Last week, before he became the first NBA owner born in India to travel with his team there, the Kings’ Vivek Ranadive looked as happy and relaxed as he’s ever been seen in Sacramento.
The Kings’ trip to the place of Ranadive’s birth for two exhibition games this week (Oct. 4 and 5) is a legitimately historic event, the first time a major American team sport has penetrated the nation of more than 1 billion people.
This trip doesn’t happen without Ranadive, whose connections to India, a cultural and economic giant on the rise, made him a very attractive rich guy to run the Kings and help the NBA gain entry into a market they hope will become as lucrative as China and Europe.
“This is a dream come true,” Ranadive said to me last week.
And you know what? The words seemed sincere and not canned or scripted as many of Ranadive statements often were in those awkward early years when he materialized in 2013, seemingly from nowhere, to take over the Kings ownership group as NBA owners weighed moving the team to Seattle.
The team stayed in Sacramento because Ranadive was the final piece to convince the NBA that the Kings had a local ownership group that would be financially viable. Where would the Kings be if they hadn’t been able to find an acceptable replacement when billionaire Ron Burkle dropped out of the Kings group in early 2013? Seattle.
Six years later, Ranadive’s ownership group is the first one in the Kings’ 34 years in Sacramento that is not leveraged to the hilt and up it its eyeballs in debt. Ranadive’s group has invested a fortune in and around Golden 1 Center, transforming the worst section of downtown into the best.
And yet only now does the former Silicon Valley tech titan seem poised for obtain what has been so elusive – on-court success in the enterprise of NBA basketball. Ranadive, 61, may finally break the ice with a fan group that has been grateful to him, no question, but also frustrated by the early dysfunction of the Ranadive years and by a franchise that still hasn’t posted a winning record since 2006.
That time seems at hand, at last.
The Kings had their best season in more than a decade last year. They have young stars in De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III, who have huge upsides and are still – because of their inexperience – relatively inexpensive. The Kings squeaking into the playoff picture in a loaded Western Conference would not be a shock.
A national narrative of the Kings as bunch of bumblers has finally been exorcised by a team that looked legit last season for the first time since Kings general manager Vlade Divac was a player.
“I think this is a pivotal moment for us,” Ranadive said of the coming season. “We lit this place up (by building Golden 1 Center in partnership with the city), but the basketball side has taken time.”
That is putting it mildly. The Kings’ first six seasons under Ranadive were all losing campaigns.
Not long ago Ranadive was being roasted in the national press as “one of the worst owners” in the NBA. The firing of coach Mike Malone, the Kings’ doomed attempts to build a franchise around the volatile DeMarcus Cousins, the disastrous pairing of Cousins with veteran coach George Karl? These were self-inflicted nightmares and they marked the first time that Ranadive had failed at anything in his life.
And it was the first time that he was lambasted by media.
In Silicon Valley, he was the guy who created the real-time software that was used by trading houses all over Wall Street. And when he did get press, it was glowing, such as the Esquire Magazine piece that had Ranadive posing in a suit, in bare feet, while in a luxurious pool. The headline of that piece? “The Man who Knows Everything.” The subhead: “Vivek Ranadive wants to harness the ocean of data in this world. And save civilization.”
And yet in the NBA, all of those accolades not only disappeared, they were used against him. When he fired Malone, a story took hold that Ranadive was trying to run the team as he had his daughter’s youth team. The more the team lost, the harsher the criticism became.
But Divac, not Ranadive, runs the basketball team. Ranadive stopped being a punching bag when that became clear. The Kings emerged as the winners in the trade of Cousins to New Orleans. They became a legitimate team. Ranadive had the opportunity to reclaim his lifelong winning streak.
“I think all the pieces are coming together,” Ranadive said. “Vlade has been the architect of everything . The guy is really thinking ahead.”
As it turns out, the missing piece for Ranadive was Divac. In the former Kings center, Ranadive found someone with the fortitude to challenge him. Divac, like Ranadive, is an immigrant who made it big in the United States and they connected on that level. Divac had the knowledge of basketball. But Ranadive insisted that Divac prove his plan would work through rigorous analysis.
Divac presented a thorough organizational plan that looked years into the future. Ranadive – a data man to his soul – found a partner who might finally bring him success in an NBA business that had scalded Ranadive as much as it had welcomed him.
“Vlade has assembled a symphony,” he said. “We’re going to see a beautiful symphony come together.”
If that happens, if the Kings win, Ranadive will be fulfilling a destiny his laid out for him by his grandmother, Tara.
“You have to live a life that was bigger than yourself,” she told him. When he took over the Kings, Ranadive wore out the story about how he arrived in America with $50 in his pocket. The better, fuller story is that he was raised in affluence in Mumbai.
“I never made my bed,” he said with a smile.
His family is from the Kshatriya caste of India, which meant he was viewed as a “warrior prince.” But his grandmother told him that in America, he would be fighting against himself and she was right.
He has fought for knowledge, for wealth, he was married and divorced, he built robots in the automobile industry and hated it, he came to California and loved it. He achieved his notoriety as an NBA owner and then suffered spiritual wounds when his grand achievement went off in his hands like a grenade.
Now, the long planned trip to India coincides with a new chapter in his life of achieving certain success that has eluded him. He’s helping open India to an NBA that wants to be there. He’s burnishing the image of the Kings and Sacramento in the process.
“We’ve come full circle,” Ranadive said. “I need to see everything come together now, the culture. I would love to make the playoffs but these guys are under so much pressure. I just want to see them keep improving and to set themselves up for sustained success.”