Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive has team back in the pure joy of the playoffs
Sacramento Kings owner talks about why he hired Mike Brown, what he saw in De’Aaron Fox, social justice in his city
SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The 17-year playoff drought was over as the game clock struck zero on the Sacramento Kings’ 120-80 road victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on March 29. Kings fans who made the trek to Portland, in Sacramento and as far away as India could finally let go of the ridiculed past and let in the reality of finally making it back to the postseason. And the Kings’ most ardent fan, their owner Vivek Ranadive, was suddenly overcome with emotion after watching the result from his San Francisco Bay Area home of Atherton.
“It was great joy. I’ve been wanting this for our fans and for our city with every ounce of my being,” Ranadive told Andscape. “And this is a city [Sacramento] that’s built on basketball. It’s got the best fan base in sports. And I so badly wanted this for our fans that when it finally happened, words couldn’t describe it. It’s just pure joy. I just felt a rush of emotion.
“My phone started ringing off the hook. And I was actually amazed at the number of people from not just around the country, but from around the world that were rooting for us and rooting for me. And I was just overcome with love, and people were just reaching out.”
The Maloof family completed its sale of the Kings to a California-based group headed by Ranadive on May 31, 2013, for $534 million, an NBA record. The purchase ended potential speculation of the franchise moving from Sacramento to Seattle or anywhere else. At the time, Sacramento was in the sixth year of what would become a 17-season absence from the postseason.
Ranadive ultimately moved the Kings from the dilapidated Arco Arena to the new downtown Golden 1 Center in 2016. The Kings, however, kept losing, continued making poor draft choices and were viewed as a laughingstock of a franchise that NBA agents often steered their clients away from. Moreover, Ranadive was often criticized in NBA circles for being too involved in a franchise that failed to turn the corner.
Reality now has the Kings as one of the new darlings of the NBA. Sacramento has two NBA All-Stars, De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis; an all-rookie team candidate, Keegan Murray; a presumed NBA Coach of the Year candidate, first-year head coach Mike Brown; and an NBA Executive of the Year candidate, Monte McNair. All these good tidings came as the result of the Kings earning a 48-34 record, a Western Conference-best 25 road victories and the No. 3 seed in the West playoffs. The Kings will host their first playoff game since 2006 on Saturday night on ABC against the reigning NBA champion Golden State Warriors. Ranadive was a minority owner of the Warriors before he purchased the Kings.
“I do feel like there’s a monkey off my back. Definitely. It’s been a difficult journey,” Ranadive said.
Ranadive sat down with Andscape in his private owner’s room at Golden 1 Center before a game against the San Antonio Spurs on April 2. The India native talked about the challenges of turning the Kings around, how he almost got injured at Arco Arena after buying the Kings, the beloved “Victory Beam,” being impressed by Brown beating USA Basketball as coach of Nigeria, Fox’s pre-draft workout, being impressed with Sabonis in India, his playoff excitement, the importance of fighting for social justice and much more.
My phone rings and it’s David Stern and he says, ‘Hey, I can’t let you play until you fix the roof.’ And then my phone rings again and there’s a guy who’s since passed away, and he says, ‘I’m so-and-so. I represent so-and-so,’ my best player at the time, ‘and he’s not going to stay there.’ So welcome to the NBA. This isn’t going to be easy …
How excited are you for the first playoff game as owner of the Kings after all of these years?
I’m so excited for the first playoff game. When we first bought the team and we had our first game, the city, the state capital, was lit up in purple, the grid was lit up in purple, the whole city was purple, the bars were serving purple drinks. And so, this is going to be a huge show. First playoff game, the city’s going to be on fire, and I’m superexcited.
The Kings started a “Victory Beam” that is a purple laser light shown on the top of Golden 1 Center after wins that has become quite popular with your players and fans. Is it safe to say that the “Victory Beam” is here to stay?
I know. I love it. If I’m going to be stuck with something, I love the notion.
Do you make a point to notice the beam after games?
Absolutely. You can see the lights up in the air. When my car pulls out, I get out, I stop, and I admire the beam. Sometimes I just walk out onto DOCO [Downtown Commons] and just high-five the fans and just enjoy the moment.
What were your hopes and dreams for the Kings when you bought the team, and did you truly understand the challenges before you?
When I bought the team, and I had obviously been [Warriors co-owner] Joe’s [Lacob] partner at the Warriors. We had been good for a few years, and then we got good. And just when we got good is when [NBA commissioner] David Stern called me and said, ‘Buy the team and save the team.’ And I was at the time thinking, ‘Well, I live in the Bay Area. [We] Finally have a good team, and these are all my friends.’ But then I saw the passion of the fans and I just felt like this is our state capital.
I came to California from India with nothing. And without the team, taking it [from Sacramento] out would be ripping the heart out of the city. So maybe it’s something as an immigrant I’m meant to do. So, we went through the process, and I succeeded, and I came to Sacramento for the first time. [Kings chief operating officer] Matina [Kolokotronis] gave me the keys and said, ‘This is yours.’ So, I said, ‘OK, let’s go in.’ So, I walked into the arena and literally a part of the roof fell almost on me.
It fell right down, right next to me. First time I walked in. Then my phone rings and it’s David Stern and he says, ‘Hey, I can’t let you play until you fix the roof.’ And then my phone rings again and there’s a guy who’s since passed away, and he says, ‘I’m so-and-so. I represent so-and-so,’ my best player at the time, ‘and he’s not going to stay there.’ So welcome to the NBA. This isn’t going to be easy …
Just building an arena, I gave a personal guarantee to the NBA that we would have an arena built in a certain timeframe, and if I didn’t succeed, they could take the team back from me. And so literally, we had a law written just for us, Senate code 70, for SB 724, so we could fast-track the arena. So, it’s been kind of a labor of love. And getting over the finish line, or at least the first finish line. And making it to the playoffs has been absolutely amazing. We got there.
What has been your toughest time during the ownership of the Kings?
Obviously there’ve been challenges along the way, many challenges. And so, when you find fans that are unhappy, that’s a privilege, to have fans that care that much and that have that kind of passion. So, I’m one of these people that’s always moving forward, and always trying to learn and get better. So, there were things that were often said and written which were just simply not true. And it was not for me as much as it was for my family and friends, that I felt bad that they had to read those kinds of things.
But, look, I grew up in Bombay [India]. And there’s kids on the street that don’t get food and that are eating out of a garbage can. Now, that’s stress and that’s hardship. This? This is a privilege.
What do you think people in India can learn from your story?
What people anywhere can learn is that if you just work hard and you have big dreams, then just get up and never give up and never ever give up, and just keep working and good things will happen. Now again, I don’t take any of this for granted. And I wouldn’t also underestimate the part that luck plays in anybody’s journey because I think anybody who’s had success, however you might define that, there’s always luck involved in that. So, just never give up, just work really hard and be a good person, and good things will happen.
Would it be safe to say that until your first playoff game here arrives, that your fondest moment was taking the team to India in 2019?
Taking the team to India was truly one of the epic moments of my life. The NBA came through on its promise to let me play a game, and we played two games, the preseason games against my friend [Indiana Pacers owner] Herb Simon and the Indiana Pacers. And we had to load up a Boeing 747 with bleachers and turnstiles and bathrooms and everything. And we actually had to put an NBA-class arena together there. Just a few weeks before there were goats and chickens running through the place. And then to see it looked like an NBA arena, and there were two NBA teams. And I’m sitting there surrounded by family and friends in my hometown. And to see the ball go up and the game start, that was truly one of the epic moments of my life with a country of over a billion people watching.
Is that where you first got a close look at Sabonis when he was playing for the Pacers?
Oh, my God. Domantas, it was like we were boys, and he was a man. He put a whupping on us that day. And Fox calls him ‘The Ox,’ and I didn’t know what that meant until … Of course, this was a few years back, and he was just a young kid and he had become a man. And whatever he had done that summer, he was a man’s man, but he was also very skilled. He also had a very high court IQ. And when we finally flew out, I ran into the Pacers team at the airport. And he was so gracious and so humble. And here we had dragged these people halfway across the world to this crazy time zone, to this poor country, to play this game, games. And he was thanking me for the opportunity.
That stuck with you about Sabonis?
That stuck with me. I saw him as a player, but I also saw him as a human being and great kid.
The Sabonis for up-and-coming guard Tyrese Haliburton was a big trade last year. You put a lot of trust in your brass to make that trade that you were ridiculed for before it ultimately became a great trade for both teams.
I decided that I was going to really get involved in everything because people were saying I was involved, but I wasn’t actually involved. And so, I got involved in the coaching search and that process, and I just really got close to everybody. And it took a lot of courage from my front office guys to pull the trigger and make that trade, because we knew that Haliburton was an All-Star, and he was a great kid, and everyone loved him. But in some ways, looking back on it, they stuck to their strategy, which was to get the best available player and that would then be a great asset.
And so, if we didn’t have Tyrese, we couldn’t have gotten Domantas. It ended up being a win-win trade for everybody. It’s one of those rare trades where it created three All-Stars. And so, Tyrese was an All-Star. De’Aaron an All-Star. Domas an All-Star. So, it took a lot of courage on the part of my front office to pull the trigger and make that trade, but I applauded them for doing that.
De’Aaron told Andscape early in the season that he wanted the playoffs more for you than anybody. And he’s never asked for a trade, he never wanted out. He kept the faith. What does he mean to you?
So De’Aaron is just a special human being, and so is his wife and his family. So early on, I got a call from Coach Cal [Kentucky men’s head basketball coach John Calipari] and he said, ‘Hey, I got this kid and he’s the fastest kid that I’ve ever seen. You should give him a try.’ I said, ‘OK, Coach.’ So, then we have this kid come and try out for us. And Dave Joerger is our coach then. Great coach. So, I said, ‘You know what? Since Coach Calipari called me, I’m going to check this out myself.’ And I hadn’t really seen a tryout before, so I went and sat down.
So, what [Joeger] did is he put three blindfolds on De’Aaron. And then he tried to [air] punch his face to make sure he couldn’t see anything. Then he started barking orders and saying, ‘Go there, go right, do this.’ So, he just executed like you would not believe, blindfolded. High speed, at Fox speed. And it’s kind of interesting because a few weeks ago, [NBA executive vice-president] Joe Dumars called me up and he said, ‘Hey, I know you’re close to De’Aaron, and why don’t you call him and tell him he’s going to make the NBA All-Star Game. But you got to tell him at 9:30 [a.m.] because after that it goes public.’ So, I texted De’Aaron and [his wife] Recee, and I said, ‘Hey, I need to talk to you at 9:30.’ So, she said, ‘OK, call me and I’ll pass De’Aaron here.’
So, at 9:30 I call Recee. She patches De’Aaron. And while I’m on the phone, coach [Brown] calls. So, I patch coach in, and I say, ‘Hey, guys, I just wanted to tell you a story about De’Aaron.’ So, I told the story about when coach Calipari called me, and this kid came in and did this try-out blindfolded. Then I said, ‘Yeah, hey, De’Aaron, I built this brand-new arena here, and it’s like this [brand] spanking new Ferrari, but I don’t know who to give the keys to. Who’s going to take me to the promised land? Who’s going to take me to the top?’ And he said, ‘Give it to me. Give me the keys.’ So, I said, ‘Kid, here’s the question I have for you. Do you have any plans this coming weekend?’ And he was like, ‘No, I don’t.’ And I said, ‘Well, OK, then I’ll see you and Recee in Salt Lake City.’ So, I got to tell him that. So that’s how much he means to me. I’ve seen his journey from the day that he did his tryout with coach Joerger to the All-Star Game in Salt Lake City. And he’s just, he’s got a superpower, right? He’s the fastest kid in the league.
Why was Mike Brown the right head coach choice for the Kings?
So, I got very involved in the process, and I had Coach Mike come to my house and we had a six-hour dinner while the Warriors were in the playoffs [last year]. And he’s in San Francisco. I live in Atherton. And I had a long list of questions. And so, he showed up with 20 pages of notes, to my house. And so, he’s very methodical, he’s very detail-oriented. Obviously, he’s a basketball guru. And one of the things I asked him was, ‘Hey, you’re known as a defensive coach, and the game’s become very offensive now. So how do you reconcile that?’
Now, the reason that I had become a fan of his though was not because of his NBA experience, it was because what I saw him do with the Nigerian team where they beat the U.S. team in the exhibition game. And he had those guys running up and down at a high speed. His references were incredible. And I spoke to the Warriors players. I had folks like [San Antonio Spurs] coach [Gregg] Popovich calling me, telling me about him. And what makes him unique is that he’s old school, but he’s also new school.
So, he can hold players accountable while at the same time giving them love and making them feel like he has their back and he wants them to succeed, and that he’s going to put them in a position to succeed. So, he’s an incredible coach, and I like to say that culture eats strategy for lunch. And he’s a culture guy. When I met with him, I said to him, I said, ‘Coach, I haven’t been that involved, but I’m going to get involved. And so, you and I are going to talk. So, if you don’t like that, then you shouldn’t do this.’ And he said, ‘No, I love that.’
So, I said, ‘OK, there’s only two rules that are going to apply. One is radical candor. So, I’m always going to be honest. You’re always going to be honest. But couched with that is rule two, which is radical love, where there’s going to be unqualified love and support for you, and it’s going to be a safe place.’ So, we’ve operated on that premise.
We went to Europe together. We went to Germany to watch Domas play in the European championship. I got to go on long walks with him and just understand his thought process. So, he’s an incredible coach. He’s changed the culture. A good human being, just a really good person. And just exactly what the Sacramento Kings need.
On March 18, 2018, Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old African American, was shot and killed in Sacramento by two Sacramento police officers in the backyard of his grandmother’s house. Most NBA owners probably wouldn’t have said anything. But you grabbed the mic at midcourt after a Kings game shortly afterwards and talked about the need for change. And since then, you’ve also been a public champion for social justice, equality, and you’ve hired a lot of women of power as well. Can you about reflect about the Stephon Clark moment and just where your mentality is social justice and equality?
So, I’ve always said that our mission is to build a winning franchise that enhances the lives of those it touches and makes the world a better place. And that’s what we’re about … It’s an opportunity, it’s a privilege. It’s really even an obligation, when you have that kind of a platform, to use it for good. And so, what happened with the Stephon Clark situation was beyond tragic, and it was so very sad, and our community rallied, and they expressed their thoughts. And I embraced that. When I built this downtown arena, I saw it as the communal gathering spot … So, I welcomed the demonstrators and I said, ‘Look, we’re going to do everything in our power to make sure this doesn’t happen again and to enhance our community in every way we can.’ And then I took that to the NBA and said, ‘Look, we need to do that.’ And we’ve now created a social justice coalition, which is also involved on a national level for equality and for social justice.
Michael Jordan, an African American, is considering selling the majority of his ownership with the Charlotte Hornets. Depending on who it is sold to, you could end up being the only person of color that owns majority ownership in an NBA team that is part of a predominantly black league. Is there a responsibility that comes with that as well?
Yeah, obviously it’s a huge privilege and a huge honor to own the team. And when you are put in that situation, you have to use it for good. And that it’s a blessing. It’s an opportunity. And my intention is to do everything in my power to use that platform, no matter how many other owners there are, that I think that’s something. And a lot of credit to the league and the leadership, whether it was David Stern and now it’s [NBA commissioner] Adam Silver, they’ve always been on the right side of history. And they’ve always encouraged and embraced the platform and the positions that we at the Kings have taken.