The Clippers ushered in a new era with Ballmer, arguably the NBA’s most exuberant team owner, turning an introductory news conference for the team’s newest star duo into a pep rally.
“I have these notes but I have to say I’m fired up to be here today,” Ballmer said as his voice kept rising. “Pretty cool! Pretty cool!”
“Most of all I’m pumped!” Ballmer later added before imploring the audience at Green Meadows Recreation Center to stand up and cheer. “To say hello as Clippers to Paul and Kawhi. Come on! Come on! Get up! Yeah!”
Unlike Ballmer, George was at a “loss for words” to describe what it was like to return and play in Los Angeles after growing up in nearby Palmdale. The All-Star swingman who said he grew up a Clippers fan but idolized Kobe Bryant, added that teaming up with Leonard felt like it was meant to be.
“I remember I was in Indy when we drafted Kawhi,” George said, referencing when the Indiana Pacers selected Leonard with the 15th overall pick in the 2011 draft before sending him to San Antonio in a trade. “I was a little confused by it because I was the 2-guard and Kawhi was the same position and I was a bit nervous for the competition that was coming.
“But fast forward, knowing that the player I am and the player he developed into, I wish we would have kept that pick and we could have [grown] together. … it seems like this was destiny that we were supposed to play together.”
In his first comments since keeping the NBA world waiting breathlessly for a week for his free-agency decision, Leonard was his usual understated and soft-spoken self. But the NBA Finals MVP made it clear why he found the Clippers the most attractive situation for him over remaining in Toronto, where he won a championship, or forming a superteam on the Los Angeles Lakers and LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
“For me I grew up a Clippers fan,” said Leonard, who also grew up in the Los Angeles area. “I loved the Clippers as a kid. With Doc [Rivers] being a championship head coach, that is something I wanted, an experienced coach. And the front office is very transparent with me. They want to win.
“It’s an opportunity for us to build our own and make history. They haven’t been to a Finals and haven’t won a Finals and that was something exciting for me to make my decision.”
Leonard spoke of the importance of the Clippers remaining quiet and not breaking his trust during the entire free agent process, citing how anyone these days in the media can just push out false rumors.
“Just because a lot of things are made up in today’s world of NBA,” Leonard said. “It is always important for me to have a mutual understanding and it be transparent if it is good or bad. I feel that builds a good relationship.”
“Once we had our meeting, I felt like they were true to their word. Nothing really got out. It was a great decision.”
The momentous day for the franchise started with Leonard and George walking in and sitting next to Ballmer, Rivers and president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank inside a basketball gym at Green Meadows. Clippers employees and students from the center attended the packed news conference.
“We’re here to celebrate not only the Clippers brand but it feels more like a movement,” said Rivers, who recently spent time in San Diego with Leonard getting to know him. “[But] this is more about what is coming.”
The Clippers had been planning for a day like this for a couple of seasons now, trading away their leading scorer and rebounder two years in a row [Blake Griffin, Tobias Harris] to accumulate the assets and flexibility needed to acquire two stars. They paid a heavy price, though, to get the two All-Stars. The Clippers had to part with their prized point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, forward Danilo Gallinari and five first-round picks — their own in 2022, ’24, ’26 along with Miami’s in 2021 and ’23 — and gave Oklahoma City the right to swap first-round picks in 2023 and ’25.
For Jerry West, the Clippers’ renowned consultant who watched the news conference from the front row, the price to get two dynamic two-way stars was worth it.
“Sometimes you get Christmas presents in the middle of the year,” West said. “And that’s what we got.”
The Clippers have long played in the shadow of the Lakers in Los Angeles. Leonard said he doesn’t care if all the attention continues to go toward the Staples Center tenant with more banners and trophies.
“As far as the last few years, the Clippers have been better,” Leonard said. “But it’s the media, they’re going to get the attention, they’re the Los Angeles Lakers. They’ve been winning championships for a long time.
“Even if we do win, who knows how the coverage will change over. I just want to win. I do things that make myself and my teammates happy. Whatever is our goal in mind, that is going to be my focus and drive to make us happy. If we go to the championship and win and get no coverage, I’m happy with that.”
After the Clippers played a hype video that detailed Leonard and George’s path from high school to the pros, Leonard said he was ready to start playing for the Clippers right away.
It didn’t take George long to cite a Clipper motto.
“We’re going to make it happen,” George said. “LA our way.”