Yet Allen is so modest that, according to one former executive, Rose Garden personnel are under instructions not to show him on the arena scoreboard. He seldom addresses fans. He rarely grants interviews. He agreed to speak with SPORTS ILLUSTRATED by phone but asked to meet the writer in person first. While Allen is gentle and thoroughly pleasant in conversation, he is almost aggressively unforthcoming. What, specifically, draws him to sports? "Sports are events the community can rally around and get excited about, and that's a wonderful thing to experience," he replies blandly. Is he surprised how big a role team ownership plays in his life? "Football and basketball are different games, but they both have their interesting points, and they're both enjoyable for the fans." Does he perceive himself, as others do, as being such an introvert? "There are other owners in sports who do more interviews or are more, well ... acting in different ways. But I see my role as trying to put everything in place behind the scenes to make things successful."
Allen is similarly impenetrable to his players. Steve Blake, Portland's point guard, is in his second season playing for Allen but claims, "I've never really met the man." Greg Oden, the team's gilded rookie, out for the season with a knee injury but nevertheless the face of the franchise, describes his relationship with Allen this way: "He's the dude who signs my checks." Center Joel Przybilla says of Allen, "He's courteous but sort of shy and self-protective." The team recently held a practice on the full-size NBA court at Allen's estate on Mercer Island. (According to one Blazers employee, the court is ringed with Monets and Renoirs encased in protective glass, lest a multimillion-dollar masterpiece get dinged by an errant pass.) Allen, however, was away on his yacht at the time.
Last season, the Blazers unexpectedly won a big game, and their coach, Nate McMillan, asked the owner if he wanted to address his minions. The locker room went quiet, and players leaned in to hear what the boss had to say. Allen avoided eye contact with them, and his words were slow in coming. But then the omnipotent owner finally spoke. "Guys," he said in a barely audible voice, "great game."
THIS PARABLE begins in a faraway kingdom called the Emerald City. It was the late 1960s, and Paul Allen was a quiet, studious, relentlessly curious kid at Seattle's Lakeside High, the son of two educators. He'd played some recreational basketball and gone with his father to Washington Huskies football games, but as far as his talents went, it was brains over brawn in a blowout. He had a nimble imagination and interests that ranged from rocket ships to rock music.
It was at Lakeside that Allen discovered computers. He envisioned a day when the personal computer would transform lives. He had a buddy in the computer club who shared his passion, a scrawny lawyer's son two years his junior named Bill Gates. The two boys may have gotten strange looks from classmates when they spoke enthusiastically about "laptops" and "memory chips," but they were convinced that they were glimpsing the future. Allen foresaw a vast computer network that would one day connect the citizens of the world, and even newspapers would be available on screens!
After graduation Allen headed to Washington State, while Gates would enroll at Harvard (though, according to lore, Allen got the higher SAT scores). Allen dropped out of college and moved to Boston, in part to be closer to Gates so they could work on their computer code. Soon Gates dropped out of school as well. They formed a company to develop computer language and named it Micro-Soft.
Often working through the night, Allen and Gates wrote a version of BASIC software that provided the programming language for the new Altair computer and sold it to Altair's manufacturer. Then they sold a similar version to IBM. After a stint in Albuquerque, where the makers of Altairs were based, the two moved their growing company home to suburban Seattle. While Gates was an aggressive marketer and a savvy businessman, Allen was perceived by many as the brains of the operation. In The Accidental Zillionaire, Laura Rich's unauthorized biography of Allen, the CEO of the company that made Altair computers recalled, "Paul was much more important ... because Gates was hard to deal with. He assumed everyone was stupid, but Paul would listen to what was being said."
In the precious few hours that Allen wasn't at work staring at an electronic box, he'd cruise Seattle in his Porsche, frequent Dick's hamburger joint, take his dad to Sonics games and mess around on his guitar. He wasn't even 30 years old, and as far as he was concerned, he was living the good life.
But in the fall of 1982 he went to Europe on business for Microsoft (they'd dropped the hyphen) and felt ill and lethargic midway through the trip. When he returned to Seattle, he was told he had lymphoma, an often fatal cancer of the lymph nodes. The following morning the diagnosis was downgraded to Hodgkin's disease, which is far more treatable. Allen underwent radiation treatment; the cancer went into remission. Still, this encounter with mortality—and his father's death at around the same time—got him thinking: enough with the all-nighters and the cubicles with fluorescent lighting overhead. He wanted to live.
To Gates's surprise, Allen took a leave of absence in 1983 to travel and scuba dive and watch takeoffs at Cape Canaveral. Though he never returned to Microsoft, he retained a 28% share in the company. He founded a new technology company he called Asymetrix that hemorrhaged money, but ultimately it didn't matter. On March 13, 1986, Microsoft went public. By the end of the day Allen was worth $134 million. And that was just the beginning.