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ESPN postpones Sacramento film due to new focus on Kevin Johnson molestation claims

Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson trade high-fives after an ESPN interview at a Sacramento Kings rally in May 2013.
Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson trade high-fives after an ESPN interview at a Sacramento Kings rally in May 2013.

Monday night was supposed to be a festive one for Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson. The Crest Theatre was showing a premiere of “Down in the Valley,” a documentary of Sacramento’s successful effort to keep the Kings from moving to Seattle.

In this ESPN narrative, Johnson is the star.

At the last minute, another video – this one made by the Phoenix Police Department nearly 20 years ago – caused ESPN to delay indefinitely its nationwide television release of the Sacramento documentary. This video, posted on YouTube last week, shows a teenage girl describing how she says Johnson molested her when he was a basketball player with the Phoenix Suns.

The local premiere of the ESPN movie, sponsored by the Kings, went forward, but it was no longer a prelude to the planned Oct. 20 national release of the film.

ESPN confirmed that no one from the network would attend the Sacramento event. The network cited “a recent, renewed focus on allegations” against Johnson as its reason for postponing the national release of the film.

Before the Crest showing, Johnson spoke outside to a crowd gathered on K Street, including more than a half-dozen reporters. He said there was no “there there” to the allegations, which have been public for many years. He said it was ESPN’s prerogative to pull the film, but he is confident it will be released within weeks.

“When you’re in politics, you take hits,” Johnson said. “The people of Sacramento knew about these allegations, and I was lucky enough to be elected anyway.”

His remarks played well to a hometown audience gathered to watch a movie celebrating Sacramento’s spirit. They cheered Johnson as he walked into the theater.

ESPN announced Monday that it was pulling the plug – at least temporarily – on the “Down in the Valley” film because of the 1996 video showing a police officer questioning a teenage girl named Mandi Koba. The girl, then 16, had alleged that Johnson, 29, a star player for the Phoenix Suns, had brought her to his house, disrobed and fondled her.

The story isn’t new. Years ago, The Sacramento Bee and other media outlets reported on Koba’s allegations and published the transcript of her interview with police. No criminal charges were filed as a result, but Johnson’s 1997 payment of $230,000 to Koba in return for her silence was widely reported.

In recent weeks, however, sports website Deadspin has resurrected the story. It published an interview with Koba, now 36. And late last week, it put the video of her questioning years ago on the Internet for everyone to see.

It’s quite a picture. A young-looking teen, just 95 pounds, sits fidgeting in a hard chair, scrunching her shoulders. She says Johnson fondled her, but hesitates at first when the officer presses her to be more specific.

Her words have been noted in police transcripts that have been public for a very long time. They have been available to Bee readers on since 2008, when Johnson was first running for mayor. Anyone living in Sacramento or following Johnson’s candidacy could have been aware of this dark moment in his past.

Johnson was elected mayor by a wide margin anyway. He was re-elected by Sacramento voters in 2012. He became president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, received invitations to state dinners hosted by President Barack Obama. Johnson was showered with favorable national attention in summer of 2014, when he led NBA players in a movement resulting in the ouster of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Johnson voiced player disgust after Sterling had been caught on tape making racist comments.

The first African American mayor of Sacramento has achieved renown and access to power rarely attained by mayors of midsize cities. He did it all with the Phoenix accusation looming in the public domain.

It was the video of Koba that resulted in Johnson experiencing a bitter setback with tangible repercussions.

A source close to Johnson who is familiar with the production of the film said ESPN was granted full access to the mayor over a 20-month period in 2014 and 2015. Several times, he said, documentary director Jason Hehir discussed whether or not to address the allegations against Johnson. Ultimately, he and ESPN jointly decided to leave them out because they were deemed unrelated to the primary narrative of saving the Kings, the source said.

Johnson’s camp was incredulous Monday that ESPN would announce postponing the film just hours before hundreds of Sacramentans gathered to celebrate its viewing at the Crest Theatre.

Johnson had considered the film’s national release later this month so significant that he previously asked the Sacramento City Council to postpone its meeting that night so members and the public could watch it. After The Sacramento Bee reported last week on the schedule change, Johnson withdrew his request, saying the meeting would occur on its normal Tuesday night because at least one council member objected to the delay.

John Dahl, vice president and executive producer of ESPN Films and Original Content, said Monday that the network had to pause and reflect on its film in light of the video released by Deadspin.

“It’s fair to say that the new material, in terms of putting a name and a face on ... the accuser ... (caused ESPN) to acknowledge and address (it),” Dahl said Monday.

“We will be looking at presentation and content and how we can deal with these matters in a fair and responsible way,” he said.

Dahl said ESPN was committed to releasing the film in the future, but that the network could not set a release date until it settled on a way to update its finished product in light of the Koba video.

ESPN and Deadspin have history together. Deadspin covers ESPN aggressively. The website has published stories before that were considered embarrassing to the sports network.

But pulling back a documentary in its prized “30-for-30” series is unprecedented. Started in 2009, the “30-for-30” series was intended to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the sports network with documentaries on the major sporting events of the ESPN era. The films were so acclaimed and successful that ESPN has continued producing them and become the industry leader in sports documentaries.

Hehir, director of “Down in the Valley,” had previously scored rave reviews with his film “Fab 5,” the story of the fabled and infamous University of Michigan basketball team of the early 1990s that starred Chris Webber, arguably the greatest player in Kings history.

Hehir and ESPN were drawn to Sacramento’s story of beating the odds by keeping its NBA team from relocating to Seattle. At slightly more than an hour in run time, the film is a stirring ode to Sacramento’s community spirit. It was enthusiastically received at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York in April.

Monday’s announcement changed that equation and created national news that Johnson could hardly relish. Many commentors on Twitter said it was “about time” that the media focused on Johnson’s past.

One local political consultant who has sometimes been critical of Johnson had a different take.

“Candidly, this is an ESPN cheap shot,” said Doug Elmets, longtime political consultant and adviser to some of California’s most influential Native American tribes.

“ESPN bowed to an online publication that clearly has a vendetta against Kevin Johnson, but I don’t think it will have a lasting impact on the mayor, his ability to do his job or to run for re-election,” Elmets said. “None of these revelations are new. Despite what people may feel, Johnson has delivered for Sacramento, and anyone who wants to use this situation to sell him short is probably going to end up being surprised.”

One Kings devotee said Monday he was just trying to stay focused on the story that the documentary recounts of an NBA team poised to move and how a community rallied to keep it in town. “Whether our story is told today, next week, next month, I know this: Anybody connected to Sacramento will have their heart beating out of their chest when they see it,” said Carmichael Dave, a local sports radio personality who is featured prominently in the film.

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