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Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson was walking along a blighted stretch of K Street around 10 p.m. on a Tuesday in March, just after a tough city council meeting, when he got a call that he believes marked a “seminal moment” for the River City. It was Vivek Ranadivé, the 56-year-old Silicon Valley mogul who had only recently gone public with his interest in buying a majority stake in the town’s beleaguered basketball team. Johnson had been street fighting for months to keep it in Sacramento and thwart a move to Seattle. the “Here We Stay” campaign had become a defining point of his legacy, win or lose. Just that evening, he had convinced the City Council to vote in favor of funding for a new arena that would put $258 million in public financing toward its construction. To Johnson, the commitment was an important step to keeping the Kings, signaling that the city was willing to put its money where its heart is. “Before that [vote], I think there was some trepidation,” he says, about the reality of getting a fresh facility built. What Johnson didn’t know while he was making his case to the council was that 86 miles away in Atherton, Ranadivé was watching the event online.
“I saw the passion in that council meeting,” says Ranadivé later inside the conference room of his company’s offices in Palo Alto, a sprawling complex decorated in corporate neutrals. He’s wiry and fit, and he sits in front of an untouched lunch that keeps him that way (Perrier and a plate of sliced turkey, quinoa and blueberries), dressed in the uniform of Silicon Valley success—starched shirt open at the collar, freshly pressed pants, loafers that look both casual and expensive. His eyes are deep set and watchful under heavy lids. Even here in the serene blandness of this second-floor space, overlooking a parking lot full of upscale hybrids, he has the intense and focused energy of a prizefighter.
Despite that toughness, Ranadivé is private to the point of being shy, those closest to him say. There are many topics he does not like to talk about. There are a few he won’t touch. But there are a handful of stories he does like to tell—usually ones where he is fighting, winning or championing the underdog. This one covers all three, and he unwinds as he gets deeper into it. The stiffness leaves his posture and he rests back in his chair. “I saw how much it meant to the city and to the people and I said, ‘Okay, this guy, this mayor, deserves support,’ ” he says. “It became apparent that without somebody like me stepping up, it wasn’t going to happen.”
So Ranadivé called KJ. “And I said, ‘I’m going to get this done for you,’ ” he recalls. “I said, ‘Look, I don’t care what it takes, but I’ll get it done.’ ”
Johnson remembers it even grander. “He said, ‘I want you to know at this point in time, we’re going to do whatever it takes to win,’ ” he says. “ ‘You’re a winner. The city deserves it. And I’m going to personally guarantee you that this ownership group will do whatever it takes to win.’ ”
Johnson knew that with Ranadivé in the lead role, the deal had the money and clout to sway the NBA’s Board of Governors, who had the final say. In other words, here we stay. Seattle, find your own team.
This story is quickly taking on the status of myth—the flash in time where two tough visionaries bonded for the common good, for something “bigger than basketball,” as Johnson likes to say.
Both the mayor and Ranadivé recount this tale, each billing the other with the determination and drive to make a difficult transaction happen, one that not only keeps a beloved team in its home city, but that promises to fundamentally alter the fate of the place itself, injecting the city’s downtown with an unprecedented vibrancy and potentially bringing worldwide interest, and investment, to the city.
That call, Mayor Johnson says, was the “breakthrough moment”—the “game changer”—when Ranadivé tipped fortune in Sacramento’s favor.
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Vivek Ranadivé is a man of many myths. The tale of how he became savior of the Sacramento Kings and the oracle of downtown development is only the latest in a long line of fabled stories.
There is the Horatio Alger, up-by-his-bootstraps saga of how he landed on the shores of America with $50 and a dream, plowing through both MIT and Harvard Business School in only a few years.
There’s the brash yarn about how, as a young CEO, he revolutionized American stock trading—a coup that eventually led to building a $1 billion company with a personal stake reportedly valued at about $318 million (a portion of his net worth, which remains an elusive figure that reaches up to a billion by some accounts).
There is the parable of him as a modern-day David, published in a New Yorker article, with Ranadivé cast as the guy who successfully coached his then preteen daughter’s basketball team against the Goliaths of her league.
But has the road that brought him to Sacramento and made him the first Indian-American NBA majority owner really been so full of epic escapades and so free of trouble?
Ask Ranadivé about the setbacks, the moments of trepidation, the hard times when worry and fear kept him awake, and while his body language suggests that he’d rather not address them, he remains determinedly gracious. His watchful brown eyes with their heavy lids become even harder to read.
You see, Ranadivé doesn’t fail. He doesn’t quit. And he really, really hates to lose.
He is genuinely confident he will achieve his goals, and yesterday’s problems are in the past. He has a conviction that carries its own charisma—it makes the people around him feel like if they follow, they will be part of the victory. Because there will be a victory.
“Never give up” is the family motto, he says. It’s so ingrained that his 29-year-old son Aneel has it tattooed on his wrist, a reminder from when he was a toddler and his dad would chant “never,” coaching him to yell “give up” in response. These are some of the first words Aneel remembers. It’s a concept that was pounded into the elder Ranadivé by his grandmother—who was a prominent lawyer in India and who regularly held contests where her grandchildren would go toe-to-toe against each other—and his own father, an ex-military man known far and wide as “the Captain.” So there have been few failures in Ranadivé’s life. Just places where he had to try harder.
What might come across as arrogance in another man is just a fierce competitiveness and determination in Ranadivé, whom friends call “V” like some sort of superhero. And it’s tempered by another Ranadivé trait—the inability to rest on an achievement. He lives for the fight, for the forward momentum, and he’s not just hungry for it, “he’s starving,” says ex-NFL star and close friend Roger Craig, who is also vice president of business development at Ranadivé’s company TIBCO Software. So neither wins nor losses slow him down.
Take, for example, that time back in Mumbai when he got the $50 and came to America. What did it feel like, that moment when he jumped that hurdle to making his dream happen?
“I don’t think that way. I just said I was going to go and that was it,” he says.
What did he think the first day he sat down at his CEO’s desk as the head of his own company?
“I didn’t think of it that way,” he says, then starts a story about what he did next.
Was it a milestone when TIBCO went public, its stock price more than doubling on the first day?
“I don’t look at it that way,” he repeats.
And when it comes to the Kings?
“Even now, I don’t think of it as a victory,” he says under the bright lights of the King’s pristine practice court shortly after meeting with his new head coach.
Ranadivé’s anecdotes make him appealing and approachable. “You can be good, but if people don’t like you, then that’s not going to get you anywhere,” he says. He learned that at Harvard Business School in a course called “Management of Technological Innovation.” It was his wheelhouse and he thought he knew everything, so he “was really pompous,” he admits. “I would just dominate the class and whatever [the professor] said, I would add three other things to it just to show that I actually knew more than he did.” The professor was not impressed. “And so he got back at me by giving me a B,” he says.
He had straight A’s except for that, and he says it caused him to graduate No. 2 out of more than 800—still with the coveted designation of a Baker Scholar, the top five percent, but not No. 1. “It taught me a good lesson,” he says. “It taught me to be humble.”
But there’s more to the man than his myths. Buried in the facts of forgotten stories is a different Ranadivé—one consistently described as resoundingly generous and loyal, a man as driven to do the right thing as he is to succeed. And in the missing pieces are the reasons he has an almost cultlike devotion from friends and employees who believe he has a higher mission than mere money. “He’s always thinking of how he can make the world a better place every day,” Craig says. The two go on long walks, sometimes 10 miles, talking about how to make that happen.
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Ranadivé did land at Boston’s Logan airport in 1975, when he was 17, with $50 in his pocket and clothes too light for New England weather. But it wasn’t because he was poor. He came from a family that was rich and notably well connected. “They knew all the politicians,” he says.
He grew up in a suburb of Mumbai called Juhu Beach, back when the city was still called Bombay. Juhu is to Mumbai what Malibu is to Los Angeles, an exclusive enclave frequented by celebrities. There were servants and drivers and a private school favored by international diplomats—one his family helped to found, and that gave out a “Ranadivé Award” to the top student each year. Ranadivés usually won it.
The youngest of three, Ranadivé spent his days planning pranks and building model airplanes, whose propellers were fueled by rubber bands. (He still collects rubber bands to this day, saving them from his morning newspapers and filling up his sock drawer until his housekeeper tosses them out.) “I was the kid who was always taking apart watches and transistor radios,” he says. Once, inspired by an American comic book, he balanced a trash can on top of a classroom door. When the meanest teacher in school walked in, “the trash can fell and the whole thing emptied on her,” he says. “It worked beautifully.” At home, he rigged an alarm clock to the family phone, setting it off if his sister Smita went longer than three minutes talking to a boy, an ongoing quarrel she found “mortifying.” He was, by his own account, “naughty.”