The accusations were shocking. The details were disturbing. The timing couldn’t have been worse.
Allegations of sexual assault surfaced a week after the Kings introduced coach Luke Walton as the man who would lead a promising young team into the future. Instead of watching the sun rise to signal a bright new day in Sacramento, the Kings, their new coach and the community were enveloped by a cloud of suspicion that caused everyone to stop in their tracks, unsure of the way ahead.
The civil lawsuit against Walton could drag on for three or four years, but the case is essentially closed as far as the Kings are concerned. The Kings and the NBA announced Friday that a team of independent investigators found insufficient evidence to support former Southern California television sports reporter Kelli Tennant’s allegations against Walton.
“The investigation is considered closed unless new evidence becomes available,” the Kings and the NBA said in a news release.
Walton and the Kings will continue the business of basketball while the case against him slowly winds through the busy Los Angeles County court system. According to Michael Robbins, one of California’s leading workplace investigation experts, the findings of the independent investigation will likely influence the jury if the case eventually goes to trial.
“The jury will hear about the investigation and presumably a thorough investigation will have an impact on a jury,” said Robbins, who has testified more than 600 times as an expert witness. “I see these things play out at trial all the time. If it’s a good investigation, I think it has a strong influence on the jury to find the same way as the investigators.”
Robbins said the four-month investigation – led by Sacramento law firm Van Dermyden Maddux and Elizabeth Maringer, senior vice president and assistant general counsel of the NBA – appears to have been very thorough. Investigators interviewed more than 20 people, including friends and former colleagues of Walton and Tennant, while also reviewing numerous documents and other relevant materials.
Walton cooperated with investigators. Tennant did not, but sources close to the investigation said investigators considered her public comments and details in her lawsuit, according to reporting by The Bee.
Tennant filed the lawsuit against Walton on April 22, seven days after the Kings introduced him as their new coach. Tennant alleged that in 2014, when Walton was an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors, he pinned her down on the bed in his Santa Monica hotel room, forcibly kissed her and rubbed himself against her while she repeatedly told him to stop.
Investigators determined “there was not a sufficient basis to support the allegations made against Coach Walton.” Robbins said Tennant’s attorneys will try to discredit the investigation, but that will be difficult given the reputation of investigator Sue Ann Van Dermyden, Robbins said.
“That’s going to be hard to do in this investigation because, seemingly, (the Kings and the 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. It’s a good result for (Walton) in terms of him staying with the team or not and for his reputation, and it’s a good result in terms of the litigation.”
The Kings can now fully turn their attention to the upcoming season with hopes of ending the NBA’s longest postseason drought following 13 consecutive losing seasons. They will start training camp Sept. 28, play their first preseason game against the Indiana Pacers on Oct. 4 in India and open the season on the road against the Phoenix Suns on Oct. 23.
The organization stood by Walton and continued to function in all facets of basketball operations after the allegations surfaced, but that cloud was still there. Now that the investigation is over, the team will move forward without wondering if it will have to part ways with Walton before the season begins, which would have represented a huge setback for the Kings.
Walton was the coach Kings general manager Vlade Divac wanted when the job was open four years ago. Walton went to the Los Angeles Lakers and the Kings hired Dave Joerger. When the Kings fired Joerger and the Lakers parted with Walton in a span of 24 hours in April, Divac moved quickly to bring Walton to Sacramento, saying he was a perfect fit for the Kings.
“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 a written statement Friday.
Walton has maintained his innocence through his attorney, Mark Baute, who has called Tennant “an opportunist, not a victim.” Walton has not spoken publicly since the lawsuit was filed, but the Kings released a written statement from him Friday.
“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,” Walton said. “I will have no further comment.”