No matter how important the hiring of head coach Luke Walton is to the Kings – and his signature on a four-year deal last week was a critical move for a franchise yearning to win after 13 years of losing – all of the ambition, money and strategy invested in him has to be secondary right now.
The Kings must value getting at the truth about the sexual assault allegations levied in a lawsuit against Walton by Kelli Tennant, former Southern California journalist. They must value that more than how much they want Walton to lead their young team on the rise.
The Kings must be transparent about whether they asked Walton in a lightning fast interview process if he had any #MeToo issues in his past.
The Kings cannot seem defensive or driven primarily by a need to protect their Walton investment. Otherwise, they run the risk of alienating a large base of fans and families that helped fill Golden 1 Center in the season just ended.
Yes, it’s true. The Kings have been labeled one of the most dysfunctional franchises in the NBA for more than a decade now. The Kings have led the league in organizational pratfalls and just seemed to be coming out of that when the Walton news broke late Monday.
The regional response to this disturbing revelation was as if off of one script: From the wealthiest communities in El Dorado Hills and Granite Bay to the urban neighborhoods of the city to the large suburbs that ring the city, it was face palms and loud laments of how it’s one disaster after another for these guys.
The allegation against Walton is at least five years old, when he was still an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors. But, of course, it comes to light, not when he is coaching the Los Angeles Lakers, but days after he takes the job in Sacramento.
Are the Kings cursed?
That chatter is already lighting up social media and the Kings need to tune it out.
On Tuesday, they need to hold a news conference and tell the community as much as they can about what they know and what they are doing. They can do this while upholding Walton’s benefit of the doubt until more is known.
But the Kings must be active agents, along with the NBA, in finding out as much as they can about the allegations against Walton.
Anything less than that puts the Kings and the NBA in the unflattering posture of seeming to condone, dismiss or minimize abuse against women. And frankly, this is where the #MeToo movement has informed our world.
It demands we give female accusers the benefit of the doubt once reserved solely for men, especially coveted men like Walton.
If the Kings really want to cement their reputation as a dysfunctional organization, they will botch the response to this truly unfortunate set of circumstances.
So, how should they handle it?
For that question I went to people who know a lot more about dealing with these issues than I.
“The Kings need to hire an outside law firm to investigate the allegations,” said Christine Pelosi, chair of the California Democratic Party’s Women’s Caucus.
“They need to find someone who is completely neutral, someone who doesn’t work for the NBA or any other sports organization...” she said. “It should be a truly independent organization that is not biased for passion or prejudice one way or the other.”
With the help of the NBA, Pelosi thinks an investigation into the Walton allegations could be done quickly, before the NBA draft in June and the start of free agency in July. That way the Kings could find out what they need to know and decide if this allegation is baseless or something that would lead them to rethink their future with Walton.
Pelosi is the daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and, as a Bay Area native, she is a huge fan of the San Francisco Giants. She’s a board member of the Giants Community Fund and is familiar with the rarefied sports culture in which teams place great value on assets like Walton.
“This is a real stress test for the Kings and the NBA,” she said. “This is a really serious moment and I just hope the Kings and the NBA understand how seriously everyone will look at this.”
Adama Iwu also believes the Kings must deal with the matter directly, and rapidly. Iwu is co-founder of “We Said Enough,” a non-profit “working to end harassment, bullying, discrimination and abuse.”
“The Kings have to do this quickly and they have to be very clear,” Iwu said. “People have to believe that their process is fair and equitable.”
Iwu was recognized by Time Magazine as a “Person of the Year” in 2017. The honor went to her and a group of women the magazine dubbed “The Silence Breakers” for their courage in speaking out against powerful institutions.
Iwu helped organize women who stood up to sexual harassment at the state Capitol. She shared the Time cover with actress Ashley Judd and singer Taylor Swift, among others.
“I’d like to see the Kings want to know that they hired someone who can come to their young team unencumbered,” she said.
What if the Kings hire an outside law firm and conclude that the allegations against Walton are baseless and the team uses that conclusion to push forward with him as coach despite the negative publicity?
Right now, it’s too early to know if the allegations against Walton are well-founded and too early to draw definitive conclusions one way or the other. (His lawyer, late Monday, called the allegations “baseless.”)
The problem the Kings have to solve is one that is central to who they are and how they make money. The Kings are a private company that depends of public good will. They make their most money when people feel good about them.
If the Kings move toward getting to the bottom of this issue for the sake of doing right by the goodwill of all their customers, they stand the best chance of getting through this with the least amount of damage.
But if the Kings seem defensive, if they seem as if they are stalling or hiding, some fans won’t care. But many fans will care will be turned off.
Considering all their losing seasons and organizational setbacks, the allegation against Walton, coming one week after his introductory press conference, is a deeply troubling for all concerned.
But the Kings still need to face this directly. They need to give their coach a benefit of the doubt equal to the woman accusing him of horrendous conduct. Then they need to give a pursuit of the truth more weight than the powerful ambitions that led them to hire Walton in the first place.
They can listen to Iwu’s wise words. “Attitude reflects leadership,” she said. “And what you compromise, you lose.”