What you need to know about NBA, Kings investigation clearing Luke Walton
Sacramento Kings coach Luke Walton, accused earlier this year in a lawsuit of sexual assault, has been cleared by his team and the NBA after an independent investigation found insufficient basis for the allegations.
But the cloud over Walton’s career and reputation is not yet fully lifted.
His accuser, Kelli Tennant, a former sports broadcasting colleague of Walton’s, filed a sexual battery lawsuit against Walton that may take years to conclude. Tennant alleged in the lawsuit and in an April news conference that Walton pinned her down and sexually assaulted her in a Santa Monica hotel room in 2014.
In a joint statement Friday morning, the NBA and the Kings said their investigators could not corroborate Tennant’s charges. A female-run Sacramento law firm, Van Dermyden Maddux, interviewed more than 20 people, including friends and former colleagues of Tennant and Walton, during the four-month review.
The investigators made multiple attempts to contact Tennant, but Tennant declined to talk to them, the Kings said in the news release.
The investigation, essentially an employer review of allegations against an employee, clears the way for Walton to coach the team indefinitely. Walton was hired by the Kings this spring just before Tennant made her allegations.
“Luke Walton is our head coach and we support him and his team as they continue to prepare for the upcoming season,” the Kings said in their release.
The league and team stopped short of saying the episode is over, however, instead saying “the investigation is considered closed unless new evidence becomes available.”
Walton issues first public statement
Walton also issued a prepared statement Friday, saying he was focused on his job and would not be talking about the allegation.
“I am 100 percent focused on coaching the Sacramento Kings, and energized to work with this incredible group of players and coaches as we start the preseason. I will have no further comment,” Walton said.
The public statement was his first since the bombshell accusations surfaced. Walton has continued to carry out his duties as the Kings coach by hiring a staff, conducting player workouts and preparing for what is viewed as a key season for a young team hoping to end more than a decade of losing seasons.
Tennant’s attorney, Garo Mardirossian of Los Angeles, did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
Tennant, now a woman’s self-help advocate and speaker, filed a civil case against Walton in Los Angeles Superior Court in April, charging him with sexual battery, gender violence and assault. No trial date has been set. Tennant did not report the incident to Santa Monica police at the time. Police said they do not intend to investigate the matter because they lack a complaint.
Tennant, a former coworker with Walton at a Los Angeles sports broadcast company, said she met with Walton at a Santa Monica hotel lobby in 2014 to give him a copy of a book she had written about transitioning to life after retirement from athletics. Tennant had been a college volleyball star at USC. Walton is listed in the book as the author of a forward. At the time of their hotel visit, Walton was an assistant coach for the Golden State Warriors.
Tennant said Walton invited her to his hotel room to talk, and she agreed because he had been a mentor to her and she trusted him. In the room, though, she says he then pinned her down on the bed with all his weight, kissing her and rubbing herself against her and laughing at her pleas to stop.
“I though he was going to rape me,” Tennant said in a news conference she held after filing the legal complaint. He ultimately released her, she said, allowing her to leave.
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 reignited “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.
Michael Robbins, a workplace investigation expert who has been called to testify in numerous cases, said it could be several years before a jury hears testimony in the civil lawsuit. Walton’s attorney will present the findings of the independent investigation to support his declaration of innocence while Tennant’s attorneys will attempt to discredit the findings, Robbins said.
“That’s going to be hard to do in this investigation because, seemingly, (the Kings and NBA) did all the right things, hiring an experienced outside person and doing their best to get information from someone who wouldn’t cooperate, so it’s going to be hard to attack that,” Robbins said.
“Clearly, this is a good result for (Walton) in terms of him staying with the team or not and for his reputation ... but at the same time you never know what a jury is going to do. A jury could, notwithstanding the quality of the investigation, decide he did, in fact, do these things, in which case he’s got an issue, so he’s not out of the woods yet.”
Tennant finally decided to go public this spring, after Walton was fired as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers and immediately hired by the Kings. Tennant said she tried to forget the episode, but couldn’t. She is speaking out, 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.”
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.