There's a story I tell about Donald Sterling. I've probably told it to you at some point. A few years back I was invited to Sterling's annual "White Party" at his Malibu beach house. (I know, the "White Party" has additional freight now.)
Sterling takes his White Party very seriously. If you show up at his White Party wearing anything other than white, you either put on the white T-Shirt they hand you at the door, or you don't go in. So you're at this party with 500 or so people, all in white.
The Donald stayed hidden for awhile. He made his appearance at his own "White Party" about two hours after it started -- dressed all in black, like Johnny freakin' Cash.
The Los Angeles Clippers held a Fan Festival today to introduce their new owner. Once again, the owner was the last to join the party. Once again, he made his entrance in his own way. But the overall impression that it made could not have been more different.
Eight players on the roster (everyone except for Spencer Hawes, Glen Davis, J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford) were at the event. Ralph Lawler hosted. Doc Rivers was there. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was there. But the star of the show was Ballmer. Everyone else entered through the stage they had set up. But when Ballmer-time arrived, the strains of Eminiem's "Lose Yourself" came booming through the arena and the new owner made his entrance through the crowd -- high-fiving and chest bumping fans as he made his serpentine way to the dais.
It was surreal. It was bizarre. It was ... freaking awesome. Blake Griffin later said that he got goosebumps. How cool is that?
At the "White Party" the situation was manipulated to draw attention to Sterling -- the one guy wearing black. Likewise at the Fan Festival, all the attention was put on the owner -- but in a very different way. Sterling's black outfit entrance said "I'm different than you, I'm apart from you" (and implicitly, "I'm better than you"); Ballmer's entrance said "I'm one of you, we're all just fans of this team."
Not everyone could pull that off of course. And maybe someday the act will wear thin. Most NBA fans, and more than a few Dallas fans, have gotten tired of Mark Cuban's antics. But there's something genuine about Ballmer's crazy enthusiasm. This is a guy that got pretty psyched up about the launch of Bing. He's actually much better suited to being cheerleader-in-chief of a basketball team than of a software company.
The simple fact of the matter is, in over 30 years as the Clippers owner, Donald Sterling never once went in front of a microphone without saying something that Clippers fans wished he hadn't said. Literally not one time, at least not of which I'm aware. The sheer contrast -- the whiplash inducing, disorienting, vertiginous contrast -- between these two owners is mind-numbing. Right now, Ballmer with a mic in his hand is as exciting for Clipper fans as Blake Griffin catching a lob or Chris Paul coming off a pick at the elbow.
I've talked to a few reporters recently. I've been quoted in the New York Times and elsewhere on behalf of Clipper fans. And I've had to admit to them that neither the verdict nor the announcement that the sale of the team seemed like overly special days to me -- partly because I knew those things were going to happen, they were inevitable. It's only been about three months since the Stiviano tapes surfaced, and a lot has happened. The most significant of those events had been Adam Silver's press conference where he announced Sterling's ban -- everything else was a logical result of the ban.
Until now. Today was in fact the day that things changed, because it became real. Steve Ballmer is here, and he's passionate, and his passion comes across as sincere and sustainable -- this isn't an act. Donald Sterling was the worst owner in North American pro sports. Steve Ballmer may or may not end up being the best owner -- but he is the richest. That much is indisputable, and it may be just as indisputable that he is the most enthusiastic. It remains to be seen how that enthusiasm translates in the product on the floor, but for now enthusiasm is a pretty nice thing for the fans.
It's like a tenant in one of Sterling's apartments who can't get his plumbing fixed -- who moves into Sterling Plaza.