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It’s August, and Ranadivé has flown up to Sacramento on a private jet for the day. He’s in his office at the Kings’ practice facility. It’s the best maintained structure on the aging Sleep Train Arena lot, which Ranadivé says “looks like a Steinbeck novel or something. There’s nothing there. It’s just barren.” He at least wants some grass to make it look better. He cares about making it better, even if the arena’s days are limited.
His office is done in blond wood furniture with dark leather chairs and nondescript gray-blue industrial carpet. On the walls are canvas prints of photos from the downtown Kings rally—Ranadivé (who had the flu at the time and didn’t tell anyone) with the mayor, Anjali with the rock band Tesla, a close-up of a “Viva Vivek” sign. A window looks out onto the court.
The Kings’ new head coach Michael Malone walks in, a guy with charisma and intensity oozing out of his Irish pores. Ranadivé calls him a “Gary Cooper” type, “a man who says what he means [and] means what he says. People respect him. He knows the game.” Ranadivé is counting on him to change the team’s culture, to make it a place where hard work at every practice is the norm, give it “one heartbeat,” like Bill Walsh’s 49ers, and take them from a team where most players were hoping for a trade to one with the pride to win. One of Malone’s first moves was to hire his dad, respected former NBA coach Brendan Malone—making them one of only two father-son head-coaching teams in the history of the league (the other is former Kings coach Eric Musselman and his dad, Bill).
“Do you want to say anything about what it’s like to have an irritant annoying you all the time?” Ranadivé asks Malone. He’s referring to a favorite leadership metaphor he uses. He is the annoyance, like the grain of sand that works its way into an oyster. The oyster reacts to this intruder by building a pearl around it, the way he wants his people to react to his relentless questions with creativity. “To make something of beauty and value, it takes an irritant,” he says. “And I am the irritant in this organization.”
“[Vivek] is always the voice of reason,” counters Malone. “He’s the one that makes you step back and look at it in a completely different perspective, which is great.”
And Ranadivé is doing things differently with the Kings, like hiring Malone two weeks before he officially owned the team, and before hiring a GM, the opposite of the traditional route to staffing up. He says he knew he wanted Malone and other teams were courting him, so why wait? He invited Malone to TIBCO for lunch. Malone thought they were just going to talk basketball. He was the Warriors assistant coach and knew Ranadivé well. But, “the first thing, he goes, ‘Well, Coach, let’s get this over with. I want you to be my coach. Is that OK? Is it?’ ” Malone recalls with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Uh, yeah, that’s OK,’ and we just went from there.”
But they kept the deal secret. “He could tell you everybody says in the NBA there are no secrets,” says Malone. “I said, ‘Well, Vivek, let’s prove everybody wrong.’ And no one knew about it for two weeks.”
After that, Ranadivé hired Pete D’Ales-sandro as GM, a guy he calls Petey. Like George W. Bush, the Kings owner has nicknames for everyone. His blond-haired communications director is Red, one of his executives is Baldy. He once had an accountant he called Dr. Evil. Malone is just Coach.
Petey, a former assistant GM for the Warriors, was not his first choice for GM. He wasn’t even on the final list—Ranadivé added him at the request of friends. He had been courting Larry Bird, 2011-2012 NBA Executive of the Year among his many other accolades. “I thought he was just a long shot, but just as a favor I said I would talk to him,” he says of D’Alessandro, but for a lesser position. He held a day of interviews at his company office—two-hour slots from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. When D’Alessandro came in, Ranadivé said, “ ‘Look, the job I might be looking at for you is an assistant [GM].’ ” But “during the course of the next hour and a half, he completely blew me away,” he says. He likes to bet on people. “And at the end of the day, I thought to myself, ‘If I were to hire somebody for my software company, what do I look for?’ I asked myself, ‘Who’s the smartest guy? Who’s the most passionate? And who’s the hungriest?’ That’s the guy I want. And hands down that was Pete.”
So he gave him the top job instead.
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A good part of what Ranadivé hopes to achieve with Sacramento won’t actually happen here. Ranadivé has courted the other NBA owners for months with the sweet-smelling offer of creating “NBA 3.0”—his moneymaking social media vision of the future. At its core is expansion into places like India—where the billion-plus population would love basketball enough to watch, get the apps and consume its merchandise. It would grow the NBA and its profits exponentially, and Ranadivé would be its ambassador. “Vivek understands that there are 300 million-plus people in the U.S., and amongst Africa, India and China, there are [almost] four billion people,” says Stern. “Given Vivek’s knowledge of the marketplace, and his family and friends there, he’s going to be a huge force in helping us to develop that market.”
NBA 3.0 will achieve world domination by nestling fans in little cyber-cocoons of joy, where every need is met before it’s even felt and complaints are quickly handled. Fans will be involved. Fans will come first. Everything will be gameified. Vote for your favorite player and win! Ranadivé will accomplish this by capturing data about every person that touches the organization, regardless of if they are courtside or in Calcutta. He will have a plan for fixing the problem when you tweet that there are no parking spots left or that the snack bar gave you cold pizza. Ranadivé does not want you eating cold pizza.
“We’re going to have a level of service they’ve not seen before. Literally, if you’re sitting in the stands and you tweet, ‘they have cold pizza,’ I’m going to pick that up,” he promises. This is the power of instant analytics, the reason he has been dubbed “Mr. Real Time.” Knowing about a problem a day later is too late. Know about it as it’s happening, and you have the ability to take meaningful action. “Before you even begin to become unhappy, I’m going to give you something that makes you hap-py,” he says.
The real satisfaction of sports is the win, though. So he’s tracking his players, too. On the court, he says, he’s using the data to create “Moneyball on steroids,” referencing the Michael Lewis book about Oakland A’s manager Billy Beane and his statistics-based strategy that reversed the team’s dismal fortunes. Brad Pitt made a movie about it. Ranadivé is doing deep analyses of things like what combinations of players work best together and who is injury prone. “The data shows amazing things,” he says. “I’m not going to share the secrets, but there are a lot of great insights you can get from the data.”
If NBA 3.0 works, it will change the experience of the sport for the younger generations that will likely embrace it most. Rana-divé will have pioneered a new era. And it wouldn’t be so bad for TIBCO, which sells the ability to create these instant feedback loops. The company has had flat U.S. sales lately. Its competitors, such as Oracle, have name recognition that TIBCO does not. Until now. That $534 million purchase price for the Kings—a record valuation for an NBA team and the equivalent of two Washington Posts—bought Ranadivé’s company a priceless level of PR, and more is coming. He plans on making the new arena a living lab of TIBCO’s abilities to mine knowledge. He will bring clients to show them what he can do. Your pizza is part of his business plan. “TIBCO is competing with very big companies,” he says. He needs to “get to the right people to show what it can do. And if we can do that, then TIBCO can be 10 or 100 times the size it is,” he says. “The best days are ahead.”
* * *
Ranadivé does not yet know what the arena will look like, but he knows what it won’t. In July, a dozen architects presented ideas. He scrapped them all, he says. None understood what he was going for: glory. The kind of building you look upon with wonder, the kind you tell people you saw. An icon like San Francisco’s Transamerica building or the Sydney Opera House. People will recognize it by the mere sketch of its outline. “When you buy a postcard of California, it’s going to have our arena on it,” he says.
In August, AECOM was announced as the architect. It’s the firm behind the newly planned Warriors stadium in San Francisco, a futuristic disc-shaped building jutting out onto the bay, as well as other sports facilities like the 2012 London Olympic park and the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. He also said he is going to reach out to the world’s “top artists” for concepts. He has talked with David Kelley, design icon at Ideo, which designed the first mouse for Apple. “When Steve Jobs wanted ideas, he went to David Kelley,” Ranadivé says. “Sacramento is going to be proud.”
And he wants to be part of Sacramento—he’s contemplating a midtown loft, maybe with Gov. Brown for a neighbor, and plans on being at most games. He’s already picked out his seats—courtside, of course. He cares that the story of the Kings turns out right. Buying the team may make him money, but this isn’t all about money.
“He said to me, ‘Sacramento is the capital. We have got to restore it to its full glory.’ And he believes in this so implicitly,” says Ranadivé’s sister. “Many people say, ‘Why the Kings?’ It’s a combination of believing in the underdog, believing in the diamond in the rough and then doing something to make a difference [in Sacramento].”
That means that sad stretch of K Street where the mayor took Ranadivé’s call in March may be reborn as a thriving thoroughfare sometime soon. Sales of downtown lots have already taken off, with enterprising developers betting millions that this is going to work. But Ranadivé was right when he said that winning the team was just the start—victory celebrations are premature. There’s a lot that has to happen before this is a good story to tell.
So he’s thinking about how to build that postcard-perfect arena. He’s thinking about how to revive a team that, if it can’t win this year or even next, will get there soon enough. He’s thinking about how to heal the town’s faith in a franchise that squandered it for too long. He plans on the Kings being a “perennial contender,” where “year after year after year you’re in the playoffs and you’re winning and you’re winning championships.” He’s working on all this at once because he understands that he’s “under a microscope.”
Everyone is watching. Most are hoping. Unlike his other stories that have the polish of retrospect, this myth is being built in real time. It’s going to be messy. No one knows how it ends. But there is one thing that’s certain. Vivek Ranadivé likes the fight. S