Over the weekend, USA Today published a two-part interview with Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé, a look back on his three-and-a-half years in charge of the struggling team. I thought it was interesting—and weak—how much Ranadivé deflected the blame for just about every poor decision the team has made onto the previous regime, staffers he hired and then fired, or circumstances supposedly out of his control, and wrote about that.
Yesterday I received an email from Geoff Petrie, who ran the Kings front office from 1994 until 2013, when his contract expired shortly after Ranadivé took over the team. Petrie was the architect of those early 1990s Portland Trail Blazers teams starring Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter, as well as the early 2000s Kings teams starring Chris Webber, Peja Stojaković, and Vlade Divac. He won the NBA’s Executive of the Year award twice.
Petrie wrote that Ranadivé’s interview was a “sophomoric attempt at revisionist history,” and that the “representations regarding Keith Smart, myself, and our professional staff” were in fact “an ugly lie.” Today we had a conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, in which we discussed Ranadivé’s interview, what it was like when he bought the team from Joe and Gavin Maloof, how the Kings became bad during the end of Petrie’s time in charge, and whether he has any interest in getting back into the league.
The following timeline of events might be helpful:
May 27 or so: The Kings inform coach Keith Smart he won’t be retained
June 27: Picking seventh, the Kings select Ben McLemore in the NBA Draft
June 30: Geoff Petrie’s contract expires
Deadspin: What did you think about Vivek’s interview with Sam Amick?
Geoff Petrie: Well, like I said in my email, I thought it was kind of a rambling attempt at revisionist history. A lot of what he said doesn’t really ... if you look back on the three-and-a-half years that he’s been the managing owner, it doesn’t really fit with a lot of the history. The main reason I reached out, [the interview] is long and covered a lot of territory, but when it comes to some of the representations about myself and Keith Smart and the management group that was there at that time, it was basically totally untrue, what was represented there.
What were you in the front office doing in May and June 2013, which I assume is the narrow timeframe we’re talking about here?
Leading up to the actual sale of the team, it was obvious the team was going to be sold. What became of the bidding match between the Ballmer group and ultimately Vivek’s group, through the league office, people were concerned about their jobs, what their future was going to be, what it would hold for them. And really, we had a group of people there that had been there, and we had worked together for a long time and were part of the best heritage that the Kings have ever had in Sacramento. I brought everybody together at different occasions and said, “Look, we’re going to be professional here, we’re going to continue to work like we’d work any other year, we’ll prepare for the draft like we would every other year, and ultimately we will assist any new people that may come in here and try and make them comfortable and get them situated.”
And that’s what we did.
Did you know or suspect that you weren’t going to be retained?
I told them, my contract was coming up that June anyway, and I told our group that it was time for me to move on, and regardless of where it would go, that I didn’t have any intention of being a part of it.
Even if Pete D’Alessandro hadn’t been hired and Keith Smart hadn’t gotten fired, even if you had been able to build a good working relationship with the new ownership, you don’t think you would’ve stuck around?
It is sort of a post-factual question, I can’t answer that. It comes to a feeling in my own person that it was probably time for me to move on. To what? I hadn’t given it a lot of thought, but I also wanted to protect the positions and the work of the people that really support the coaches and GMs and are loyal to the Kings and had been for a long time, trying to make sure they got a fair shot.
Do you know how many of those people were retained, or how they were treated, the people below the top people on the basketball side, the people most of us wouldn’t have ever heard of?
None of them ever really ... they basically slaughtered a high percentage of them without any discussion or ... a bunch of supplicants came in after Pete was hired, and they basically cleaned house. They kept a few people, but most of them were gone within a year. And the situation with Shareef [Abdur-Rahim] was, who happens to be one of the classiest people you’ll ever run across, was ... really deplorable.
The first I heard of it was in that interview, the situation with Shareef. It was portrayed as a common business disagreement or something, but you’re making it sound like it was more serious than that?
The way it came across in the article is like [Ranadivé] came in there and there was nobody there, nobody wanted to be there. Keith Smart wanted to be there! He had a year left on his contract. He didn’t get a discussion or an interview, he got a 90-second phone call in his car that they weren’t going to keep him. How do you arrive at a statement that he didn’t want to be there?
And during that time Keith was showing up at the facility and doing his job and all that stuff?
Yeah, and I think you probably know this, but they hired Mike [Malone], and he came in and started hiring his staff, and you can call him and talk to him. He made any number of public comments about how impressed he was with the professionalism of our group and how helpful people were. We took all of our draft information, statistical information, put it all on iPads and gave it to him and other people so they would have it. We had ongoing draft workouts, we had them scheduled. We went over to Greece to scout Giannis [Antetokounmpo], the kid that Milwaukee took. We had a workout set up for him to come in, highly recommended that they work this kid out, and of course they didn’t.
The thing about this particular part of the interview, it’s just totally untrue. The idea that everybody wanted to ... that there was nobody there to do any work. These are people that spent 10, 15, 20 years working for the Kings, who were part of the most successful period they ever had, and they’re now, it’s like, “because they don’t matter anymore, I can say anything I want about them.”
Is that why you think Vivek said these things?
I only had about an 8 or 10 minute little meeting with him. I found him to be a very arrogant and dismissive little chap. He doesn’t seem to understand that he owns it. He was the one that came in with Basketball 3.0, and changing the culture, “I have the smartest guys in the room, they’re four steps ahead of everybody else, I have 80 gigs of data, nobody else has that.” Well, okay, you know?
Vivek talks about how he hired Mike Malone, but seems to say that he got advice from outside people and it wasn’t his full decision. Did you have any involvement in the hiring of Mike Malone or Pete D’Alessandro?
I was just focused on primarily helping Mike get situated. Once Pete got hired, which was somewhere around the middle or third week of June, it was a little bit before the draft but somewhere in there, but my tenure was pretty much over, and my contract was up that month anyway. I wasn’t involved in any of that. I got a good hit off Mike Malone. I enjoyed the time I happened to be around him and try and help get him situated.
Like I said, I think one of the things that the media in general has always been relatively good at is standing up for the little guy that doesn’t matter anymore and trying to right a wrong. And that’s really where I’m coming in on this. The things that ... there is a lot more in that thing, obviously, that I probably have opinions about but don’t have first knowledge of. But I have first-hand knowledge of this particular thing, and it’s not right.
Are you close with any of those former Kings employees. Are any of you still on touch, or are there any connections?
I still have a really strong relationship with almost all of them. We had, overall, a very loyal, successful, group of professional people who were very experienced in the jobs they had. There is always some change. I was through three ownership changes as a general manager. There is always some change. When you are a decision maker, you own them. You have to live up to the consequences of some of them and not ... I made a lot of good decision and a lot of poor decisions, but we did them for reasons we thought were right at the time, but they don’t all turn out that way.
What happened in those last five years of the Maloofs’ ownership when the team wasn’t making the playoffs? Why weren’t the Kings that successful then?
The really good team we had, it ultimately had to be rebuilt because the core of that team wasn’t one that started out in its early 20s, it started out in their mid-to-late 20s, so that period of time once you have a core that you can win with and become very good with, the longevity is not ... and of course with Webb’s injury that accelerated things. We had to get into serious rebuilding, and unfortunately the last three, three-and-a-half years of that period, were under some really difficult operating circumstances salary cap wise, and we were really limited in certain things. And then our last two drafts were not good, which is on us, although we did get Isaiah Thomas and Hassan Whiteside in there.
If Hassan Whiteside had been able to pan out with the Kings and not the Heat, things could’ve been different.
It was just a difficult operating environment. I could go into a lot more, but I just think, it is what it is. You try and do the best with what you had, and even within that we could’ve, in some ways, done better.
Do you have any itch to come back and either run a team, or have a Jerry West-like advisor role, or are you done?
Listen, I love the NBA. It’s been a lifetime of basically living your dream, even with the ups and downs over some of the different periods. But the ups were so great. You remember the people you worked with and the fans in both Portland and Sacramento are unbelievably loyal. I would like to see them get back to a higher level and all that. But as far as me, I certainly think I could be a good advisor to somebody. With running a team again, without having a really close relationship with the people you’re working with, preexisting relationships I guess, probably wouldn’t be of great interest. But I am comfortable with the life I have and grateful for what it was up to this point. Fortunate and grateful.
Is there anything we didn’t get to, either about the interview or anything else you wanted to talk about?
Like I said, I just wanted to reach out to somebody about things that I had really direct knowledge about that were totally inaccurate. And I certainly have a lot of other opinions about some of the things that were in there, but I don’t have first-hand knowledge, and I don’t think it is fair for me to go down that route, which would be easy to do.
It seems like people like you, former GMs, are very aware of what outside second-guessing is like, and all of you have it happen to you in your jobs, and so you’re not exactly thrilled to do it once you’re out because you know how that feels.
Exactly. And let’s face it. For any new owner there is a definite learning curve, and some of them eventually get it and some of them don’t. It’s a little bit like the same principle of what Jimi Hendrix said about playing the blues. He said “The blues are easy to play, but they’re hard to feel.”
It seems to me that there is a trend with Vivek, Joe Lacob, Robert Pera in Memphis, of ownership and some front office people raised in Silicon Valley and technology. They’re used to a certain way of doing things, and find the NBA difficult to adjust to. Is that true, or are all owners, no matter what field they come from, going to struggle to figure it out?
I think that’s a pretty accurate observation. The recent ownership changes, basically teams have been taken over by tech guys or hedge fund people. And so there is a tremendous, within those industries, a lot of it is built on technology and analytics and all that. In a team sport like basketball, especially, which is the most interdependent game, you’re not building widgets. I always believe, and was taught, that you can’t separate the man from the game. At some point the man inside is going to show up, and so a lot depends on factors that can’t necessarily be measured with statistics. It’s not that they’re not important, but they’re not the Holy Grail either.
Obviously I am not in that room and can’t say which person made a decision, but ultimately, because you are the head of the basketball operations department, it is your fault that this thing happened, and it is similar with ownership.
One of the principles of leadership is yeah, everyone has a say, and you end up doing whatever you do, but, the person that is most responsible has to take the responsibility. Otherwise the leadership becomes toxic. You can’t be one hundred percent hubris and zero percent humility. It’s just not going to work.