Steve Gordon, longtime Seattle basketball figure, ensnares Steve Ballmer, others in failed business deals
Steve Gordon, a longtime Sonics employee known in the Seattle basketball community as “Hat Man,” is in legal trouble after claiming billionaire Steve Ballmer was backing him on business ventures.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Steve Gordon says he did so much grunt work for billionaires, he couldn’t help trying to wheel and deal like them.
The former Sonics employee and longtime Seattle basketball figure, known as the “Hat Man,” faces serious trouble after failed business ventures here and overseas. Two lawsuits against him seek a combined $15 million. And Gordon says he owes at least $5 million to about 20 investors, including NBA players Brandon Roy and Jamal Crawford and others he met during decades working on local basketball courts.
Gordon, 61, spent a quarter-century on Sonics special assignments, helping some of their biggest names recover from injuries or perfect their skills. Stories abounded about the “gym rat” in the backward baseball cap, whose likability and work ethic connected him to some of the nation’s wealthiest men.
But knowing famous and powerful people meant Gordon also could drop names and spin some serious yarns. And one particular story could prove his undoing: how longtime friend — now ex-friend — Steve Ballmer was financially backing him in business ventures here and overseas.
That’s because Ballmer says it’s untrue, that he only recently learned his onetime pal was using his name. He suspects his signature was forged on a document and that someone impersonated him on phone calls with prospective investors.
Nevertheless, Ballmer, 58, who last month purchased the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers for $2 billion, is now a co-defendant in the two lawsuits against Gordon in King County Superior Court.
Gordon’s own statements, along with court documents, financial records, private email exchanges and interviews, portray him as a man desperate to prove himself by making ambitious business deals. In the end, his ventures cost a retired Seattle scientist nearly $1 million and an Australian basketball Hall of Famer his job. They resulted in multimillion-dollar lawsuits. And they ensnared one of the world’s richest men.
A statement released on Ballmer’s behalf says he terminated contact last July after discovering Gordon “may have fraudulently represented to third parties that (he) was a business partner of Ballmer in order to obtain money from investors.”
It said Ballmer never was a “representative, partner or co-investor” with Gordon, nor had he hired him as his employee or agent.
Nobody disputes the men had personal history, including financial support and other assistance given Gordon by Ballmer.
They’d become friends after a 1990 introduction at the Pro Sports Club in Bellevue, where Sonics and Microsoft employees shared workout facilities. Gordon gave Ballmer and other Microsoft executives weekly basketball lessons for years.
Gordon taught basketball to Ballmer’s children, who nicknamed him “Coachie.”
He attended Ballmer’s 40th birthday party, then his 50th in the Caribbean with Paul Allen, Bill Gates and other exclusive guests.
Ballmer also helped Gordon pay about $1.6 million in real estate and tax liabilities starting in 1999. A decade later, Ballmer began giving Gordon $9,900 per month to help with his finances.
When a despondent Gordon contacted Ballmer about his latest debts in May 2013, Ballmer flew him on his private jet to the Menninger Clinic, a psychiatric hospital in Houston, and paid for a six-week stay.
But with Gordon hospitalized, the friendship came to a screeching halt.
On July 16, a local businessman warned in a letter to Ballmer that Gordon was claiming he and Ballmer were partners and planned to commit $5.2 million to a venture with the businessman. The letter said somebody claiming to be Ballmer got on a telephone conference call, assuring the money was on the way.
A stunned Ballmer emailed Gordon two days later to tell him he was cutting ties.
“You have lied to me and had people impersonate me and misrepresent me,” Ballmer wrote, in an exchange forwarded by his legal team.
An email reply from Gordon pleaded with Ballmer to reconsider, telling him he “won’t do it again.”
But Ballmer stopped Gordon’s $9,900 monthly payments and ceased contact.
Then, last February, a Seattle investment adviser, Cambrea Ezell, let Ballmer know Gordon had shown her a partnership agreement from December 2009 that purported to have the billionaire’s signature on it. The document named Gordon as Ballmer’s limited partner in the Samaris Group, a company Ballmer was said to be funding with $1 billion to acquire an NBA franchise for Seattle.
Ezell says in a lawsuit, filed against both men last week, that Gordon — claiming to be acting on Ballmer’s behalf — signed a $5 million consulting agreement in January 2010 between the Samaris Group and her company, Reign Capital Management. But no money was ever paid.
“For almost the past four years, Gordon has provided ... myriad ... excuses for his and Ballmer’s failure to pay under the agreement,” the suit states.
Ballmer’s lawyer, Andrew Kinstler, insists his client wasn’t involved. Ballmer hired a Seattle handwriting expert who concluded the signature on the document was inconsistent with others by the billionaire.
A records search found no company named Samaris Group registered. Kinstler said the document and handwriting report were given to the King County prosecutor’s office to investigate for fraud.
Melinda Young, the prosecutor handling the file, confirmed an investigation is ongoing.
In a phone interview, Gordon denied knowing about the Samaris Group, the signed document, or fake Ballmer phone calls. He also initially claimed not to know why Ballmer ended their friendship.
But when their email exchange from July was read to him, Gordon admitted knowing all along why Ballmer parted ways.
It wasn’t the only time Gordon changed his story during multiple interviews. The “Hat Man” — nicknamed by former Sonics forward John Johnson because his head was rarely seen uncovered — first met with The Seattle Times on a sunny, mid-60s day in April, wearing a wool skull cap.
He emphasized he was a good person, would never deliberately harm anybody and had merely been too trusting.
Gordon opened up about his Chicago upbringing, where, by age 16, both parents died within six months of one another. He went to live with an aunt. A sister, who he hasn’t seen now for 45 years, stayed in Arizona. Gordon had signed a letter of intent to play basketball at DePaul, but needed money and signed with the Kansas City Royals, attending their baseball academy for more than a year.
A pro basketball stint in Israel followed before Gordon moved to Seattle to work construction in 1978 and soon became a Mariners bullpen catcher. He also latched on with the Sonics by 1980, with that growing into a full-time trainer’s role.
Gordon says he’s seeing a psychologist three times per week and taking medication for depression related to both his struggling teen years and his current financial woes. He admits he gets “carried away’’ and moved too fast on ventures his NBA buddies and others invested in.
A Section 8 housing deal in Arkansas flopped, he said, because his partner squandered funds. In another deal, he says a Woodinville-based company kept millions he’d raised for them without giving him back money to pay his investors.
Gordon said he wasn’t trying to make himself wealthy, feels terrible about what has happened and just wishes he could make things right.
“I just felt there was great money in all of these things and I could help my friends make greater amounts of money based on what was represented to me,” he said.
But Gordon also fudged and changed answers about faking Ballmer phone calls, which turned out to be an issue well beyond Seattle.
Thousands of miles away, in Melbourne, Australia, former Olympian and pro basketball player Wayne Carroll also received “Ballmer” calls. The caller told Carroll all was well with an international sponsorship venture Gordon had supposedly brought Ballmer, Microsoft and The Gates Foundation in on with him.
But the venture never launched, costing Carroll his job, reputation and possibly his family home as costs mount in litigation against him.
“This whole thing pretty much ruined me,’’ Carroll said.
Ballmer says he knew nothing about the deal until The Times contacted him. Jeff Raikes, CEO of The Gates Foundation at the time, also says he never heard of the project.
Carroll was chairman of Knox Basketball, Australia’s largest amateur association. He’d been introduced to Gordon via Skype in March 2011 on an earlier project that quickly died.
Gordon was then consulting for the Portland Trail Blazers and was reputed to have influential access to billionaire owner Allen, who he’d met through Ballmer. But Allen fired him in a front-office purge that June. Shortly after, Gordon phoned Carroll pitching a new, bigger project: a Ballmer-backed basketball promotional venture into Australia and China that would raise millions for Knox. Gordon claimed he was Ballmer’s representative and any correspondence must run through him.
Knox Basketball began paying Gordon $4,000 per month as a consultant in November 2011 and spent money to implement programs ahead of reimbursement by Ballmer.
But the promised Ballmer money from Gordon never arrived.
By April 2012, pressured by Carroll, Gordon sent a $1,000 wire transfer to Australia as a supposed “test” ahead of bigger funding.
A document shows it originated from one of two Wells Fargo accounts belonging to Gordon over which Ballmer had power of attorney — an arrangement made years earlier so Ballmer could direct Gordon’s monthly $9,900 “gift” to the accounts.
Carroll saw Ballmer’s name alongside Gordon’s on the document and assumed they really were business partners. He says he believes Gordon sent the transfer only to make him think that and stall for time.
Carroll says he received about 10 reassuring “Ballmer” calls in the following months.
By March 2013, Knox was $90,000 in debt and irate members held emergency meetings. Carroll and his executive team were fired in mid-June.
Carroll, being sued by Knox for $143,000, says he’s too drained to sue Gordon, who he’s never met in person.
Gordon says Ballmer simply refused to commit. “On every deal, he’s there, he’s there and then he doesn’t follow through.”
Gordon says Ballmer gave him “poetic license” to pretend to be him on calls so he could avoid people and that the $9,900 he received monthly was a stipend for handling such tasks.
Gordon initially denied knowing about private Ballmer calls to Carroll. Later, he admitted having a friend impersonate Ballmer.
“I just did whatever I had to,” Gordon said. “Whatever it took to get this through to the end.”
Back home, Gordon told prospective investors Ballmer was making him an NBA owner. The story went that Ballmer would implement a $55 million fund that Gordon could use to inflate his net worth so the NBA would approve him for minority ownership in a new Sonics franchise. Gordon says it was a reward for years of handling Ballmer business errands.
Former Sonics center Frank Brickowski says he laughed when Gordon told him about it. He’s skeptical of claims by his longtime acquaintance.
Brickowski did loan Gordon $100,000 to invest in the Woodinville company, but only after the company fully guaranteed the money.
“Look, I feel bad for Steve Gordon on one level,” Brickowski said. “I don’t think he’s a bad guy, but he still hurt a lot of people. And there are consequences to pay when you keep doing that.”
A retired Seattle scientist, Thomas Bukowski, who’d worked alongside Gordon’s wife, believed the Ballmer fund story. Bukowski says he gave Gordon $70,000 in 2011 for supposed “legal costs” to implement the fund in exchange for $7 million once it became operational.
But the fund never materialized. Bukowski is suing Gordon for the $7 million.
Bukowski also gave Gordon $920,000 to invest with the Woodinville company, which Gordon said would be worth $3 million by April of this year.
Bukowski says he’s yet to receive a dime. He’s seeking that $3 million in his lawsuit and recently added Ballmer as a co-defendant.
By 2012, Gordon was scouting for the Minnesota Timberwolves and touting his biggest “errand” yet: helping Ballmer and Chris Hansen relocate the Sacramento Kings to Seattle.
Gordon says Ballmer instructed him to befriend Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor, chairman of the NBA’s relocation committee. He also says Ballmer had him scout Kings players and prepare a detailed analysis on Phil Jackson and other potential Seattle coaching candidates.
But former Sonics general manager Wally Walker, who worked closely with Hansen, denies Gordon’s involvement.
“He’s got no input on any of that,’’ Walker said.
Walker has known Gordon since 1978 and says it’s possible he worked on his own, or for Ballmer directly, but unlikely Walker would know nothing about it. Ballmer denied assigning Gordon basketball work.
The NBA nixed the Kings relocation on May 15, 2013 and a shattered Gordon, wallowing in debt, checked into the psychiatric hospital June 11.
Walker said he still considers Gordon a friend.
“He’s known everybody in sports who’s come through this town for years.’’
But Walker added: “It’s tricky, because, with some of it, he’s crazy involved with high-level people and athletes. And some of it, he’s just embellishing.’’
The “Hat Man” no longer works in the NBA. He says he’s selling property to raise funds to repay creditors and planning to sue the Woodinville company to recover money owed his investors.
So far, there are only the two lawsuits against him. Another was avoided last June when Ballmer gave Gordon $50,000 to pay a Denver creditor.
Interestingly, Gordon’s biggest damage began after Ballmer “gifted” him the monthly $9,900. Gordon says he was irked when, in explaining why he’d chosen that amount, Ballmer told him: “Nobody ever needs to earn more than $10,000 a month.’’
Gordon considered himself Ballmer’s “consigliere” and was stung by having a limit placed on his value. With the monthly payouts providing new seed money, Gordon says he set out to show Ballmer, Allen and others he could do bigger deals on his own.
But not, it appears, without using Ballmer’s name.
Nowadays, truly on his own, Gordon earns what income he can the only way he’s ever excelled: training basketball players. But instead of pros, the limited gigs are with younger players on high-school and public courts.
“It’s what I’m good at,” he said. “If I’d stuck to that, I probably wouldn’t be in the mess that I am today.”
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286