Commentary: Total Ballmer: How an epic Clippers arena party turned meme worthy

INGLEWOOD-CA-SEPTEMBER 17, 2021: L.A. Clippers owner Steve Ballmer takes the stage during a groundbreaking ceremony at the corner of Century Boulevard and Prairie Avenue in Inglewood, where the Intuit Dome will be built, on Friday, September 17, 2021. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)
Clippers owner Steve Ballmer takes the stage during the team’s arena groundbreaking ceremony on Friday in Inglewood. (Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

It should’ve been easy. It could’ve been simple. It might’ve been incredible.

The Clippers historically broke ground on a new arena Friday in Inglewood, a move completing their graduation from NBA renters into actual homeowners, an all-grown-up moment for a franchise that has been growing exponentially since it shed owner Donald Sterling for Steve Ballmer.

Jerry West, a symbol of the Clippers’ rebirth and a walking sign of legitimacy, could’ve gotten behind a podium and delivered a dagger in a handful of words.

“I was here in Inglewood when the best basketball in the world lived in this town,” he could’ve said in the shadows of the Forum. “And today, I couldn’t be prouder to help bring it back.”

It would’ve been a piece of subtle professionalism, a legend making a statement on a legendary day for the Clippers, Los Angeles basketball and the NBA. Instead, they brought a band.

Instead of applause, basketball followers lined up on Twitter to get their jokes off.

Whatever the Clippers did on Friday during the introduction of the Intuit Dome was going to be mocked by certain corners of the basketball public, especially in the Lakers’ corner on Twitter. The Clippers probably shouldn’t care what @PurpleNGold4Eva has to say about how they celebrate their real estate holdings.

If the Clippers have accepted — and are comfortable enough — that they operate in this uncomfortable space where they’re a bigger story nationally than they are locally, than why should anyone else have a problem with it?

Yet they could’ve made life easier on themselves, and on Fitz and Tantrums, by not having them guarantee that they could “make your hands clap” — only to quick cut to a very unclapping Kawhi Leonard.

Things weren’t as bad as they looked in the quick videos and Instagram posts. Most of the event was handled well. Most of the information should have basketball fans excited for 2024. But facts don’t stand a chance on the internet. And memes don’t tell the whole story, but as anyone related to amateur epidemiologists knows, they can be pretty persuasive.

The images that will survive out of Friday’s ceremony will be of those players sitting stone-faced while the band tells them that they can make their hands clap. LeBron James ridiculed the scene to more than 50 million followers on Twitter.

The Clippers released an expertly prepared, emotionally charged video announcing the project with Leonard and Paul George narrating. It was seen by 25 times fewer people by midnight Friday than the clip of their boredom (according to Twitter’s viewing numbers).

It was a glimpse into something that’s held the Clippers back as they’ve shed the heinous skin of previous owners into what they are now — a team run by one of the country’s richest and most passionate sports owners committed to making things better for his club.

Sometimes, the Clippers end up trying too hard.

Full disclosure: I covered the Clippers for almost all of the six seasons of “Lob City,” an era when the team morphed from always losers into consistent winners, and now I cover the Lakers for The Times. It’s why I consumed the event mostly on Twitter before going back to watch the entire ceremony online.

The Clippers had remarkable transformation that began with Blake Griffin and peaked with Chris Paul and Doc Rivers picking the franchise, a stamp of approval that resonates today. Leonard just signed with the Clippers for a second time, choosing them over a league full of suitors.

During that run, I witnessed all kinds of ideas get trotted out. There was a rushed-through jersey design that changed one of the few things the old regime had gotten right. A mascot was born on a night Ballmer dunked a basketball with the aide of a trampoline.

They’ve tried to create anthems and rallying cries. The team hoped Fergie’s “L.A.Love” would become the Clippers’ anthem. They orchestrated a surprise in-game performance with a full-on flash mob. But, once again, they were outdone by those pesky meme-sters who caught Ballmer and team President Gillian Zucker waving their arms like a giant inflatable at a used car lot.

The marketing campaign before the 2020 season morphed from subtlety of “streetlights over spotlights” to city busses wrapped with a photo of Lou Williams next to the slogan “driven over given.” The campaign, largely, was abandoned.

Still, people liked the “L.A. Our Way” slogan well enough to try and educate their fan base into using it, whether through signage on the court or audio prompts. It hasn’t been embraced fully (and yet Friday’s news conference began with someone leading attendees through the chant).

This stuff can’t be forced — it just doesn’t work that way. The best moments feel more organic than these — something the Clippers actually learned during the playoffs last season.

During Game 4 of the Western Conference finals, legendary hypeman Fatman Scoop performed his biggest hit while the crowd roared. The moment, coming during a timeout in the second half, ended with Scoop ripping off his Clippers jersey in triumph.

It was awesome.

So, in Game 6, they did it again.

Video of that moment should be all over the scoreboard during big moments next season, the bass line from the track signaling it’s time for Clippers fans to go crazy.

Clippers mascot Chuck embraces superfan Clippers Darrell.Clippers mascot Chuck embraces superfan Clippers Darrell.

Clippers mascot Chuck embraces superfan Clippers Darrell, aka Darrell Bailey, during the team’s groundbreaking ceremony on Friday in Inglewood. (Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

It’s right there in front of them. Just like it could’ve been on Friday with West.

“Mr. Ballmer has shown that he’s willing to do anything,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said.

Ballmer has definitely shown that he’s not shy on stage with a microphone. Who’d have thought he’d have already used his “Developers, Developers, Developers” catchphrase before a $1.8-billion arena groundbreaking?

But while Ballmer’s team will win plenty of games — and maybe a championship — someday in Inglewood, the Clippers took an internet L on their first day in town.

And it just didn’t have to happen that way.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.