With Steve Ballmer's $2 billion purchase of the Los Angeles Clippers all but a done deal -- the 29 other NBA owners only need to sign off on the sale -- it's a good time to critically examine all the ways that Steve Ballmer has already succeeded in the role of Professional Sports Team Owner, mostly by being someone he is not more than who he is but such is the low expectations we have of our team owners.
Let's take a look:
Steve Ballmer is not Donald Sterling -- This is a very important point to consider, perhaps the most important. By simply not being Donald Sterling, who was often a very poor excuse for a professional sports team owner and human being during his 33 years with the Clippers, Ballmer automatically ranks as a sizable upgrade, the kind of owner for which fans need not instinctually turn their heads away in embarrassment whenever his name is mentioned on the local news. Oh cripes, what'd he do again? now makes way for Hey, that's my team's owner! That's a good day for any Clippers fan.
Steve Ballmer is not the CEO of Microsoft -- To be clear, he did hold this job for many years and became an extremely wealthy man along the way. Ballmer was not a coder and can't lay claim to any major achievement in the world of advanced computing like Bill Gates (his old boss and Harvard friend) or the Steves of Apple (Jobs and Wozniak). He was Microsoft employee No. 30, the company's first business manager, and that would've made anyone rich beyond their dreams, but he rose through the company nonetheless. He replaced Gates as CEO in 2000 at the age of 43 and finally retired last year. So he is now not employed by anyone and has an obscene amount of disposable income.
Steve Ballmer is not a calm man -- So, Ballmer wasn't a coder cranking out the next Windows operating system or envisioning new ways that hardware and technology could better our lives, but he was the company's top cheerleader. He lived and breathed (and sweated) Microsoft. His emotions were never too far from the surface, often out in the open for everyone to experience. Here is his goodbye speech to the employees of Microsoft.
Steve Ballmer cares. That's the kind of person you want running your sports team.
Steve Ballmer is not Mark Cuban -- If you know little else about Ballmer, the really easy comparison is to say he's Mark Cuban without the hairline. Sure, the similarities are undeniable -- personal net worth in the billions, opinionated, came from the tech world, etc. -- but Ballmer put in 33 years at Microsoft and was a master at towing the company line. Cuban made billions when he hit the dotcom bubble lottery and sold his audio-streaming company, has no filter of which to speak, and often gets in trouble for saying things without much tact. With Ballmer, it's more of a calculated madness. There's a logic underneath his actions. You don't survive 33 years at the world's largest tech company without some. That's not to say he's not incredibly wrongheaded at times -- laughing at the iPhone? -- but Ballmer is smarter than he looks.
Now, it's certainly possible that Ballmer will, over time, evolve into something more closely resembling the Chief Maverick in charge, but that outlook seems unlikely.
Steve Ballmer has no business owning a sports team -- Ballmer has no extended history with any sports franchise, has never been seen hobnobbing at the Sloan Conference in Boston, and has little discernible love of sports in any specific context. What he is is a multibillionaire retiree with nothing else to do, a person who can get people excited to work for him, a man with a proven track record in business who can mix emotion with acumen. That should make for one of the most fascinating ownership situations we've ever seen in this country -- whether or not the team ultimately ends up in Seattle.
What Clippers fans should truly hope for is that the Steve Ballmer who makes payroll and other important team business decisions is not the same Steve Ballmer who just overpaid for a NBA franchise by hundreds of millions of dollars, but the purchase price will eventually be little more than a footnote to history. In time, Ballmer's own legacy as Clippers owner will be defined not by Donald Sterling but by his own actions.
Ballmer hasn't done a thing yet, but he's off to a great start.
You can follow Erik Malinowski, who is not Steve Ballmer, on Twitter at @erikmal and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.