Then-Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer gestures during his keynote address at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco back on Sept. 26, 2000.
An entire generation of NBA players learned this the hard way after Michael Jordan retired from the league in 1999: In few realms does the "tough act to follow" idiom ring more true than the noisy, hyper-scrutinized and testosterone-laden world of sports.
Successors are examined, criticized and endlessly compared to the demigods who came before them. It's a trap, but one that can't be avoided.
Steve Ballmer, however, is poised to experience the opposite effect. If and when — despite Donald Sterling's intention to sue the NBA for a $1 billion — he is eventually allowed to buy the Los Angeles Clippers for the whopping price tag of $2 billion, the former Microsoft CEO will be hailed as the sporting world's knight in shining armor, here to rescue a hamstrung franchise and outraged public from the ogre that is Sterling.
The Clippers are our damsel in distress. Sterling is the tyrant holding her — and the sensibilities of decent Americans everywhere — hostage. That's after the qualities that made him reviled by NBA fans for decades were finally exposed to the general public thanks to a leaked recording of him making a string of racist comments.
So Ballmer isn't just another billionaire throwing down big bucks for a new hobby. Heck, if he plays this thing right he'll become the most loved man in Sports America. Jordan was the giant who made hundreds of future NBA players seem small by comparison;
Sterling, by contrast, is the mental midget who will make any subsequent Clippers owner look like a saint.Sterling, by contrast, is the mental midget who will make any subsequent Clippers owner look like a saint.
But Ballmer, the man worth an estimated $20 billion, is especially primed to succeed Sterling, the most-hated man in America, and be welcomed like a frosty glass of lemonade on the stickiest summer day.
Sure, Ballmer was never known during his 14-year run at Microsoft as the world's most innovative CEO; one need only track Microsoft's stock price and second-fiddle tech status for proof of that. But, Sterling's cartoon villain status aside, Ballmer does have two significant things going for him that could instantly skyrocket him to the sports world's upper echelon of idolatry.
First, for all of Ballmer's shortcomings as an innovator and strategist, two things he never lacked as Microsoft's CEO were personality and enthusiasm. I mean, just look at the guy.
The passion! The sweat-stained dress-shirt! Heck, Ballmer looks like he could pull triple-duty as owner, halftime show and hustling reserve off the bench (further proof). Talk about efficiency.
But in all seriousness — sports are ultimately a spectacle and fans eat up the antics of over-enthusiastic, well-intentioned franchise owners. Ballmer stands to join Mark Cuban right at the top of the NBA list.
Second, starring Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and one of the league's deepest rosters, the Clippers are already a title contender. Ballmer stands a real chance of shepherding the Clippers to their first NBA title within a year or two of taking over the team. As much as sports fans love personality, they love championships more.
The paperwork still has to be finalized but all indications are that Ballmer will in the near future be officially introduced as owner of the Los Angles Clippers. Is he over-paying for the team? Maybe — the reported $2 billion price tag will set an NBA record by a factor of four after the Milwaukee Bucks were sold for a then-record $550 million just last month.
Any way you slice it, $2 billion is a massive sum. But love, adoration and sports-hero status? You can't put a price on that — especially when you're Steve Ballmer. With $18 billion left over.