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Mitch Levy Interviews Ballmer

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Steve Ballmer was in studio with KJR host Mitch Levy on Thursday. They discussed his involvement in the history of the Sonics and where Seattle goes from here.

Edited by Matt Tucker

Steve Ballmer. He should really try and express his emotions some time.
Steve Ballmer. He should really try and express his emotions some time.
Jeff Gross

If you spent the day out of the country or in a tree house without radio or Internet access on Thursday, you might be unaware that Steve Ballmer was interviewed by KJR's Mitch Levy about his purchase of the Los Angeles Clippers, his current and former involvement with Seattle investor Chris Hansen, his personal history with the loss of the Seattle SuperSonics, and his part in the effort to bring them back.

Ballmer said so many important things to Levy, I could do an entire article for every 10 minutes of the interview. I'm far too lazy to do that, so I'm just going to try and hit the highlights for this article.

WHEN SCHULTZ SOLD THE TEAM

One of the things we've all wondered over the years is why Ballmer didn't simply buy the Sonics when Schultz put the team up for sale in 2006. Ballmer had the following to say.

"Remember, I had a full time job; I was running Microsoft. Bill Gates was departing  from Microsoft completely. In a sense, it was the first time I was fully in charge of Microsoft. I felt that's a big obligation and responsibility and a lot of people who are depending on you for your leadership, for their jobs, for their livelihood.  I knew the basketball team was in play, but whoever bought it was going to have to commit to build the building and get after it, and I had no time."

"I'm an all-in kind of guy. My job is running Microsoft. And you don't just buy this team. You have to buy it with a plan to build the building. I also didn't think some how that the team would ever leave here."

Ballmer would go on to say toward the end of the interview that he regretted the decision not to buy the team more than any decision that was made during the Sacramento fiasco. In hindsight, it was the original error that led to our current situation.

Honestly, though, can we really fault Ballmer for this? He was being a responsible business man and was trying to do his best for Microsoft, which is far more important for Seattle than an NBA team.

BEFORE THE TEAM LEFT

As you may recall, Ballmer was involved in a last ditch effort to keep the Sonics in Seattle in the months before they left. His investment group offered $150 million towards renovating Key Arena, on the condition that the State of Washington and the City of Seattle combine to match it. The goverment never acted on the offer. Levy asked Mr. Ballmer to explain what he was trying to accomplish.

"If we could show that there was going to be money to build an arena, somebody ... current ownership ... somebody would say, Okay, we'll stay here. There'll be money. There'll be some financing. The private people, me, John Stanton, a bunch of people were talking about this, would put up some money, and the public could put up some money so that the team would stay. I wouldn't have an operating role or even have to be part of the team. All I wanted to do was see if we can't do something to keep the team here. It was really  a case of a Hail Mary with a half a second on the clock."

Ballmer went on to say that he had no way of knowing if the strategy would've kept the team in town, had the local government stepped up, but that he would've liked to have seen the results of the experiment.

THE REAL LEADER IN THE SEATTLE MOVEMENT

Many people assume that Ballmer has been the driving force behind the movement to bring the NBA back to Seattle and that Hansen has merely been the front man. Ballmer said emphatically otherwise, when asked about the years of silence between when the Sonics left and when Hansen's name came to the forefront.

"There was a period that was quiet and even quiet to me. Chris Hansen quietly assembling a piece of land, doing some architecture, having thoughts on permitting. Chris did a lot of work before really bursting on scene. I wasn't involved in it. There was really one man driving forward with a plan to at least get the infrastructure in place to start the process."

Ballmer certainly became the main money man, when brought on board, but make no mistake about Hansen's leadership role in this entire process.

THE SACRAMENTO FIASCO

According to Ballmer, he heard about the Sacramento possibility around the same time that he first got involved with the Seattle investment group. If you were wondering if Hansen had the Kings in mind from the beginning, stop wondering.

"I think by that time (when he first met with Chris through Wally Walker) , he had already started the process of encouraging, working with, romancing the Maloofs, who owned the Sacramento Kings, about the possibility of selling. He had the land and arena in progress. He had the Maloofs in progress and I said count me in. I'm a supporter."

As disappointed as we all were in the outcome, Ballmer was likely more disappointed and may have let the NBA hear about it.

"I thought we had a real shot. It didn't seem at the time like things were coming together in Sacramento, and I didn't realize at the time how much the league really wants to help cities keep their teams. And that may be a result, frankly, of the Sonics leaving Seattle. But I got the feeling, quite excitedly, that it was going to happen. I really did. I was talking to Chris on the phone, and we were talking about who we were going to hire.

"But It wasn't done. Sacramento came back and worked their issues hard and, with the degree to which the NBA wants to help cities keep their teams, it didn't happen.

"I thought we had done a good job. I was still kind of expecting things would go our way at the final vote. At the end of the day, I was frustrated. I wasn't happy. I probably made an unhappy phone call or two to the powers that be."

MILWAUKEE AND POTENTIAL EXPANSION

Ballmer had a degree of involvement in trying to purchase the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this year and he discussed that quite a bit. The gist of why it didn't happen seems to be that he got involved too late in the process, that he had doubts about whether the NBA would let him relocate the team, and that Herb Kohl was reluctant to sell to him out of fear of relocation.

There are a couple of comments from that conversation I want to address here.

"I got an email at a Husky basketball game in January asking, "Are you interested in the Bucks?" I retired in February, and I went out to see Commissioner (Adam) Silver. I said I really am interested in owning a team. I really do live in Seattle and want to bring a team here. I asked about expansion. He said, 'We don't have a plan. I'm not saying we'll never have a plan, but you're trying to plan your life and we are encouraging teams to stay put.'"

On the surface, this sounds very discouraging to our cause. Silver told Ballmer there wasn't a plan for expansion and they were encouraging teams not to relocate. While there is no guarantee of expansion or relocation, however, I stand by two Sonics Rising reports in the last couple of months.

First, Kevin Nesgoda reported that the NBA has a legal right to purchase the Bucks on May 15 of next year if they don't have an arena solution finalized by then. No one knows how that situation will turn out, but arena supporters face stiff political hurdles in the State of Wisconsin. If they don't get it done, Seattle would have an excellent chance of acquiring the team.

Second, we reported that, in spite of Silver's public stance, expansion is being discussed behind the scenes and may very well be part of the negotiations for the upcoming TV contract. Our league source, who continues to request anonymity, has not wavered in this claim.

Furthermore, even in Ballmer's quote above, Silver said "I'm not saying we will never have a plan." Adding to this idea, Ballmer talked about expansion in relation to the TV negotiations later in the interview.

"If you think about it, one of the things an owner owns is a piece of this national TV contract. Before you go sell a piece off to a new franchise and before people even think about it, you're going to want to know what the value of the contract is. Otherwise, how do you value the expansion franchise?"

I continue to believe that expansion is being discussed informally right now and may be discussed formally in the near future, depending on the outcome of the TV negotiations.

BUYING THE CLIPPERS

So why did he pull the two billion dollar trigger on the Los Angeles Clippers?

"Once you start saying to yourself 'if there's a Milwaukee, if there's a Sacramento, if they're not going to move,' it could be years before the right thing would happen. I'm not that old. I'm 58, but I love basketball. I have free time."

"It's kind of like software. There's version one, version two, and version three. I'm already on version three of trying to own an NBA team. Version one was the failed attempt to keep the Sonics. Version 2 was the Kings. Version three is the Bucks. So, I was prepared for the notion it might not be Seattle."

It sounds to me like Ballmer saw an opportunity that he could grab right away and that he didn't want to wait for another Seattle opportunity that MAY not materialize.

THE CONTINUED SEATTLE EFFORT

Certainly losing Ballmer was a blow to the effort to bring the NBA back to Seattle, but how big of a blow was it? He had the following to say about his CONTINUED involvement.

"I have not left. I can't buy a team in Seattle, but I own land with the Nordstroms and Wally (Walker), and Chris. I'm part of that, and I'm going to stay in that. I'm going to support those guys in the ways that I can as an owner.

"Remember, Chris is committed to bringing basketball to Seattle and, if I hadn't gotten involved the first time around, he had other ideas for guys he could bring in. He's going to stay after it, and I told him I was going to help any way I can with the land, where we're partners and where I could stay a partner and stay invested.

"There are a lot of guys out there who want to own basketball teams. There really are. Some are in Seattle. Some aren't in Seattle, but would be happy to own in Seattle. Chris doesn't live here but he's from here. He loves it here, wants a team here, and will only bring in partners who are in and on that mission with him."

He went on to say that he had confidence that the MOU would receive final approval after the EIS/SEPA reviews and that there may be a chance for an MOU revision to accommodate an NHL first scenario.

"I do know there's some guys pushing hard on hockey. Chris and I were actually talking about that on the phone yesterday and, if that can be helpful to the grand goal which is to get basketball back in seattle, I know Chris wants to facilitate. If it helps with the basketball, I think Chris is all in."

I wouldn't bet the farm on that happening, but it's nice to hear it's still part of the discussion.

CONCLUSION

Everyone needs to listen to that interview. Levy did a great job of guiding the conversation through the entire Sonics history that led us to this point. Aside from that, listening to Ballmer's passion and eloquence makes me really wish he was still part of our ownership group. Losing him is not a fatal blow to our efforts, but it does hurt.

Nevertheless, I still feel good about our chances of landing franchises from both the NBA and NHL before our MOU goes the way of the dodo.