When the cameras are off and there isn’t a script anywhere near his hand or his handlers, Kings chairman Vivek Ranadive often speaks in a soft, impassioned voice about making a difference, about changing the world. Words like widgets, digital and data never pass through his lips. His tightly controlled emotions shake loose, ever so briefly, and reveal that, for all his wealth, he hasn’t lost a common touch.
This was the Ranadive who addressed the sparse crowd inside Golden 1 Center late Thursday in what might have been his finest hour as the leader of his lottery-bound franchise.
He was human, he was real, he was one of us.
Clutching a microphone and surrounded near midcourt by his coaches, players and front office executives, he sympathized with the family of 22-year-old shooting victim Stephon Clark, characterized the incident as “horrific,” recognized and endorsed the right to peacefully protest, and reiterated his desire to cure much of what ails America.
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“There’s never a right decision in this type of situation,” Ranadive said later, off to the side in a hallway. “But you just can’t go about acting like business is usual, because it’s not. A young man was killed. I have two boys that age. Can you imagine if it was one of your sons? In your backyard? Your heart goes out to their families. This is our community. We as a family support the protest, as long as there is no violence, and we want to use the Kings as a platform to keep these things from happening.”
Ranadive is no stranger to the intersection of sports, politics and society. Neither is the NBA. The league has long been regarded as the most progressive of all the major sports, with both past and present leaderships active participants against racial, gender, ethnic and sexual discrimination.
Former commissioner David Stern successfully litigated a civil rights lawsuit against housing practices in New Jersey in the 1970s before joining the league’s legal staff; his bulldog nature persisted throughout his tenure. In the first few years of Adam Silver’s direction, the league pressured Clippers owner Donald Sterling into selling his club, moved the All-Star Game out of Charlotte because of anti-LGBT bathroom laws, embraced the first openly gay player (Jason Collins) and the first full-time female assistant (Becky Hammon). It remains to be seen how the NBA reacts to the Dallas Mavericks investigation into its misogynistic culture, but elsewhere, the hiring of women and minorities continues at an accelerated pace.
The Kings' organizational structure reflects the changes: The highest ranking executive is a woman (chief operating officer Matina Kolokotronis) and the second most powerful front office official (assistant general manager Brandon Williams) is African American.
Ranadive, as the first owner of Indian origin in the league, is particularly sensitive to issues of inclusion and diversity. He often tells of enrolling at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in his early 20s with less than $50 in his pocket. Frequently omitted from the narrative is the fact his late father, Yeshwant Ranadive, was a political prisoner at the time and unable to provide any financial assistance.
A national hero who had flown Spitfires over the treacherous Himalayas during World War II, the man known as “The Captain” had returned home and become secretary general of the national pilots’ association. When he advised his union members not to fly the Indian Airlines new aircrafts because of safety concerns, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had him arrested and jailed.
“My family was always outspoken for social justice,” Ranadive said, “so when people protest peacefully, I recognize that we have a right to do that. This (Golden 1) has become a communal gathering point, and I always say the Kings belong to Sacramento.”
Once Silver informed representatives of both teams that the game was to be played as scheduled, Ranadive, aware that the majority of his players are African American, consulted with several of veterans before deciding how to proceed. He made the decision to lock the doors, primarily to protect the fans. Those already inside the building were offered free food and drinks and encouraged to take seats closer to the court. Refunds were promised to the 15,000 stranded outside in the plaza.
When he walked onto the court after the game, he spoke without a script, and from the heart.
“I just told Vivek, ‘If we make a statement, we say we agree with the protest, the right to protest, and stand behind them 100 percent,’ ” said veteran Garrett Temple. “I think what he said was pretty good, though the part about coming together is kind of cliché. We know what has to change: police training, how they view minorities, their bias toward men of color. But, honestly, the best way to effect change is to hit pockets. And to see our owner on board with what happened, the concession stands not making as much money, the number of people who couldn’t make it in, is encouraging. I applaud him for applauding what the people outside did.”
Vince Carter, the league’s oldest player at 41, was visibly moved while speaking with reporters after the game.
“I think Vivek is a standup guy for what he did and what wants to do,” said the 20-year pro, his words halting at times, “and we told him we would definitely stand behind him and support this situation. This is always a sticky, touchy situation. But I think what Vivek said speaks volumes. Regardless of your skin color, it’s what is right, what is wrong. And how we can support each other even if it has nothing to do with you? Lend a hand in support. That’s the message that needs to shine through in all of this.”
The unusual and overwhelming praise for Ranadive wasn’t limited to his players. Several NBA journalists, who often have been critical of the Kings owner as the team inches toward respectability, tweeted out their appreciation. Golden State coach Steve Kerr retweeted his remarks. Silver, reached by The Bee while he was flying back from New Orleans after attending the funeral of the late Pelicans’ owner Tom Benson, texted his thoughts.
“I couldn’t be prouder of the way Vivek, Matina, and the Kings handled a very difficult situation last night,” he wrote. “Though we ultimately played the game as scheduled, it was not an easy decision. Vivek’s heartfelt remarks acknowledged the discomfort of the game’s participants, while also highlighting how sports can be used to unify people, even under challenging circumstances.”
No one, of course, is naive enough to think that the Kings solved anything Thursday night. The world is a nasty, scary place these days. But Ranadive is trying, and he’s taking a stand, and that's a start.