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Why Sacramento Kings Owner Vivek Ranadive is Sure Basketball Can be Most Popular in India - After Cricket

Sacramento Kings are playing two pre-season games against Indiana Pacers in Mumbai on Friday and Saturday.

New York Times

Updated:October 4, 2019, 5:29 PM IST
Why Sacramento Kings Owner Vivek Ranadive is Sure Basketball Can be Most Popular in India - After Cricket
Vivek Ranadive (L) has made bringing basketball to India a core part of his identity as an owner. (Photo Credit: @SacramentoKings)

Sacramento (California): Vivek Ranadive, the controlling owner of the Sacramento Kings, is a true believer. He believes in data. He believes in "Civilization 3.0" - that the world is entering a stage of massive disruption and that cities are one of mankind's 10 greatest inventions. He believes that he can make basketball the second most popular sport in India (behind cricket). He believes in gluten-free consumption, which he says "declutters your mind." But more than anything, he believes in himself.

"This will sound corny, but when I wake up, the first thought I have is, 'What can I do to make a difference and make the world better?'" Ranadive, 61, said recently, sitting at a table in a condominium he owns that overlooks the rejuvenated downtown area of Sacramento.

There's no question about that: It does sound corny.

But Ranadive is entering a new phase as the head of an NBA franchise. The Kings recently traveled to Mumbai - where Ranadive is from - to play the Indiana Pacers, the latest in the league's forays into India. Ranadive, after acquiring the Kings, went to Mumbai in December 2014 with Adam Silver and extracted a promise from the newly-minted league commissioner that games would be played there someday.

"I was a bit reluctant because I felt - and maybe still do to a certain extent - we were getting ahead of ourselves in that market and that the infrastructure wasn't yet in place to play an NBA game," Silver said in an interview. "But he was very persistent."

Ranadive has made bringing the sport to his home country a core part of his identity as an owner, pitching it as a way to keep the NBA growing.

"If you think about basketball and you think about India, Indians love to celebrate," Ranadive said. "Indians love to party. Indians love Bollywood and showmanship."

Ranadive himself doesn't have much swagger, and he's not one to dwell on an accomplishment. He's thinking about the next moment, the next goal. That stems from his childhood, Ranadive said. He was raised in Juhu Beach, a well-to-do suburb of what was then called Bombay. He attended a private school, co-founded by his family, which gave out a "Ranadive Award" every year. (A Ranadive usually won.)

"The way I was raised was that if you came second, you were a loser," Ranadive said. He added, "My hatred for failure is greater than my love for success."

But. And there is a but.

The data is not kind to Sacramento, and Ranadive is a man who values data to help him avoid failure. The last time the Kings made the playoffs was 2006. Since Ranadive took over the team in 2013, the Kings have gone through four head coaches. There have been notable draft misses, like Nik Stauskas in 2014. Cap space has not yielded much. Ranadive said he expected the Kings to contend for championships within five years from now, but the franchise has not been, at least from the outside, a picture of stability.

They traded away their franchise player in 2017, DeMarcus Cousins, and Vlade Divac, the general manager, told the press that he had passed up a better offer days earlier. (It was an embarrassing headline, to be sure, but the trade still turned out fine for Divac. The Kings netted one of the better shooters in the league, Buddy Hield.)

Last season was a high-water mark: The Kings won 39 games and made a surprising run at the postseason. And yet, right when it seemed like the Kings had established a positive culture, Divac fired the head coach Dave Joerger.

The Kings moved swiftly to replace Joerger with Luke Walton, who had just left the Lakers. Then, news broke that Walton was sued by Kelli Tennant, a former sports broadcaster who accused Walton of sexually assaulting her in a hotel room in 2014, which Walton denied. The team initiated an investigation with outside lawyers and support from the league. In August, the NBA and the Kings jointly announced that the investigation was being closed and that "there was not a sufficient basis to support the allegations." Tennant declined to speak to the investigators. Ranadive said he was "shocked and surprised" by the lawsuit.

"We took the accusations very seriously," he said. "We hired some very highly regarded and experienced investigators. My instructions to them is that there were no boundaries. Find everything you can out. There's no rules."

His first foray into professional basketball was acquiring a minority stake in the Golden State Warriors in 2010. Ranadive came to basketball in his late 40s - and found the sport baffling, as author Malcolm Gladwell chronicled in his book, "David and Goliath," which told the story of Ranadive somehow coaching his 12-year-old daughter Anjali's team to the state championship.

In 2013, Ranadive became a sort of hero in Sacramento, when he and a group of investors acquired the Kings from the Maloof family for a then-record $534 million. Another group of investors, led by Steve Ballmer, made an aggressive bid for the team with the intent of moving it to Seattle. But Ranadive, with grand plans for the construction of a new arena and global expansion of the game, won out.

"When I played here, it was a very quiet city," said Divac, who starred for the team from 1998 to 2004. "After a game, you had a tough time finding an open restaurant."

Now, the Kings' on-court success is almost irrelevant to whether buying the team was a good investment. This is the reality of modern day economics for sports franchises. The Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers and Brooklyn Nets all recently sold for more than $2 billion - roughly quadruple what Ranadive's group paid for the Kings.

Asked what it was like to be running a franchise with new expectations - Kings 3.0, you might say - Ranadive had his earnestness at the ready.

"Look, the one thing is that I don't really think of myself as owning the team," Ranadive said. "I came into this feeling like I was just a temporary steward and this team really belongs to the fans. It belongs to the city. It belongs to you guys, the media. I'm just kind of trying to shepherd it in the right direction."

Sopan Deb c.2019 The New York Times Company

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