Luke Walton accuser Kelli Tennant speaks out at press conference
He was a trusted friend and colleague, so when he invited her to his hotel room that day in 2014, she told herself not to over think it.
Then, out of nowhere, he allegedly pinned her down on the bed with all his weight, kissing her, rubbing himself against her, and laughing at her pleas to stop.
“I thought he was going to rape me.”
Sitting beside her attorney in a vacant sports bar next to her attorney’s Los Angeles office, her voice succinct, strong and unemotional, 31-year-old former sports reporter Kelli Tennant on Tuesday spoke for the first time publicly about the day in a Santa Monica hotel room she says she was sexually assaulted by Luke Walton, who was then an assistant coach for the Golden State Warriors.
Tennant this week filed a lawsuit against Walton, 39, now the newly hired coach of the Sacramento Kings, accusing him of sexual battery. Years after the alleged attack, when Walton was head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers and Tennant was covering the team as a television reporter, Walton re-ignited “painful wounds” by repeatedly hugging and kissing Tennant and putting his hands on her in a way that made her feel uncomfortable, Tennant alleges in the lawsuit.
“When he did so, Defendant Walton delivered a clear message to Ms. Tennant: he could dominate and control her, and she was his to put his hands on whenever he wanted,” the lawsuit contends.
Walton’s attorney dismissed the charges. “The accuser is an opportunist, not a victim, and her claim is not credible. We intend to prove this in a courtroom,” attorney Mark Baute said.
Tennant, a former star volleyball player at USC who know runs her own business as a self-help motivator for women, said she tried to forget the episode, but couldn’t. She is speaking now, she said, to help herself get past the emotional trauma, as well as to help other women, and so that Walton doesn’t get away with his behavior.
“This type of behavior cannot be condoned,” Tennant said. “And no woman should ever be made to feel like a victim.”
Tennant said she was 25 at the time of the alleged attack, and just one year into an important job at Spectrum Sportsnet LA. She did not report it to police or to her bosses.
“I was scared,” she said. “When someone assaults you and you think you’re going to be raped, coming forward is a scary thing. I have spent years hoping I could push it to the side and bury it, but that was not the case. I was able to muster up the courage … to feel comfortable to talk about this.”
Tennant’s allegations have created shock waves in Sacramento and through the NBA,putting the league into a potentially ugly legal battle involving high-priced attorneys, high-profile clients and charges of misogyny. NBA officials and Sacramento Kings representatives this week said they are looking into Tennant’s allegations, but have not said what actions they may take if they determine her story is true.
Tennant’s attorney Garo Mardirossian, in a written statement prior to the Tuesday afternoon press conference, called the alleged sexual assault by Walton part of a long pattern of gender abuse and sexual exploitation in the National Basketball Association.
“Women connected to the National Basketball Association (NBA) have long had to suffer in silence through the indignities of gender abuse and sexual exploitation at the hands of famous, wealthy and powerful men,” the attorney wrote. “Aided by their fame, money and power, and motivated by a culture that tolerates misogynistic gender-bias, too many men in professional basketball inappropriately abuse women.
“By way of this lawsuit, Ms. Tennant is speaking out and saying #timesup to the culture of abusing women in the NBA.”
Tennant, who said she met Walton years ago when she played college volleyball against Walton’s future wife, said she had gone to his hotel in late 2014 to deliver him a copy of a book she had written and for which he had penned the introduction. She wrapped it up and expected to give it to him in the lobby, but he persuaded her to come up to his room, saying he didn’t want to talk among Warriors players who were in the lobby at the time. There, she says, he pinned her down on the bed, forcibly kissed her face, neck and chest, groped her breasts and groin, and rubbed his erection on her leg.
Walton was introduced as the Kings’ new coach last week. The Kings released a brief written statement saying, “We are aware of the report and are gathering additional information. We have no further comment at this time.”
A league source told The Bee on Tuesday that Kings general manager Vlade Divac had no knowledge of the allegations when he hired Walton 10 days earlier. Divac learned of the alleged incident between Walton and Tennant when TMZ first reported the lawsuit Monday night. The Kings were gathering information and it was too early in the fact-finding process to tell if Walton’s four-year contract could be terminated, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the investigation.
The Lakers also issued a written statement, saying they were previously unaware of Tennant’s allegations.
“This alleged incident took place before Luke Walton was the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers,” the team said in its statement. “At no time before or during his employment here was this allegation reported to the Lakers. If it had been, we would have immediately commenced an investigation and notified the NBA. Since Luke Walton is now under contract to another team, we will have no further comment.”
The Warriors issued a statement as well, saying: “We became aware of the alleged incident and story this evening and are in the process of seeking more information. We’ll have no further comment at this time.”
Walton spent two seasons as an assistant coach with the Warriors from 2014 to 16. He was named head coach of the Lakers in April 2016. After three seasons, the Lakers announced they had mutually agreed to part ways with Walton on April 12, just 24 hours after the Kings fired former coach Dave Joerger.
The Kings contacted Walton immediately and finalized a four-year agreement the next day following a face-to-face meeting between Walton and Kings general manager Vlade Divac. Walton’s wife, Bre Ladd, attended his introductory news conference April 15 at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento.
Walton met his wife while they were attending the University of Arizona. Walton was a star player on the basketball team. Ladd was a standout volleyball player. They got married in August 2013.
Walton spent 10 years in the NBA before starting his coaching career. Walton was playing for the Lakers in 2008 when a woman was charged with stalking him. According to the Los Angeles Times, Stacy Elizabeth Beshear pleaded no contest to the charges and was sentenced to three years probation. At one point, Beshear reportedly pulled up next to Walton’s car and “pretended to fire gunshots at him with her hand.”
Speaking for about 20 minutes to an assemblage of news media, Tennant said she had wanted to put the 2014 incident behind her, but was forced to spend time at her job with Walton when he was hired to be head coach of the Lakers.
She described a 2017 charity event, where she was co-host and Walton was the honored guest. She said he looked her up and down, and said, “you’re killing me in that dress.” The moment brought back the trauma of the alleged assault, and left her feeling “disgusting,” she said.
“I had to talk about how amazing he was for an hour (on stage) and it literally killed me inside,” she said.
Tennant and her attorney declined comment when asked by The Bee whether they thought the Kings should reconsider hiring Walton.
Asked why they were not taking their case to the police, Mardirossian initially said he did not think it would end up in a prosecution, but later said they might consider talking to police.