The Clippers completed an exciting 4-2 run through the Mavericks. With Paul George ice cold for much of it, and Luka Doncic proving his abilities, it produced some of the tensest playoff moments so far. With absent crowds, the Clippers had an edge: a bald guy socially-distanced in the stands, screaming his heart out. That would be owner Steve Ballmer, controversial tech-executive-turned-NBA-owner.
Even in the pre-COVID-19 part of the season, Ballmer was likely the loudest voice in the arena. Far from the usual cool billionaire detachment, he’s committed to his team. Ballmer brought energy to his Microsoft tenure, too. Yet there’s more to him than meets the eye.
How the public sees Steve Ballmer
For NBA fans, Ballmer is the hysterically enthusiastic guy the camera cuts to at every Clippers game; he’s also the richest owner in sports. For people into tech, he’s the former Microsoft CEO who guided the company through a rocky yet profitable era. Even video-game aficionados know a version of Ballmer, reports IGN, as the fierce personality who literally shouted at crowds about the greatness of Microsoft’s Xbox 360 game console.
He’s emblematic of a shift in the tech industry at large. The quiet intellectuals with shark-like energy — think Steve Jobs and Ballmer’s predecessor Bill Gates — were supplanted by boisterous finance and marketing personalities. The sports world is a natural fit for this type, yet Ballmer still stands out. He’s clearly in the business for the love of it, not just as a lucrative investment.
Ballmer spent years trying and failing to keep the Seattle SuperSonics in the city. He brought that same drive to his Clippers ownership, where he has a legitimate case for being the team’s biggest fan. Yet although he grew up as a huge sports fan, he wasn’t always such a strong presence at games.
Ballmer’s years as a shy child gave way to his boisterous personality
Ballmer grew up shy and quiet, as unbelievable as that seems today. He was a dedicated student, a National Merit Scholar who often struggled with speaking in front of crowds. Sports changed that for him, despite his total focus on academics through high school.
His sports fandom flourished into something more formal at Harvard. Business Insider reports that he became a basketball statistician, using his math skills to help the Harvard squad improve. He also became a manager for the elite school’s football team, where he was required to give speeches before each game.
He needed to hold the attention of a bunch of testosterone-fueled athletes and set the right tone for games. At first, he was meek. His voice cracked. As he went on, though, he learned how to get their attention and keep it. He got more aggressive, excitable, started putting every ounce of energy he had into charging up his team. It’s here where the Ballmer we know came into being.
The times Ballmer’s forthright style got him in hot water
According to CNN, Ballmer was an early employee of Microsoft in 1980. He was one of the few business-focused figures at the time. 20 years later, he became the company’s second CEO. It was a fraught run that kept investors wary, keeping the stock price static even during periods of massive growth in profits, as the New York Times reported in 2007.
Much of this came down to Ballmer’s abrasive, excitable approach to managing executives. Ballmer’s cheerleading could quickly turn to anger, as this profile in The Guardian points out. That included founder and former CEO Bill Gates, which eventually led to Gates cutting ties with the company entirely.
Much of the friction came from Ballmer’s insistence on increasing involvement in hardware, smartphones in particular. It gave Microsoft a reputation for instability, that current CEO Satya Nadella has spent years repairing.