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Why Steve Ballmer picked Gillian Zucker

Steve Ballmer saw the qualities needed for the Clippers team president's job in Gillian Zucker. Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES -- Steve Ballmer is loud.

Anyone who has seen him in person or watched one his infamous YouTube videos knows that he doesn’t need a microphone to get his point across.

But as he puts together a staff that will look to re-brand and lead the Los Angeles Clippers forward under his ownership, he has been largely quiet and observant. He knows what he wants but he also knows what he doesn’t know.

This is Ballmer’s first foray into owning a professional sports team and he isn’t shy about admitting he doesn’t know exactly how to run a team yet three months into his ownership of the Clippers. Then again, running a $345 billion company like Microsoft isn’t bad practice for running an NBA team.

“I’ve had a chance over the last three months to get to know a very large number of people who are involved in running the business of sports,” Ballmer said. “I’ve gotten to know people in basketball and other sports. I’ve talked to people outside the sports industry that want into the sports industry, people who have spent time in L.A. and people who have not spent time in L.A.”

Ballmer’s first order of business when he bought the Clippers for a record $2 billion in August was to lock up Doc Rivers for the next five years as the team’s head coach and president of basketball operations. It seemed like a no-brainer for one of the best coaches in basketball who had led the Clippers through one of the NBA’s darkest times when former owner Donald Sterling was banned for life for making racist remarks. His next order of business wouldn’t be so easy.

Sterling’s ouster also meant the end of longtime team president Andy Roeser, who had angered the team and the league for issuing a statement in support of Sterling after his racist remarks were made public. Roeser was forced to take an indefinite leave of absence which turned into a complete disassociation when Ballmer bought the team. Ballmer interviewed 25-30 candidates from different sports and businesses for the job. The number was so large not only because there were that many qualified candidates but also because Ballmer wanted to pick the brains of every one of them about improving the Clippers.

“You get a unique opportunity to meet people when you’re interviewing,” Ballmer said. “I want to know who do the best people look like? Who do the best people look like at other basketball teams? Hell, we’re competing with them. I had to know what their best people look like and any of these other sports. Let’s know, know, know, know.”

It was as emphatic and enthusiastic as the viral video of Ballmer screaming, “developers, developers, developers, developers” at a Microsoft conference. The one name Ballmer kept going back to when he tried to trim down the list of candidates after a second and third round of interviews was Gillian Zucker, who spent the previous nine years as the president of the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. He met with her for over an hour last month at L.A. Live and then had a four-hour dinner with her a week later.

“I’ve had a chance to work with a lot of very energetic, very intense, very bright people in my time at Microsoft and Gillian compares very favorably amongst the most enthusiastic people I’ve ever had a chance to work with,” Ballmer said. “She’s done almost every job in sports.”

Zucker, who pursued the job as soon as she heard Ballmer wanted to buy the Clippers, joins Los Angeles Lakers co-owner and president Jeanie Buss as one of the few female chief executives or presidents in major U.S. pro sports. It’s a title she doesn’t take lightly but also one that she doesn’t want to define her.

“It’s important in that there are young women who are out there in the world who may look at me in this position and say, ‘I could do something extraordinary, I could dream big, I could do something that’s different, I could do anything,’” Zucker said. “In that regard I’m very humbled to be in a role that could potentially inspire someone.”

While Zucker will head up the business operations, Rivers will still head up basketball operations with Ballmer overseeing both fronts. Rivers was not involved with the choosing of Zucker but did help vet many of the candidates and met with them during the process.

“I like her. I like her a lot,” Rivers said of Zucker. “Any lady that’s had to deal with NASCAR, especially the way they’re fighting now and all that stuff, it’s pretty cool. I just like her immediately. We met I think two or three weeks ago and I was really impressed with her. I’m very happy that that’s who Steve decided to choose. I think it was a great choice. And I do think it was time and needed for the business side of our organization. We really needed a president in place, and I think it will help everyone.”

When Ballmer bought the team he was asked if he would look into changing the Clippers’ name or at least changing the logo, which bears a strong resemblance to the Lakers logo, or changing the team’s logo and colors. Ballmer said he and Zucker would look into those kinds of decisions after the season and include the fans in their thinking but didn’t seem interested in changing the team name.

“The word Clippers means something now; it didn’t mean much probably a year and half ago but it means something today,” Ballmer said. “If I was to give you my visceral view, my track record is on display. Here we are, 30 years later and Windows is still called Windows it hasn’t changed its name.”

The Clippers name not only didn’t mean much three years ago, it was the butt of jokes around the NBA and certainly around Los Angeles. And changing that perception in Los Angeles will likely be the biggest challenge for Zucker as the team shares the city, the market and the arena with a Lakers team that has won 16 championship and become Los Angeles’ most beloved team. Zucker said it won’t be long before the Clippers capture the hearts of not only L.A. but also the world.

“I think the Clippers are well on their way to being Los Angeles’ team,” Zucker said. “There’s something really magical that’s going on here. It’s what drew me to this opportunity and drew me to Steve. There’s an energy that’s in the staff and the building that’s pretty extraordinary and I think that’s what fans love about sports -- to be a part of something that’s bigger than themselves. There is every opportunity that the Clippers become not just the most beloved in Los Angeles or in the region but nationally and hopefully globally.”