The Game Changer
How did an Indian teenager who arrived in America with $50 in his pocket become the entrepreneur who saved the Kings? For Vivek Ranadivé, it came down to innovation, teamwork, toughness—and a vision for Sacramento that's far bigger than basketball.
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.”
An accomplished athlete, he played cricket and soccer on the beach, a miles-long stretch where the Arabian Sea laps gently on the sand and sunsets draw thousands of spectators. He remains so inspired by this setting that the mention of it moves him to recite from memory a line from poet John Masefield’s “Sea Fever”: “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky.”
“It was a fabulous place to grow up,” says his sister Smita Deshpande, who now lives in Cupertino and works in high tech. “It was exactly like Hawaii.”
His father, the Captain, was general secretary of a national pilots’ association, a tough outdoorsman who rode horses, hunted big game (he taught Ranadivé to be an expert marksman) and was known for his tenacity. During WWII, when India was still under British rule, he flew “the Hump,” a route that ferried supplies over the Himalayas to the Chinese forces fighting Japan. It’s still considered one of the most dangerous missions of the war. Pilots took off from a military base just 90 feet above sea level, then quickly had to pull their heavily laden planes up to 10,000 feet to clear the first peaks, before ultimately crossing into China at 15,000 feet. There were no reliable charts, weather was fierce, and planes crashed or were shot down often. The Captain went down once, but was able to walk away. “Nothing would faze him,” says Ranadivé. “He was just fearless and really strong.”
Shortly before Ranadivé came to America, the Captain got in a public dispute with the government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. As a leader of the country’s airline, Indian Airlines, the Captain was concerned about a new plane that he didn’t think was safe. He was vocally opposed to putting it in use and told his pilots not to fly it. India had been an independent country for less than 30 years, and Gandhi was its third prime minister. The nascent airline, despite its poor safety record, was a source of national pride and grounding its new planes was not a popular move.
The situation took a turn for the worse in June of 1975. Faced with growing political unrest on multiple fronts, Gandhi pushed the government to enforce the Maintenance of Internal Security Act, suspending civil liberties, shutting down some newspapers and triggering the arrests of thousands of political opponents. It is a period of Indian history known as “The Emergency,” when it was unclear whether democracy—or Gandhi’s foes—would survive.
“Fear was the main thing,” says UC Davis history professor Sudipta Sen of the era. “Very powerful people were hunted down and put in jail.”
The Captain was one of those arrested.
Ranadivé remembers waking up and seeing his father’s picture on the front page of the newspaper.
“It affected us very deeply and I think it had a long-lasting impact on our lives,” says Deshpande, the emotion of the memory catching in her soft and melodious voice. “Overnight, the life we knew just disappeared.”
The Captain was released from custody, but it was just the beginning of his troubles. He was blacklisted, unable to earn a living, and faced a lengthy court fight.
“When my father went through this, it was a very stressful period,” recalls Deshpande. “It’s not quite the way it is over here. If the government decides to blacklist you or arrest you, then it’s a pretty serious thing.”
Ranadivé is more taciturn about it. “I was a teenager so I was doing my thing,” he says, shrugging off the stress of finding out that his father was a political prisoner. “Maybe that’s just how I was brought up. You just fight the fight, however it is.”
When the arrest happened, Ranadivé, 17, had already started college at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), the country’s most prestigious high-tech university. But he had also been accepted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was determined to go, although he never fully discussed it with his parents. He had dreamed of coming to America ever since listening to the moon landing on his cousin’s transistor radio when he was 11 years old. “It was the middle of the night and I heard Neil Armstrong say those words,” he says. “I said, ‘You know, this is unbelievable. Who are these people that were able to take a man, put him in a box and send him 250,000 miles away to land on a rock flawlessly the first time? I want to be one of them.’ ”
But the Indian government didn’t allow its currency, the rupee, to be converted into American dollars at the time. He didn’t have a way to pay. His parents weren’t against MIT, but didn’t understand why IIT wasn’t good enough. That, coupled with his dad’s ongoing legal and political battles, made it tough for Ranadivé to ask for money.
“I don’t think I would have gotten a lot of sympathy for what I was trying to do,” he says. But he isn’t sure, because he never asked his parents for help. “I just looked at it and said, ‘I’ll just figure this out,’ ” he says. “I have always wanted to be my own man.”
So he camped out at the office of the governor of the Reserve Bank of India all day, until he got five minutes with the man and convinced him to convert the cash for one semester of tuition, room and board, with fifty dollars on top. Vivek Ranadivé was coming to America.
When he left, his grandmother, Tara, went with him to the airport. Tara was the matriarch of the family, and a woman of deep and loud convictions whom Deshpande describes as “judgmental and critical, all for the right reasons.” She was a lawyer at a time when it was unusual for most Indian women to have a career. She strongly believed that Ranadivés had an obligation to fight for social justice because of their caste (the Hindu designation of social rank). The family is Kshatriya—born to be warriors and rulers. It is the caste of kings.
“This class fights for everything they believe is right. It’s your moral duty to take a stand and to do something when you know something’s wrong,” says Deshpande. “And this was one of the principles my grandmother had. She basically said it so many times that it became second nature to us.”
So as they drove in a Hindustan Ambassador through Bombay’s roadways to catch a middle-of-the-night flight to a new life, Tara reminded Ranadivé not to abandon the old one, to hold on to this centuries-old legacy of standing for something larger than himself. “My grandma said, ‘Remember you are a Kshatriya [warrior prince], but the battle you will fight is with yourself—always do the right thing,’ ” Ranadivé says.
It was the last time he would ever see Tara, but he has never forgotten her words.
* * *
Ranadivé graduated from MIT in 1979, earning both a bachelor’s and a master’s in electrical engineering in four years, an accomplishment that would normally take about six. He did a short stint as a manager and engineer at Ford, but left because he didn’t like its ethics. One day, he saw an assembly line worker take the trash from his lunch, throw it inside the open panel of a car door, then seal the door up. “I came from MIT, which was amazing,” he says. “And then I went to this place where people just didn’t have the same commitment to excellence. I didn’t like that.”
So, based on a tip from a former classmate, he took a job offer from Irwin Jacobs, a former MIT professor. Jacobs had a company in San Diego—Linkabit, a precursor to Qualcomm, the wireless technology giant. (His sons Hal, Jeff and Paul are part owners of the Kings. Paul now runs Qualcomm.) Ranadivé moved to Solana Beach near Del Mar and instantly felt at home. “I just love the whole California thing,” he says. “That people have this adventurous, open mind-set.”
He met a free-spirited blonde, Deborah Addicott, on a blind date and married her not long after. A nurse who was living with her grandmother, she was “just a very sweet, gentle person,” he says. Ranadivé had been accepted to Harvard Business School, but had deferred it in order to earn enough money to attend. After two years in Southern California, he decided to return to Boston to get his MBA. The couple moved to the East Coast, but before he had even finished his degree, Ranadivé took a product engineering job in California for a Bay Area company called Fortune Systems. He went to school during the week, then flew out on weekends to work whenever he could.
After graduating in 1983, the couple returned to California to an apartment in Menlo Park, not far from where his home stands now. Their first child, Aneel, was born in 1984. Within a week of his birth, Ranadivé returned to India to say goodbye to his mother, who was dying of cancer. Her illness had left her almost blind, so she was unable to see a photo of the baby, but she had knitted a blanket for her grandson with a lock of her hair intertwined in it. “I was very close to her, so it was a big deal for me,” he says of her death, describing her as “almost not real—she was so sweet and nice.”
Once he was back in California, Rana-divé knew he didn’t want to work for someone else. He had an idea for a company and wanted to be an entrepreneur. Trained as a hardware engineer, he understood that computers are built with a “bus,” a physical piece that other components plug into. But when it came to software, chaos ruled. There were no “turnkey” solutions in this era. Software programs often couldn’t interact with one another. If you wanted a piece of information that one generated, you opened that program. If you needed to put that information someplace else, it had to be done manually. This made no sense to Ranadivé. Why couldn’t the software applications talk to each other?
So he created a software bus (the “TIB” in TIBCO is an acronym for “the information bus”). The idea was to create one basic system that would run all the core functions of the computer and allow software to “plug” into it to perform other tasks. The different programs could then all communicate and share information.
* * *
In 1985, Ranadivé walked into the New York offices of Goldman Sachs and found two things: a big mess and a big opportunity. He had just received $250,000 in venture capital from Berkeley-based investors to start his own company, Teknekron Software Systems. As a favor to his investors, he had gone to the financial firm to evaluate a computer system that his investors were considering funding. What Ranadivé immediately noticed at Goldman was that traders sat at desks cluttered with monitors and cords, struggling to combine information from dozens of sources. In an industry where time is money, he saw waste—and the perfect situation to try out his streamlined solution.
He grabbed his chance and talked his way into the office of Robert Rubin, one of the top executives of the company (later secretary of the U.S. Treasury). Rubin was so impressed that he invited Ranadivé to pitch his partners on his idea to streamline data management at breakfast the next morning.
He was jet-lagged, and it was early. He was 28 years old and nervous. Breakfast was in the penthouse of the firm. “I took the elevator to the top of the building and they had this room, which was very fancy, and before the market opened, the top five guys would sit down and have breakfast,” he says. “These guys ruled Wall Street. Bob said to me, ‘Tell us what you were telling me yesterday.’ So then I started talking, and all of the sudden the door opened and this guy walked in. Bob just sent the guy away. So I start talking again and the door opens and this guy walks in again. [Bob] said, ‘Go away.’ So then the third time it happened, he said [to me], ‘Son, you’ve got to stop tapping your feet.’ I was so nervous that I kept [tapping] my feet. There was a little switch under the carpet and when I did that, it hit the switch and would summon the waiter. So it was the waiter that kept coming in.”
Despite the tap dance, Teknekron got a contract with Goldman and is widely credited with digitizing Wall Street by bringing “real-time” information like stock quotes and news to the trading floor, all accessible from one computer. Data that had taken days or weeks to analyze and put together was now available in seconds. It was a transformative change for companies like Goldman Sachs.
But Teknekron’s success became a problem for Ranadivé. He grew it to about 200 employees and $8 million in annual revenue by 1992. Its much-larger rival, Reuters, decided it would make a good takeover—and Ranadivé’s investors decided to take their profit. The company was sold to Reuters for $125 million in 1993, with Ranadivé leading it as an independent subsidiary. It made Ranadivé a rich man, but at a steep cost—his big idea now belonged to someone else.
“I wanted to keep it, but I didn’t have a choice,” he says of the sale. “[My investors] just wanted to cash out and sell.”
Ranadivé stayed on as CEO with his new corporate bosses for four more years, continuing to help grow the business. But despite his financial windfall, he wasn’t satisfied. He wanted his company back. Over dinner at his home one night, he convinced the chairman of Reuters to let him split off on his own in 1997 (with Reuters taking an ownership stake), licensing back the technology and focusing on businesses outside of the financial sector, essentially paying rent to use his own idea. TIBCO still runs on this license today.
In July of 1999, TIBCO held a hugely successful IPO with a stock price that more than doubled on the first day. But only a month earlier, Ranadivé’s wife Deborah filed for divorce. There is a slight shift in his tone as he speaks about it. “Usually I found that you get to do what you want if you work hard,” he says. “I think the one area that didn’t happen in is when I got divorced, when my wife divorced me. I thought I’d done everything right, but it didn’t work.”
“I think there’s probably a lot of hurt,” says Aneel, the eldest of the three Ranadivé kids, who was a teenager when his parents split. “At the time, it just seemed like there were just cultural differences—I think Mom was on the far side of being a free spirit and my dad was on the opposite side of just kind of trying to be really focused and have things a certain way. And so in a way, to me, their divorce kind of made sense.”
Ranadivé remained involved with his kids despite the split, sharing custody. Aneel, who played multiple sports growing up, says, “I have memories of hours upon hours of him helping me drill, playing tennis, going out and playing catch. He was definitely there for all those moments.” But, he adds, Ranadivé wasn’t like the other “American” parents who were “patting their kids on the back and saying, ‘You’re so awesome.’ My dad would constantly be pushing me to expect more of myself. And I always really respected that.”
Ranadivé’s 20-year-old daughter Anjali has just uttered words no father wants to hear: “The next thing I know, we’re hanging out with Chris,” she says with unadulterated excitement. That’s Grammy-winning musician Chris Brown, best known by many for his arrest after assaulting his girlfriend, R&B singer Rihanna. It’s a hot afternoon in July and Anjali has just walked into TIBCO headquarters in Palo Alto wearing a bright red Team USA jersey that NBA commissioner David Stern had given her at the 2012 Olympics in London.
A Berkeley undergrad and aspiring pop star, Anjali has long dark hair, dark eyes and a wide white smile. She is beautiful, with an honest, youthful spirit that seems like it would be wildly out of place in Hollywood backrooms. But a few weeks earlier, she was in Los Angeles to attend the BET Awards with her roommate/manager Chelsea, who, Anjali says, is really good at talking her way into places. At the after-party, Chelsea talked them into the VIP room where they met Brown. He likes Bollywood beats, Brown told Anjali. Before long, they were talking about writing a Kings anthem together. She tells her father that she and Brown might be getting together soon to work on it.
There’s a tick of silence while Ranadivé processes this. His face is still except for the rays of wrinkles around his eyes that are currently registering consternation. He leans back in his chair and intertwines his fingers behind his head.
“Oh, man. I’m going to send Shaq along,” he quips, thinking one of the heaviest players to ever play in the NBA might make a good bodyguard.
He leaves it at that, but it’s doubtful that he’ll forget. He had earlier pointed out to her that “you can become as famous as Beyoncé and that is not going to impress me. What will impress me is if…” he dangles it for her to answer.
“I get a PhD,” she replies, resigned. He wants her to be a marine biologist. A few years ago, she was offered a part in Disney’s High School Musical. But she’d also been chosen for an internship at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. So, Ranadivé says in all seriousness, “I took her for lunch and said, ‘Sweetie, I think you’re going to be a lot happier cleaning the penguin cages than spending the whole summer in L.A. on some dumb show.’ ” She went to Monterey.
Ranadivé has raised his kids with the same sense of intense purpose that was instilled in him. They don’t speak any Indian languages and haven’t spent much time there, but whether they know it or not, Ranadivé has passed on to them his warrior-prince principles. “He’s just this amazing guy that we all look up to,” says Aneel. “He can be tough when he needs to be tough, but he can also be very understanding and sensitive.”
So it is likely Anjali will be a doctor long before she’s a diva. There is talk of her singing at Kings games—perhaps even at the opening home game this season. She did it when Ranadivé had a stake in the Golden State Warriors and is a big basketball fan. In fact, it was Anjali who sparked Ranadivé’s passion for basketball. He coached her National Junior Basketball team, though he had never played basketball himself.
This is another tale he has told many times, the one author Malcolm Gladwell wrote about for The New Yorker. It goes like this: Ranadivé was terrified of those preteens. He didn’t want to embarrass himself in front of his little girl, but he really didn’t know what he was doing. But, says his sister, Deshpande, “Once he decided he was going to coach them, then that team was going to win.”
So Ranadivé studied the game.
He noticed that the middle of the court was a no-woman’s-land. Once the ball turned over, everyone ran to the other end. That seemed counterproductive to him. So he had his girls fight for the ball on every inch of the hardwood—a full-court press, every game, every play.
It was a good scheme, but the girls still needed skills. So Ranadivé asked Roger Craig to help. Craig knew football—he won the Super Bowl three times with the 49ers—but not so much basketball. Craig enlisted his daughter Rometra—a 5’10” point guard who played for Duke and USC. Ranadivé flew her up from L.A. for practices. She was the secret weapon, says her dad. She taught the girls what they needed to know. Ranadivé’s approach worked—the team went all the way to the national finals before losing because, Ranadivé says, a ref didn’t like the tactic and kept calling fouls.
But, says Anjali, “It was probably one of the best experiences I’ve had.”
* * *
Not long before the NBA Board of Governors, comprised of all 30 team owners, voted in May to keep the Kings in Sacramento, Ranadivé hosted a gathering at his home with several of his future co-owners and friends that, by several accounts, reflected the extremely confident nature of the group’s bid.
“We all went to Vivek’s house, and we had a little three-point contest,” says Andy Miller, who is part of the new ownership group, COO of tech company Leap Motion, and head of the Kings’ technology committee (recently, he was taking suggestions for the team app on Twitter). “We didn’t have the team then, but we were pretty sure we were going to get it.”
In his sprawling Atherton mansion, Ranadivé has an indoor half-court in the basement that occasionally doubles as a dance floor at his annual Christmas party.
Ranadivé downplays any suggestion of overconfidence and instead explains that the event was a “huddle” to discuss the deal and the future. Shortly after, though, he got his team by a 22-8 vote, as at least some of his partners fully expected.
“It wasn’t a huge surprise,” says Miller, adding that when the Seattle group increased its bid at the last minute, “we were told that this really wasn’t going to be an auction process.”
“We thought we did everything they asked for and we had a very compelling story,” Miller continues. “All our money was ready to be put up ages ago. Our story was about why this was great for the NBA and great for Sacramento. Seattle’s story was why it was great for Seattle and why Sacramento was wrong for the NBA and why we weren’t much of a credible bid. So theirs was a bit more negative.”
And at least one key observer in the meetings gives Ranadivé much of the credit. “When there was someone who was needed to make representations on behalf of the franchise to meet this obligation or meet that obligation,” says David Stern, “Vivek was the person who in effect stood up, if not literally then figuratively, and took responsibility for providing the answers that the owners wanted to hear.”
Soon after his presentation to the NBA owners, Ranadivé spotted venture capitalist Chris Hansen, one of the leaders of the Seattle group, leaning against a wall. He felt Hansen must have known he had lost. “I went up and introduced myself to Chris Hansen and I said, ‘Look, you know, nothing personal, but if it comes up that we win this, then you have my commitment that I’ll do everything possible to help Seattle get a team,’ ” he recalls. “ ‘Seattle deserves to have a team and it’s my personal belief that it shouldn’t come from Sacramento. I know it’s a tough thing for you to swallow, but I’ll do anything I can to help you get a team, if that’s what you want.’ ” Hansen, he says, was gracious in his reply. (A few months later, however, after vowing to relinquish his pursuit of the Kings, Hansen was caught funding an anti-arena signature drive.)
It was the end of a long fight—longer than Ranadivé likes to admit. Although the K Street call to KJ was the mythical moment that he became a contender, the truth is Ranadivé had been making a play for the Kings for some time—keeping it on the down low and far behind the scenes.
“I know Mark [Mastrov] and Vivek were talking about it probably a year before anything really started to materialize with [Seattle’s] Hansen-Ballmer group,” says Miller.
Miller and Mastrov, founder of 24 Hour Fitness, were friends and, as far back as the rumored move to Anaheim, had “been talking to people and trying to put a group together and talking with the mayor and just getting things organized with the hopes that something might come up,” he explains.
Roger Craig also remembers it as going back “way before” the Anaheim move came up. “The whole Kings thing, I kind of put that out there a year and a half ago,” he says. “I called the mayor’s people. I said, ‘I have a friend who’s interested.’ ”
Mayor Johnson confirms that “Vivek’s name had come to the surface [long] before it was public,” but says that as mayor, when it came to talking to potential buyers, he had to “walk a fine line, so I couldn’t directly talk to people.”
But early on, the timing wasn’t right and Ranadivé was cautious about playing his hand too soon. “I had a lot of downsides if I got involved,” says Ranadivé, referring to his minority stake in the Golden State Warriors. “I would be walking away from something I love. And I couldn’t very well lose if I got involved. If I came up short, then I’d have to go back to Oracle Arena [as] the guy who abandoned the team he said he loved.”
So he stayed anonymous. Miller knew him only as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. “I heard so much about him, but not by name from Mark,” he says. “Which was funny because Mark and I had been friends for a while, but we all sort of respected the privacy of the situation.”
However long Ranadivé has had his eye on Sacramento, he isn’t talking, any more than he’ll talk about the behind-the-scenes action of the deal. “There were a lot of things that happened. I just don’t want to get into it,” he says. “All I can tell you is that the only person that knows the whole story is me.” He does add that, “If there is one person who is responsible for the team staying here and for us building a new arena, and us building a global franchise, it’s Mayor Kevin Johnson. He is one of the smartest and most charismatic, most visionary people that I’ve ever met.”
But there’s part of Ranadivé that does want to tell more about it. It is, after all, the start of what could be his greatest legend ever: How the warrior prince of Juhu Beach became the king of Kings. It dovetails off his coaching experience with his daughter—having the courage and vision to innovate, break molds and champion the underdog—and involves entitled billionaires, worldwide expansion of an all-American sport, and the potential to remake the state’s capital city.
“It was a huge battle, in ways to the highest levels of the world,” he says, and means it. “Very powerful people, and there was a lot at stake. It’s a fabulous story. Someday it’ll make a fascinating book. Like David Stern and I joked, one day we’ll write an opera about it—From Maloofs to Mumbai. His title, not mine.”
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.
* * *
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 happy,” 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.