What Happens When a Legendary Kids Basketball
Coach Buys an NBA Team?
"Speed is God, time is the devil, and change is the sole constant."
Vivek Ranadive in the Palo Alto Weekly in 2001
Vivek Ranadive is an incredibly successful man. He founded two successful technology companies-Teknekron Software Company and the even more successfully TIBCO Software. He authored three bestselling book about how businesses can be more dynamic in response to their customers. He created TopCom, a social network exclusively for world leaders. And he is the father of an aspiring pop star.
On top of all this, he is a legendary youth sports coach. Using an unusual strategy, which Malcolm Gladwell famously documented, Ranadive coached a ragtag girls basketball team of mostly unskilled 12-year-olds to the national championships.
Two years ago, Ranadive purchased a majority stake in the National Basketball Association's Sacramento Kings. Ranadive wanted to use what he learned as a youth coach and businessman to "disrupt" professional basketball. He is pushing unique strategies and a novel approach to the fan experience.
Thus far, his approach has been derided by basketball insiders. Nevertheless, Vivek Ranadive believes he can take the lessons he learned as a youth sports coach and technology entrepreneur and hack the NBA.
Ranadive founded the software integration and analytics company TIBCO
Vivek Ranadive was born in Bombay, India, in 1957. Though he came from a well-off family, Ranadive's trajectory from Bombay to his dream college, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), was a minor miracle. At the time, Indian currency was not easily convertible, and Ranadive had to convince the President of the Reserve Bank of India to release dollars for him to pay his tuition.
Ranadive received a bachelor's and master's degree in electrical engineering from MIT and an MBA from Harvard. After briefly working in consulting, he headed to Silicon Valley to try his hand at entrepreneurism.
As Ranadive tells it, his "big idea" was a manifestation of his unhappiness with software development. He was a hardware engineer, and he felt that while the hardware was usually on time and working, software lagged behind. Ranadive observed that hardware development was simplified by the "bus" at the back of a PC that allowed components to be plugged in and easily integrated with the rest of the system.
Software applications, however, rarely spoke to each other so seamlessly, because there was no equivalent software bus. Ranadive wanted to develop a software bus (aka an information bus) for companies that needed better integrated software applications.
In 1986, Ranadive used this concept to start his first venture, Teknekron Software Systems. The company's first major success was developing software that facilitated real time intelligence for financial firms like Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan. Prior to the implementation of Teknekron's software, these firms had to wait for information that could be useful in their trades. Teknekron was eventually sold to Reuters.
In 1997, Ranadive started TIBCO (The Information Bus Company), a company which made him incredibly rich. While Teknekron focused primarily on financial firms, TIBCO pursued every company that could benefit from real time information systems. TIBCO also offered business advice based on that data to clients like Delta Airlines and agricultural giant Cargill. In 2013, TIBCO earned over one billions dollars in revenue.
While TIBCO was becoming a wildly successful software company, the ever-busy Ranadive was looking for opportunities to spend more time with his 12-year-old daughter. He settled on coaching her basketball team. He didn't know the sport's rules, and he had never touched a basketball. "I was just terrified," he explained in an interview, "that I was going to make a complete fool of myself in front of my little girl."
This was no Dream Team. As Ranadive tells it, there was a draft for players before he arrived, and "they gave me the girls that nobody else wanted." A naturally competitive guy, Ranadive was not comfortable having a bad team:
"One of the things about me... is that I hate to lose. I got to figure out a way that I'm not going to lose. I studied the game, and I'm a bit of a math nerd. I went back and converted the game into a math equation.... I actually taught the girls the math equation..."
His math equation seemed to suggest that the team should use a full court press. Usually, players don't start defending the other team until they get halfway up the court. To Ranadive, this seemed silly. Why allow the other team-particularly if they are better than you-get settled into the plays they have practiced? A full court press would force the other team out of their comfort zone. His opponents would have to play on terms more favorable to his less skilled, but energetic team.
The strategy worked. Ranadive's girls won almost all of its games and made it to the national championships. The team eventually lost in the third round. Ranadive claims the referee did not treat his team fairly because he thought their strategy was unsportsmanlike.
In an essay on the approaches taken by underdogs who manage to win, Malcolm Gladwell glorified the team's success and Ranadive's unorthodox strategy. Gladwell compared Ranadive's business and basketball strategies, and he wrote that the full court press, like providing real time information, was a refusal to accept the slow pace of the status quo.
The strategy bothered other coaches. They thought it violated the spirit of the game and turned the game into a situation that didn't resemble basketball. But as the NBA was about to learn, Ranadive didn't really care what other coaches thought.
Ranadive purchased the NBA's Sacramento Kings in 2013
Ranadive's love affair with basketball had begun. Having tasted the joys of winning with his daughter's team, Ranadive became more interested in the game, and his ambition led him to the NBA. In 2010, Ranadive became a minority owner in the Golden State Warriors and the first South Asian-born person to own a stake in an NBA team. In 2014, when the Sacramento Kings franchise became available, Ranadive sold his stake in the Warriors and became the majority owner of the Kings.
As a majority owner, the boundary-pushing Ranadive, would have carte blanche to "reimagine basketball." He wanted the Kings to "operate more like a Silicon Valley company than a sports team." As Ranadive saw it, if the mathematics behind his company's software could help make decisions about how to treat cancer patients, it ought to be able to improve his team's strategy.
Two years into Ranadive's tenure as owner, the differences are more notable in the stands than on the court. The Kings now accept Bitcoin, use Google Glass, fly drones armed with video cameras around the arena, and release apps intended to make attending the game more convenient for fans. It's all part of Ranadive's vision of NBA 3.0, a world in which teams use technology and data to improve the experience of the fan.
Ranadive wants to hack his way to an NBA championship. He wants the team to play faster, take what the data suggest are more efficient shots, and defend with only 4 players so that one "cherry-picker" can stand on the other side of the court and score easy baskets after turnovers. So far, however, the Kings on-court strategy has not been particularly unusual.
But the King's development league team, the Reno Bighorns, are playing basketball more like Ranadive's daughter and her teammates. Ranadive sees the minor league team as a "lab" for testing out innovative ideas. The team plays aggressively and quickly like his daughter's team. Players rarely stay on the court for more than two minutes-rather than the typical ten or more minute shift-in order to play in this aggressive manner.
The Bighorns' defense is even more unprecedented. Most teams play "man-to-man" defense, in which each player covers one player on the opposite team. Bighorns players instead protect certain areas and take certain actions. Instead of guarding one particular person, for example, one Bighorn player focuses on intercepting passes.
The ultimate success of these innovations is not yet clear. But the criticism has been constant.
The first years of Ranadive's ownership have seemed topsy turvy, and the team has underperformed. Ranadive hired a coach, Mike Malone, before finding a general manager. This led to a power struggle after he hired the analytically-minded Pete D'Alessandro. Within less than a year and a half, both Malone and D'Alessandro were fired. Ranadive replaced D'Allesandro with Vlade Divac, an ex-player with little experience as a basketball executive.
Ranadive has at times inserted himself into basketball decision-making, which sports professionals consider the ultimate act of hubris by an owner. Ranadive submitted his input for which players the team should draft, which players they should trade for, and how they might play. He pushed the team to sign seven-foot-five Sim Bhullar, a huge but unskilled player from India, perhaps in part to promote his team's popularity in India.
To many NBA fans, Ranadive's decisions seem baffling. One sports writer even wrote a piece titled, "The 7 Dumbest Basketball Decisions Kings Owner Vivek Ranadive Has Made So Far." Vice Sports wrote a scathing article describing how Ranadive's Silicon Valley approach has "screwed" the team.
But perhaps Ranadive will be redeemed. He is fond of the saying, "Let's Make Different Mistakes", and innovation has worked before in the NBA-just ask the "seven seconds or less" Phoenix Suns and the "Moneyball" Houston Rockets.
In the case of the Sacramento Kings and Vivek Ranadive, we may get to see if a strategy perfected by 12-year-old kids will translate to the NBA. No matter how it turns out, it will be fun to watch.