, which re-entered the market in 2016 after two decades away, had picked up 6 percent of the vote. There are nine professional men’s teams that have Los Angeles in their name, a W.N.B.A. team, a National Women’s Soccer League team and two colleges with major sports programs — U.C.L.A. and Southern California — that all compete for attention.

The Lakers have been bad more often than not over the past decade, but they won a championship — their 17th — in 2020, giving fans a reason to celebrate.Credit…Brandon Bell/Getty Images

The Clippers, Lakers and Kings have shared an arena since 1999, when Staples Center — which was renamed Arena last year — opened in downtown Los Angeles. The W.N.B.A.’s Sparks joined them in 2001. The Clippers have third priority, so they have to build their schedule around the Lakers and Kings. They cover the Lakers’ championship banners with their own signage during home games. There are 10 statues in the plaza in front of the arena: six honoring Laker greats, three featuring Kings and one of the boxer Oscar De La Hoya. Los Angeles is the only city in the United States where multiple pairs of teams in the same sports share buildings.

“I think anyone, to some degree, that is not the Lakers or Dodgers, there’s a challenger status that is a little bit unique,” said Kevin Demoff, the Rams’ chief operating officer.

After 21 seasons in St. Louis, the Rams returned to Los Angeles in 2016. They won the Super Bowl in the 2021 season, in Inglewood at SoFi Stadium, which they share with the Chargers.

“Winning is the cover charge to getting people to appreciate you, especially if you’re in that challenger status,” Demoff said. But he added: “This is not a city where one championship can change your fortunes for a long time. That is just what’s expected.”

Except for the Clippers, Chargers and the N.W.S.L. team Angel City F.C., which played its first season this year, all of the major professional sports teams in the Los Angeles market have won at least one championship.

Thilo Kunkel, an associate professor at Temple University who studies sports branding, said it is possible, and necessary, for a team to build a brand independent of winning championships. He pointed to London, which has more than a dozen professional soccer teams, many of which have robust fan bases even when they are struggling.

“Winning a championship is really putting all eggs in one basket, and that’s a basket everyone else wants as well,” Kunkel said. “A strategic way to build a brand community is creating a vision — who we are, what we stand for.”

Both Kunkel and Demoff said the Clippers’ move to their own arena will be important to that end.

“They’ve done a really nice job of finding their own lane in the sports brand world in Los Angeles, and now they can fully lean into that rather than having to take down signage from one game in 12 hours and put up something,” Demoff said.

Ballmer’s financial commitment to differentiating the Clippers applies on and off the court. The team said it spent $10 million resurfacing 350 basketball courts in community parks around Los Angeles, and others in Inglewood, Moreno Valley (Leonard’s hometown) and Palmdale (George’s hometown). Ballmer spent $2 billion to buy the team, and he is financing the new arena, the $2 billion Intuit Dome.

As the Clippers studied seating options for the new arena, they built more than 20 sets of small-scale grandstands, and Ballmer sat in all of them. In downtown Los Angeles at the Intuit Dome Experience Center, which includes sample suites and seating options, visitors can test the seats with haptic feedback (not spikes) that the team ultimately decided were too jarring. Ballmer’s goal is personalization: Clippers fans will even have some control over the temperature in their sections.

To help amplify the crowd noise and create the kind of supporters section that is common in soccer stadiums, one side of the arena will have what Ballmer calls the “Wall of Sound”: 4,700 seats lined up without breaks for stairs or aisles.

He has consulted his players and coaches about what to include in their new practice courts and locker rooms.

Ballmer speaks during a groundbreaking ceremony for the Clippers’ new arena, the Intuit Dome, in September 2021.Credit…Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

The players, of course, are the key to the whole revitalization.

There was a time when it would have been unthinkable that superstars would choose the Clippers. Paul, after all, arrived via trade, and the team drafted Griffin No. 1 overall in 2009. But both Leonard and George spurned overtures from the Lakers and have settled in with the Clippers.

“People like Kawhi because he’s soft-spoken — he don’t speak,” said Darrell Bailey, the superfan better known as Clipper Darrell. He added that he loved Leonard’s attitude. “At the end of the day, Kawhi comes and does his job.”

The Clippers have kept a talented supporting cast around their stars, giving them the second-highest payroll in the N.B.A. For Ballmer, that could mean a big luxury tax bill, the financial penalty for the league’s biggest spenders.

“I’ll pay it,” he said with a little sigh and shrug. In September, Forbes estimated his net worth to be $83 billion.

“I’ve been extremely blessed financially,” Ballmer said. “Am I kind of an open checkbook where, you know, nothing’s too big? I don’t know. No one’s tested me on that. But I’m willing to spend.”

Darrell Bailey, a superfan better known as Clipper Darrell, has followed the team since the early 1990s.Credit…Morgan Lieberman for The New York Times
Bailey’s custom Clippers car.Credit…Morgan Lieberman for The New York Times

The Clippers said they had seen a return on Ballmer’s investment. They hired three sports and consumer research agencies to study their fan base and found that it had more than tripled between 2014 and 2021. The Clippers said ticket sales and sponsorship revenue had also increased during that time.

“You’ve finally got an owner that cares,” Pierce said.

Before the season, Ballmer was asked if he was excited that the Clippers seemed to be healthy. He clapped his hands and the sound boomed as though a large balloon had just popped. Then he grinned and stuck out his tongue, lifting both feet off the ground as he rubbed his hands together.

“Ohhh, yes, I am!” he said. “Yes, I am!”

But Leonard, who missed last season with a knee injury, has played in just six of the team’s 25 games this year because of injuries. George recently missed seven straight games with his injuries. The Clippers are 14-11 — better than the Lakers but below reasonable hopes for a team with such big-name stars.

While they are not resting all of their brand-building hopes on winning championships, they know how important on-court success is. Lest they forget, there are constant reminders of the championship expectations for Los Angeles sports teams. Some have won quickly after joining the fray, while the Clippers have yet to win a title in nearly four decades in Los Angeles.

On Nov. 12, members of Los Angeles F.C., an expansion soccer team that played its first game in 2018, visited the Clippers. They brought along a prop that Ballmer posed with: the M.L.S. Cup trophy — their first — they had won a week before.

Sopan Deb contributed reporting.

Back to top button