Clippers a team to be proud of now

LOS ANGELES -- The Clippers have been in Los Angeles for 30 years, but for the first time since they moved north from San Diego in 1984, they finally feel like a team Los Angeles can embrace.

And for the first time in the past three decades, Clippers fans can be proud to put on their team's gear without making apologies for their lousy owner or their lousy history or the lousy product on the court.

The shirts handed out to fans at the team's rally to introduce Steve Ballmer as the new Clippers owner read, "It's A New Day." But it seems more like a long overdue rebirth of a franchise.

Four months after the darkest period in the history of a franchise littered with dark periods, the Clippers finally have a reason to celebrate and rejoice in a new beginning.

Clippers coach and president of basketball operations Doc Rivers said he has witnessed a transformation of the faithful.

"The Clippers fans, to me, has been a group ... [that says], 'Shh, I'm a Clippers fan,'" Rivers said. "It's like now they can actually say it and be proud of it. And I'm very happy for them."

Nearly 5,000 fans showed up to Staples Center on Monday afternoon for a rally to welcome Ballmer, who ran through the crowd after being introduced to Eminem's "Lose Yourself" and high-fived and chest-bumped everyone in sight before jumping around on stage. It was a scene reminiscent of his viral videos on YouTube and something Clippers fans will get used to seeing on game days.

"I like to sit near the action," said Ballmer, who will be courtside at Clippers games. "It's more fun. That was the No. 1 piece of input I got last night at dinner with Doc, some of the coaches and players. We were all debating where the best place is to sit. Of course, none of them have to sit there, just me."

The players might not sit next to him, but they certainly will see and hear Ballmer, who has the potential to be a louder, brasher version of Dallas Mavericks owners Mark Cuban. Not only will Ballmer be jumping up and down courtside during games, he also encouraged fans to e-mail him (sballmer@clippers.com).

There are many reasons why Ballmer is better suited to own the Clippers (or any business, for that matter) than Donald Sterling. But the simple fact that he's not Donald Sterling may be the most important. For all the success the former Microsoft CEO has had, the fact that someone other than Sterling now owns the Clippers was enough of a reason for Los Angeles to celebrate.

The looks on the faces of fans and players when Ballmer was yelling and running through the crowd after being announced is something Sterling never experienced as an owner.

"When he came through the crowd, I literally had goose bumps," Blake Griffin said of Ballmer. "I don't know if there's one good word to describe him. I know all our guys are excited about the energy he brings. It's completely different."

Griffin and most of the players hadn't met Ballmer prior to having dinner with him on Sunday night, but they all did their research on him. They watched his YouTube clips, and not just the viral videos of him jumping up and down and screaming at Microsoft conferences. They viewed his commencement speeches; Griffin spent an afternoon watching each one online.

Not only do the Clippers have a coach who inspires them whenever he speaks, they now have an owner who commands the same kind of respect when he stands before them.

"I've seen Steve from YouTube," Rivers said with a smile after the rally. "I've seen the energy. It's funny, when we first talked I told him I love energy. I think it's infectious. I think it's good. I think it's positive."

There rarely was anything positive about the Clippers when Sterling was the owner. Even when the team succeeded on the court, Sterling was the lingering black cloud that hung above it, always capable of raining on any kind of success, as he did during last season's playoff run.

It is likely Los Angeles always will be a Lakers town, but Sterling never really gave the city a chance to embrace the Clippers as one of its own. That changed Monday. Perhaps the fortunes of the team will change next.

"It was 30 years ago this summer that the Clippers moved to Los Angeles from San Diego," said Ralph Lawler, the Clippers' longtime announcer. "I think now this city can now open its arms to our basketball team. They can embrace this team without any reservations at all. We're here to stay, we're here to play and we're here to win championships."

Ballmer assured Clippers fans during the rally that the team would stay in Los Angeles despite his connections to Seattle. He also said he would keep the Clippers name for now.

There had been some support behind changing the team's name, which originated in San Diego and has been synonymous with Sterling's ownership over the past 30 years. It would seem like a quick and easy attempt to wash away the past struggles and failures of the franchise. But it's those past struggles and failures that will make the Clippers name mean something different in the future if the team can win a championship.

"I look at it as a name of survival," Rivers said. "The Clippers, we've gone through a lot of stuff, not just recently, but for a long time. If we can get this right, I think it means something. I think if we do it right, the name can stand for something."

On Monday, for the first time since 1984, the Clippers name meant something different in Los Angeles. It stood for a team L.A. can get behind and support.