By Eric Kelsey
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – With his trademark top-of-the-lungs, high-fiving, rambunctious enthusiasm, former Microsoft Corp chief executive Steve Ballmer introduced himself to Los Angeles Clippers fans on Monday, promising a new era for the NBA team after former owner Donald Sterling was banned for life over racist remarks.
Ballmer, 58, who paid an NBA-record $2 billion for the Clippers, greeted the several thousand gathered at the team’s Staples Center home with the primal screams that punctuated meetings at the Seattle technology company.
“I couldn’t be more honored or excited or fired up to be here,” Ballmer exclaimed as he was welcomed with a standing ovation.
Ballmer, who said he will be a courtside fixture at games, took over the Clippers last week, ending Sterling’s 33 years of ownership that were marked by decades of losing and second-tier status to local rival, the Lakers.
The NBA banned Sterling for life in April, days after his privately taped remarks imploring a girlfriend not to publicly associate with black people were published.
The remarks, which were publicized during the Clippers’ playoff run, sparked public outrage, prompted sponsors to cut ties with the team and caused Clippers players, who are mostly black, to consider a boycott.
The 80-year-old real estate billionaire also unsuccessfully fought in court to keep the team after his estranged wife, Shelly Sterling, struck the deal with Ballmer.
“Everything is about looking forward,” Ballmer told the crowd, striking a tone about new beginnings for a team that finds itself for the first time as a playoff contender behind superstars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.
‘A GREAT CHANGE’
The playoffs came after the Clippers acquired top players in recent years. Now they are also in a new position of commanding the off-season spotlight.
“We made lemonade out of lemons,” Ballmer said alongside eight of the team’s players who were in attendance, praising their performance last year during the Sterling saga.
Sterling’s comments embarrassed the NBA and Clippers supporters.
“I think it’s going to be a great change, a positive change,” said Clippers fan Teri Renty. “It’s something we desperately needed, and it will really be great for the team in giving them the energy and the momentum to look forward to good things.”
The rally served as a restart for fans who were given t-shirts in Clippers red, white and blue that read “We are Clipper Nation” along with “It’s a New Day” on the back.
Head coach Doc Rivers, who considered quitting if Sterling remained as owner, characterized the Ballmer era as one of relief for fans, who had for years been publicly reserved in their support for the longtime Western Conference doormats.
“Now they can actually say it and be proud of it, and I’m very happy for them,” Rivers told reporters after the rally.
“If we do it right, the name can stand for something.”
(Additional reporting by Alicia Avila; Editing by Mary Milliken and Ken Wills)