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Six Things to Know About Steve Ballmer, Youth Basketball Coach

Long before he was screaming his head off at Staples Center, the billionaire Clippers owner coached a third-grade powerhouse

Steve Ballmer with the 1999 Bellevue Beavers, including the author of this piece, Zach Schwartz
Steve Ballmer with the 1999 Bellevue Beavers, including the author of this piece, Zach Schwartz (far left, wearing no. 2).
Courtesy Zach Schwartz

With Lonzo taking top billing for sport’s glamour franchise, LeBron possibly on the way, and stars from virtually every team to be found on the streets and in SoulCycle classes, Los Angeles has become the mecca of the NBA offseason. In the second of four weeklong series leading up to the start of the 2017-18 season, we’re celebrating the people, teams, and everything in between that make up the most interesting scene in the league. Welcome to L.A. Week.

Three years ago I heard that my old basketball coach was getting back into the sport. Under most circumstances, this wouldn’t be something worth discussing, but in third grade, my Boys & Girls Clubs basketball team in Bellevue, Washington, was coached by Clippers owner and then–Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Long before he was the animated (and sweaty) character raving around courtside at Staples Center, he was the animated (and sweaty) coach of the Bellevue Beavers.

The Clippers are presently in flux. For the first time in seven seasons they are without Chris Paul, but if the Clippers are run anything like the Bellevue Beavers, they’ll be fine. The Clippers and their fans are lucky because the man in charge doesn’t just care about winning (he really, really cares about winning), but also deeply cares for the game of basketball, period.

Here are six things you should know about Ballmer, my old coach.

He Doesn’t Believe in a Mercy Rule

With Ballmer as our coach, we weren’t just winning games, we were running kids off the court. Our team was stacked. There was no draft for the third-grade league, so the kids that developed chemistry playing pickup during recess were able to end up all on the same team. Ballmer initially signed on to coach his son and his son’s friends, but he’d soon realize he’d stumbled onto a superteam.

One particular game stands out: We were beating the bricks off the opposing team and holding them to something like six points in the first half. I’ll never forget it because my dad leaned forward from the stands, tapped Mark Mennella, coach Ballmer’s assistant, on the shoulder and said, “It might be time to sub out the starters. This is getting ugly.” The assistant coach relayed the message to Steve. Coach Ballmer scanned the floor, gazed up at the scoreboard, looked back at my dad, and said, “Are you sure it’s not too soon?” We were up by 30. My dad laughed. Then he realized Ballmer was being completely serious.

None of His Players Knew He Was Extremely Freaking Rich

The parents loved Ballmer for the intensity and passion that he had for our team, so they took it upon themselves to withhold the fact that we were playing for one of the most successful men in the world. The parents’ main concern was that we would treat Steve differently if we knew. We were young, and I’m sure that we would have. It didn’t take much work from the parents’ side; Steve was and is an incredibly modest man. My own parents’ plans to hide our coach’s identity got thrown a curveball when I found my basketball coach on the front cover of a business magazine. They explained to me that Coach Steve was on the magazine because he “happened to do some business with Bill Gates.” I shrugged and went on with my day. Because why would I suspect anything of the man who drove a maroon family van?

He’s a Nickname Kind of Guy

Steve was the first coach that gave us badass nicknames. He called one of our defensive stoppers “the Shadow” and he would greet our center, Blake Bentz, as “Blakey Baby” with a sort of hoarseness and excitement that usually comes from only Dick Vitale. I have to assume “Blakey Baby” has been passed down to Blake Griffin.

He Was Absurdly Dedicated to the Job

Steve went beyond helping us develop the basic fundamentals. He worked on our shooting form and was the first coach who had us running sprints after practice to ensure that we would be ready to finish strong in the fourth quarter. Steve took coaching seriously and even brought in an NBA shooting coach to help us with our form. Steve loved the team, and we loved playing for Steve. He was running one of the most successful companies on earth and still making time to coach us. He never missed one of our games. Our team was legendary within Microsoft circles because of the lengths that Steve would go to in making sure that he attended our games. He’d do a video interview on CNBC from China on a Friday, then take a red-eye back to the States and head straight to the gym to coach us.

His impact on his players was notable. At least half the team would go on to play college sports in some form or another (though none would go on to play college basketball).

He Coached Us in His Image

The team was a reflection of Steve. We were gritty and defensive-minded. We would finish every practice with defensive hustle drills. They paid off: We put the clamps on teams during games. On offense we had two key weapons: our center (no. 3), who was a versatile big that could shoot and bang with the best down low, and our score-first, pass-second point guard (no. 5). We also had two twins (nos. 8 and 11) that ran the wings and could play well on both sides of the floor. The offense was decidedly modern—maybe even ahead of its time. It featured a lot of pick-and-roll action and even some pick-and-pop because our big man could shoot.

He Opened Up Microsoft’s Rec Gym for a Bunch of Third-Graders

Steve led us to the championship game that season, but due to a scheduling glitch we weren’t going to be able to get practice time at the gym. Steve, being the king of after-work pickup basketball at the Microsoft rec gym, was able to pull some strings and get us the court at the Microsoft offices.

None of us could figure out why the adults at the gym kept stopping their workouts and watching us practice. In hindsight it makes sense. It’s not every day that you see one of the men in charge of Microsoft teaching third-graders how to run pick-and-rolls.

We would end up winning the championship that year and celebrated as any other team would, with a pizza party at an arcade in Bellevue.