LA Clippers owner Steve Ballmer brainstorms with coach Tyronn Lue to help his hometown — Andscape
LA Clippers coach Tyronn Lue talked to team owner Steve Ballmer on the phone for about 20 minutes last year to pick his brain about what he should do to help his beloved hometown of Mexico, Missouri. Ballmer said the best way to understand the needs was for them to tour the small rural town together.
Aware of Ballmer’s commitments and status as a billionaire, the Clippers coach took his words with a grain of salt. But Ballmer actually ended up initiating the tour of Mexico last offseason.
“He might not have known whether I was serious,” Ballmer told Andscape. “So, I wasn’t sure, and I brought it up to him this year. I said, ‘Do you want to go?’ And he said, ‘Really? Do you want to go?’ I said, ‘Sure, you’re interested, you care about your community, and I’d love to go brainstorm. You wanted to brainstorm last summer. I can participate better with you if we visit.’ ”
Lue told Andscape: “He actually came to me like, ‘OK, these dates work. Let’s go down there.’ So, having him to come down there to Mexico and stay in the Best Western as a $100 billionaire, it just meant a lot to our town and to our city.”
For Mexico, there is no more of a favorite son than Lue.
Lue has conducted basketball camps there for years and provided shoes and clothes to children. The former NBA guard is also most known for putting on annual Fourth of July fireworks that he has paid for using donations from former NBA stars Kevin Garnett and Chauncey Billups. Mayor Chris Miller said Lue has bought tickets for Mexico youths to go to St. Louis Cardinals and Kansas City Royals games on bus trips and donates basketball shoes.
Mexico showed its love and appreciation for Lue on July 27, 2015, by changing the name of Walnut Street to Tyronn Lue Boulevard. Lue grew up playing basketball at Garfield Park, which is on Tyronn Lue Boulevard.
“Tyronn Lue is a native of Mexico. And for Mexico, we’re extremely proud of the things that he’s done,” Miller told Andscape. “His accomplishments are fantastic, and he’s brought his wealth and fame back to his hometown through projects he’s done for youth for special deals on the Fourth of July. He’s just a real great thing for the city of Mexico.”
Part of Lue’s passion to help Mexico comes from having to leave town to get on track.
Lue was getting into trouble at Mexico High School during his freshman year and was in dire need of change. As a sophomore, he moved to the Kansas City, Missouri, suburb of Raytown to live with his uncle, Kevin Graves. Lue starred at Raytown High School, and received a full basketball scholarship to the University of Nebraska.
“That’s where I grew up. My family’s still there,” Lue said of giving back to Mexico. “It means a lot to me. It means a lot to my family, my grandmother, and just being able to go back and just try to give back as much as I can. Because I had a lot of help along the way, and it all comes from Mexico. You know, you help each other. It’s kind of like the community that we have, so I always got to continue to go back.”
Ballmer went to Mexico for about a day and a half with Lue before the Fourth of July. Mexico, however, isn’t known for having luxurious hotels. But that didn’t bother Ballmer, who stayed at the Best Western Teal Lake Inn. The cost of an average room at the hotel is less than $100.
Ballmer had no complaints as he had a regular room with a king-sized bed. He said he stayed in a similar hotel five years ago when he was watching his youngest son play AAU basketball.
“Mr. Ballmer came to Mexico, Missouri, stayed at a Best Western and said, ‘Oh, I slept great,’ ” Lue said. “When you have some as humble as he is, knowing his stature and what he means to a lot of people with his charity work and what he and his wife, Connie, have done for a lot of people, it’s just great.”
Said Ballmer said: “It was just a room. All you need is a bed for God’s sake.”
Ballmer and Lue toured the city, spent time with Miller, spoke to other notable community leaders and visited the coach’s family members.
They visited Lue’s old neighborhood, which Ballmer said was one of the areas that needed the most help. It was there that they took a picture on Tyronn Lue Boulevard. Ballmer said they made a “mandatory visit” to see Lue’s grandmother, which he truly enjoyed. The two also ate Mexican food at a new restaurant. Ballmer noticed that Mexico’s downtown “was dead” businesswise as many once-thriving shops were closed.
“Tyronn took him on a fly-by-night tour of Mexico, and it was about what he thought it was going to be,” Miller said. “[Ballmer] talked about how he had had youth education centers in other towns that he had worked on or built, or supported, and I guess we’re looking for him to help support Tyronn’s education center once he gets it off the ground.
“That would be a great thing, because that type of a thing needs support from people, entrepreneurs that have extra funds that they need to put into projects. And so, we’re looking for him to help support Tyronn’s project.”
Said Lue: “It meant a lot to our town and to our city to have a lot of people having a chance to see Mr. Ballmer. It was really, really good for our young kids.”
Today, Mexico has nearly 12,000 residents and faces problems with poverty, education, health care and youth services. Lue said one big concern for him is a lot of Mexico kids are not graduating from high school and attending college.
According to state test scores, 34% of students are at least proficient in math and 42% in reading. Only 40% of Mexico adults have a high school diploma, 15% don’t have a high school diploma and just 9% have a bachelor’s degree.
“The kids are not into sports like they were back in the day. There is nothing to do either. It used to be fun with a lot of activities. A group of people playing basketball and softball at parks. But now, there are not a lot of activities at all. A lot of kids are not going to college. A lot of kids are not graduating from high school.”
— Tyronn Lue
“The community cares a lot, and wants to do better for its kids,” Ballmer said. “And a lot of communities are not sure how to get there. Are there jobs? Yeah, there’s some jobs, but maybe not quite as vital as it used to be. Getting the kids prepared, whether it’s in Mexico or the surrounding parts of the county or elsewhere, there’s a lot to do.
“The way Ty said, ‘We need more energy, we need more joy. This park used to be full of kids playing when I was a kid. They’re not out there. The kids don’t have access to ways to get better.’ What do we need? A community center, and the community shares his passion. I would say he is at least as passionate, if not more so, than anybody else in a room. But the community clearly shares his passion.”
So is Mexico better or worse for kids than when he was growing up there?
“Worse. Way worse,” Lue said. “The kids are not into sports like they were back in the day. There is nothing to do either. It used to be fun with a lot of activities. A group of people playing basketball and softball at parks. But now, there are not a lot of activities at all.
“A lot of kids are not going to college. A lot of kids are not graduating from high school.”
The biggest health problem for Mexico is the lack of a hospital.
On March 19, Noble Health Corp. announced that Audrain Community Hospital in Mexico would be temporarily limiting services because of an IT issue. Inpatient admissions were immediately stopped, and emergency medical services were diverted. The 40-bedroom hospital usually had 24 to 50 emergency room cases a day, treating patients from the surrounding 1,000-plus acre farms and tiny no-stoplight towns.
Days later, the hospital was closed. Audrain County residents had to travel at least 45 minutes to hospitals and urgent care clinics for aid. MU Health Care opened a new urgent care clinic in Mexico on Aug. 16 to provide urgent, but not life-threatening medical care.
“The biggest challenge we have right now is the fact that our hospital closed and we’re trying to get the hospital reopened,” Miller said. “And Mr. Ballmer, he asked, ‘What can I do for your town?’ And we said, ‘You can buy the hospital,’ which is not [really] his thing. But that’s the biggest challenge we have right now in our town is getting our hospital back open again.
“It is not only good for the elderly in town, but it’s also good for the kids in town and for sports. And we have quite a large sports area and activities in Mexico. And sports injuries, we need them taken care of. We need to be able to have a hospital instead of going 45 minutes away to a hospital. So that’s the biggest thing we have going in town.”
Miller said more than 300 jobs were lost after the hospital closed. The average income of a Mexico resident is $20,250 a year, compared with the U.S. average of $28,555 a year, according to Best Places. About 17.4% of residents live in poverty. Of those people, 30.8% are Black, 35.8% are Hispanic, 13.3% are American Indian, and 21.4% are mixed-race.
“At that time, the hospital just was scheduled to be closed, which was another major employer in town,” Ballmer said.
Ballmer can be a godsend for Lue and Mexico based on his generous and diverse philanthropic efforts with his wife, Connie, who believe in “economic opportunity for all” through their Ballmer Group.
In 2016, Ballmer Family Giving joined a funding partnership that aimed to award $1 billion in grants to high-performing charities that serve low-income children. In 2018, Ballmer Group gave $16 million to Detroit nonprofits. Ballmer Group is focused on improving economic mobility for American families and children, and reducing systemic inequities. Ballmer Group announced efforts to address climate change, starting with seven grants totaling $217 million, in October. Also in October, Ballmer said he will invest $400 million in private-fund ventures to support Black entrepreneurs in hopes of shrinking the racial wealth gap.
“This is an incredible opportunity to invest in an undercapitalized market,” Ballmer said in a statement about investing in Black entrepreneurs. “We hope it will signal to other investors the value in giving Black investment managers access to capital.”
Ballmer and Lue are trying to come up with a plan to best help Mexico. Ballmer, however, said his wife has found success getting a nonprofit to run programs in rural towns. He is hoping to get a similar program to help Lue and Mexico. But ultimately, once the help arrives, Mexico will need to take the main responsibility to change things.
“This one happens to focus in on rural communities, but they don’t come in and tell you what to do,” Ballmer said. “They come in, your town hires a couple people, and they work. This not-for-profit will help supervise, but their job is to bring the community together. Say, these are the things we’re going to try to improve. We’re going to measure them whether it’s eighth grade reading scores or it’s kindergarten readiness. They pick three, four things like that. These numbers, you look at the numbers, you say, why is it not improving? OK, we need to change this. We need this extra support for kids. What do we need? What do we need?
“But the community has to own that. This not-for-profit [will] try to bring it together. And this particular group focuses in on rural communities. So, we did the introductions. People in the community are excited. Ty’s got a philanthropic adviser who’s working with them. And if it makes sense for the community, great.”
Lue is also seeking the advice from his close friend Billups about starting a nonprofit helping kids go to college in Mexico like Billups has in his hometown of Denver.
In 1996, then-Regis University men’s head basketball coach Lonnie Porter established the Lonnie Porter Leadership Academy to provide academic and leadership training to at-risk inner-city students from Denver. In 2006, Billups joined with Porter to run the summer program with yearlong assistance and it was renamed the Porter-Billups Leadership Academy at Regis University.
Scholarships to Regis are given to academy graduates once they successfully complete the multiyear participation requirement and qualify for admission. The success rate has been impressive, as 81% of academy students have attended or are currently attending college and 35 graduated from Regis. Lue said he wants to start a similar scholarship program with a building that can be used for education, athletics and the arts.
“I’m trying to build a facility to help our kids out, and just give away scholarships,” Lue said. “Kind of like what Chauncey has in Denver where you can have a leadership academy where you can learn different traits, learn different things, give scholarships and help these kids go to college.”
Ballmer also had something for Lue to keep in mind when he builds a youth program in Mexico.
“Do you want to get kids to be able to go to, for example, after-school programs? You got transportation issues. And this comes up as Tyronn is thinking through his [plan]. If you’re going to help stimulate an after-school program [or] set of programs, you got to make them so kids can actually get there,” Ballmer said.
Miller and Lue are looking forward to the arrival of the proposed education program in Mexico.
“Tyronn’s project is to take the ones that need extra help or don’t have something to do after school and try to move them forward, which is always a challenge for everybody to try to keep kids involved in something instead of being uninvolved,” Miller said.
Lue can’t wait to help give the kids more “hope” and “direction.”
“Just giving those kids a chance to have an outlet to be able to go to college and do some different things in life rather than just stay around Mexico their whole life,” he said.
Lue is in his third season as head coach of the Clippers with a goal of bringing Ballmer and the franchise their first NBA title.
Lue won an NBA championship twice as a player with the Los Angeles Lakers. He also coached a Cleveland Cavaliers squad starring LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love to the franchise’s only NBA title in 2016. The Clippers went to the 2021 NBA Western Conference finals, but injuries to most notably superstars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have stymied the franchise.
Ballmer promoted Lue from the Clippers’ associate head coach to head coach before the 2020-21 NBA season. Lue entered Wednesday’s game with a 105-78 record in the regular season and a 19-10 playoff mark as head coach of the Clippers. Ballmer described Lue as “an amazing, amazing, amazing coach.
“The way he handles people, he’s polite to everybody no matter who you are,” Ballmer said. “He’s polite. He’s respectful. He’s good with the players in both directing and listening. It’s amazing. I’m not an X’s and O’s guy, but I see how he adjusts. It’s amazing to see the adjustments and the chess moves. So, he is a great, great coach and he’s even a better person, which I think that’s important too.”
The biggest question for the Clippers in the Lue era is always the health of Leonard and George. If they are healthy, the Clippers have the talent to win their first NBA championship. Lue would love to be able to present Ballmer with something even his billions of dollars can’t buy: an NBA title.
“This is definitely a championship team, but it’s not going to just come,” Lue said. “We got to put the work in. There’s got to be a lot of sacrifices. We got a lot of guys that should play, but we definitely have a team that if we come together and do the right things, put the work in, we definitely have a chance.”
Said Ballmer: “What would it mean to win a championship? Every championship you win is meaningful to a coach. I think it would be meaningful to Ty. I think it’s meaningful in the sense that it’s a championship, man. It’s a championship!”