LOS ANGELES — As he became increasingly giddy and excited, Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer pounded his fists on the conference room table.
Not only did Ballmer convey enthusiasm about the Clippers planning to break ground Friday on the Intuit Dome, a privately-financed arena in Inglewood, California, scheduled to be completed for the 2024-25 NBA season. He also expressed optimism about what the Clippers could accomplish during their last three seasons at Staples Center in downtown L.A.
“I want to win a championship,” Ballmer told USA TODAY Sports at the Clippers’ downtown office. “I think we’ll be able to compete for a championship.”
The Clippers have had those aspirations ever since Ballmer purchased the franchise in 2014 for around $2 billion. Those goals became more realistic after acquiring Kawhi Leonard and Paul George two years ago. But a year after squandering a 3-1 second-round lead to the Denver Nuggets amid overlapping injuries and inconsistent chemistry, the Clippers lost in six games to the Phoenix Suns in the 2021 Western Conference Finals.
A huge reason why: All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard suffered a season-ending ACL injury to his right knee in Game 4 of their second-round series against the Utah Jazz. The Clippers still won that series in six games, but Leonard’s absence became too overwhelming against Phoenix. As Ballmer said, “if we had been heathy this year, who knows what might happen?”
It’s been two months since since Leonard had offseason surgery on his right knee. Is there any chance he plays this upcoming season?
“Nobody knows at this stage,” Ballmer said. “Nobody knows. It’s possible. For sure, it’s possible. But it will depend on what the doctors say and what Kawhi says.”
The Clippers’ NBA title hopes this season could be drastically altered depending on what the doctors and Leonard say.
As Ballmer admitted: “We’ll be a very, very, very, very good team” once Leonard returns.
Ballmer described the Clippers as simply “a very good team” for two reasons. One, the Clippers face a crowded Western Conference landscape that includes the L.A. Lakers, Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors. Two, the Clippers still have one other All-Star (Paul George), retained three other key players (Reggie Jackson, Nicolas Batum, Serge Ibaka) and also brought in two other players who figure to contribute (Justice Winslow, Eric Bledsoe).
While Leonard and George have player options for the 2024-25 season, the Clippers have most of the rest of their core roster under contract for two more years.
“We come in every year looking for a title!” Ballmer said. “That’s what we do. We’re coming in this year looking for a title. Obviously not having arguably one of our two best players, that hurts. We’ll see when we get Kawhi back. But you think through a three-year stretch, we got all of these guys under contract for this year and next year. I think it gives us a lot of opportunity to compete.”
That partly explains why the Clippers sought to have their own arena, “a basketball mecca” – as Ballmer called it – that will hold up to 17,600 fans. The Clippers invited a select few reporters on Thursday evening to their downtown office to see renderings of the Intuit Dome before they break ground on Friday in Inglewood. The arena will have the game court, two practice courts for the players and two practice courts for fans outside the 80,000-sqare foot outdoor plaza.
“We’re going to get to have our own identity,” Ballmer said. “I think that’s great. Our team keeps getting better and better. I think we are viewed as a great free agent destination at this stage. Obviously Kawhi coming is a validation of that. But we need to win championships. I thought we needed our own building.”
The reason? Ever since Staples Center opened in 1999, the Clippers have been co-tenants with the Lakers and the NHL’s Kings. That resulted in the Clippers not receiving top priority in scheduling. With their own $1.8 billion arena, which Ballmer said was privately financed, the Clippers can now alter their schedule to avoid direct competition with other L.A. sports teams. The Clippers also have no plans to have the arena host hockey games, easing the burden of converting the court into an ice rink between games.
“Is this a great investment? No,” Ballmer said. “I’m probably better off leaving my money in the stock market. But it’s an OK investment.”
Ballmer might be selling himself short.
Ballmer bought the nearby Forum from the Madison Square Garden Company for $400 million in cash partly because he feared “we were going to be tied up legally for a long time” after MSG initially blocked the Clippers’ efforts to have a privately-funded arena in Inglewood in three different lawsuits. But the Clippers will oversee and receive revenue through all the events that the Forum and Intuit Dome host.
The Clippers also hope to construct the NBA’s loudest arena. They plan to construct “The Wall,” which will be 51 uninterrupted rows of seats that can host 5,000 fans behind the opponent’s basket. The Clippers plan to have 60 suites that include 14 on court level and 46 located in a horseshoe formation on a single level above the lower bowl. And the Clippers will have 10 bungalows located along the sideline opposite the benches as well as four cabanas located directly behind the courtside baseline seats.
“If you are a total fan, this is the best arena,” Ballmer said while pounding his fists again on the conference table. “We will have you as close to the game as absolutely anyone in the league with possibly with the exception of Utah. But we have more people in the lower bowl and we have fewer breaks in the bowl.”
To maximize the arena’s sound, the Clippers have also adopted other unique features in hopes to keep fans in their seats.
The arena will have 199 red game clocks to remind fans to return to their seats. Fans can pick up concession food without having to go through a check-out line. And with 1,500 touchless restroom fixtures, the Clippers estimated that a bathroom break won’t last longer than a timeout.
“We’ll do everything we can to make sure people are not out of their seats very long,” Ballmer said. “I can’t stand it when people are out of their seats very long. That should help us.”
The Clippers also tout other benefits of their future own home.
The economic benefit: The Clippers estimated that Intuit Dome will generate $260 million in annual economic activity in Inglewood and that it will generate more than 7,000 full-and-part-time jobs during construction as well as more than 1,500 permanent full and part-time jobs after completion.
Thinking green: The Clippers said that Intuit Dome will become the only sports arena in the world built with 100% carbon capture concrete, its solar panels will be able power an NBA Finals game off the grid and they will have 300 onsite chargers for electronic cars. Ballmer said the Clippers and the city plan to work on having mass transit to the games in hopes to ease traffic congestion.
The community benefit: The Clippers plans to host their outdoor courts for community and charity events, celebrity pick-up games, and company outings. Clippers president of business operations Gillian Zucker expressed hope that Intuit Dome can become a venue for the 2028 Summer Olympics. And Ballmer said the arena will boast a jersey of every high school in California hanging in the rafters.
Will the Clippers have retired jerseys hanging there with them?
“You have to have the right (jersey numbers) to hang,” Ballmer said. “We’ll see what that looks like over time.”
That partly depends on if the Clippers can win an NBA title before leaving Staples Center, something Ballmer remains optimistic about despite uncertainty about Leonard’s health.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Clippers owner Steve Ballmer on new arena and Kawhi Leonard’s future
Source: Yahoo Sports