Steve Ballmer is yelling at me.
No, that isn't quite right. Steve Ballmer is yelling toward me. Though, really, he isn't so much yelling as he is boisterously beseeching, imploring, urging, persuading. His volume rises in proportion to his enthusiasm. And his enthusiasm is boundless.
Perhaps you've seen it before: Ballmer wildly hyping up fans of the Los Angeles Clippers, the team he's owned since 2014. Boogying to Fergie at a home game. Skipping and whooping and chanting like a motivational speaker in his former gig as CEO of Microsoft: "Developers! Developers! Developers!"
The man is excitable, especially when discussing his greatest passions. Right now that passion is the Clippers. And he's just been asked an important question—perhaps the most critical question—about his team's fortunes.
Next summer, the Clippers will have the means to sign not one but two superstars. Kevin Durant will be available. So will Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler, and perhaps Kyrie Irving. A half-dozen other stars will join them in one of the glitziest free-agent markets of all time.
No superstar free agent has ever chosen the Clippers. But few stars ever had that chance. For decades, the Clippers didn't even ask. But that was then—another time, another owner, another reality. Everything has changed.
This edition of the Clippers just completed the best five-year run in franchise history, dazzling fans with a vibrant, high-flying brand of basketball. Only the Warriors and Spurs won more games from 2012-13 through 2016-17. The Clippers of today compete. They thrive. They spend. They demand your attention and respect.
But the All-Stars who fueled that run are gone—Chris Paul to Houston, Blake Griffin to Detroit, DeAndre Jordan to Dallas—leaving the Clippers with a blank canvas, a clear payroll and a chance to perhaps build something even greater when free agency opens next July. Thus, I asked Ballmer on a recent October evening: What's your pitch?
His answer starts before the question ends, and it's shot squarely at me. Suddenly, I am Kevin Durant. I am Kawhi Leonard.