PORTSMOUTH, R.I. — During the first three holes of the Jeffrey Osborne Celebrity Golf Classic Tuesday at the Carnegie Abbey Club, Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers was on the phone with newly minted team owner Steve Ballmer. Rivers was listening and Ballmer was screaming with excitement.
Rivers took a deep breath and enjoyed his favorite offseason pastime for the rest of the afternoon, knowing the nightmare that was the Donald Sterling ownership era is officially over. Just as Rivers was about to tee off, he learned that the sale of the franchise to Ballmer for approximately $2 billion became official, two weeks after a court ruled that Sterling was no longer capable of owning the Clippers.
Rivers expressed relief after having dealt with the fallout from Sterling’s racist comments during last spring’s NBA playoffs.
“It’s awesome; it’s really nice,” he said. “We get a chance to play basketball. I’m a basketball coach. My players are basketball players and now we can go back to doing our jobs and I think that’s really important for us.”
The sale closed after LA Superior Court Judge Michael Levanas signed an order authorizing it, even if Sterling’s attorneys filed an appeal. That confirmed the authority of Sterling’s estranged wife Shelly, on behalf of the Sterling Family Trust, to sell the franchise to Ballmer, the former Microsoft CEO. The NBA Board of Governors previously had approved the sale. Sterling’s lawyers did appeal the ruling later Tuesday.
“Really excited — in a pretty hardcore way — to continue the path to making the Clippers a better and better basketball team, and a better and better citizen of the Los Angeles community,’’ Ballmer said.
The ownership change is a major step in restoring normalcy to the Clippers. Rivers left the Celtics last season to lead the once-moribund franchise, but Sterling’s comments, which became public during the first round of the playoffs, were a major distraction.
Rivers said he contemplated resigning if Sterling remained owner.
“I was going to keep that option open,” Rivers said. “I didn’t want to. I went there for a reason. I went to be part of the turnaround of the Clippers, and we had it started and obviously it was derailed and now we’re back on track.
“I didn’t want to [resign], but with what was going on, you had to have that as a possibility. But I didn’t give it a lot of thought. I had so much faith in [NBA commissioner] Adam [Silver] that I never once thought that it wouldn’t go this way.”
Rivers is relieved the sale became official six weeks before training camp, allowing his staff and players to become comfortable with Ballmer and prepare for what he hopes to be a title run in 2014-15.
“We’re fresh,” he said. “That [a carryover] was my biggest fear and I was prepared for that. To me, it removes a lot of the clutter and we can focus on our jobs.”
Ballmer tried for years to bring an NBA team to Seattle, but the league wanted him as an owner and he made a $2 billion bid on the Clippers, promising to keep them in Los Angeles. Shelly Sterling quickly decided to sell the team to Ballmer before Donald Sterling attempted to block the sale in court. Levanas had issued a tentative ruling July 28 that Shelly Sterling should receive control of the franchise.
“He’s just excited,” Rivers said of Ballmer. “Five months ago, he thought he was never going to get a team because he lost the Sacramento thing, but within a three-week period he put a bid on a team and now he’s the owner of the Clippers.
“I think he has to be pinching himself. Anybody that’s willing to put that kind of investment behind a team is telling you he wants to be a winner.”
Rivers is also keeping tabs on his former team and he said there is no question the Celtics will have the ability to recruit major free agents in the future.
“We proved that you could come here, enjoy yourself and win. That’s already been proven,” he said. “If a player wants to come to Boston, he’s not going to hesitate anymore. Years ago there was a hesitation.
“But with Brad [Stevens] and Danny [Ainge] and Rajon [Rondo], that will be what draws them. I had something to do with [recruiting free agents], but I really think Paul [Pierce], Kevin [Garnett], and Ray [Allen] had most to do with it.”
Rondo and Rivers have maintained a close relationship and the two have talked often this summer.
“Rondo’s going to be great this year,” Rivers said. “He’s going to be healthy. It’s the following year [after ACL surgery] that you become who you were. So I think Rondo will have a great year. And I think that will be great for the team.
“I do talk to Rondo. I don’t get into [his contract] because that’s an uncomfortable area for me and him, probably. So we don’t even touch that. I just think that he’s in a good frame of mind; that’s all that counts.”
Rivers also has had conversations with Garnett, the former Celtic who still has not spoken with new Brooklyn Nets coach Lionel Hollins about whether he plans on returning for a 20th season.
“We talked a couple of times, but the worst time I could talk to Kevin is right after the season, but I hear both [that he wants to play and that he wants to retire],” Rivers said. “I get a feeling he still wants to play but I just don’t know.
“Kevin, in the summer goes into hiding, which is something I’ve always had a lot of respect for. I think more players should do that instead of doing all the stuff all summer; you see players everywhere. The reason Kevin has been able to play so long is during the offseason he goes underground. He recuperates. Not just physically.”