Phoenix Suns and Mercury owner Robert Sarver announced Wednesday that he’s starting the process of selling both teams, possibly soon bringing to a close an uncertain situation that has engulfed the franchises since an ESPN report last November detailed accusations against Sarver of racism and misogyny in the workplace.
“I do not want to be a distraction to these two teams and the fine people who work so hard to bring the joy and excitement of basketball to fans around the world,” Sarver said in a statement. “I want what’s best for these two organizations, the players, the employees, the fans, the community, my fellow owners, the NBA and the WNBA. This is the best course of action for everyone.”
Sarver’s announcement comes nearly a week after NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced that the NBA had suspended Sarver for a year and fined him $10 million following the results of a league-commissioned investigation by an independent law firm into the Sarver allegations.
The investigation backed up much of the initial ESPN report and revealed Sarver had not only been presiding over a toxic workplace but that he had often been the cause of that toxicity. In a news conference, however, Silver defended the league’s punishment and told reporters he was unable to ban Sarver from the NBA because he didn’t “have the right to take away his team.”
The one-year suspension was met with sharp backlash from fans, players, team sponsors and even a Suns limited owner.
Multiple sources in NBA ownership circles told FOX Sports that they believe the Suns will likely be sold for more than the record-setting $3.3 billion valuation that Joseph Tsai paid in 2019, when he purchased 51 percent of the Brooklyn Nets (he previously owned 49 percent) and their arena, the Barclays Center.
“People have been raising money for this and looking at the Suns since the initial story broke last year,” said a source with strong connections to ownership bids. “That didn’t slow down once the punishment was announced [by Silver]. For people in these circles, this has been the assumed outcome for a while.”
Here’s a timeline of the events that transpired over the past 10 months that have led to this moment.
Sarver and Suns go on the offensive
In October 2021, shortly before the bombshell ESPN report was published but knowing that it was impending, Sarver said in a statement that he was “wholly shocked” by its claims. He said it contained “vague suggestions made mostly by anonymous voices.”
“I categorically deny any and all suggestions that I used disparaging language related to race or gender,” Sarver said.
The Suns also released a statement saying a story was about to come out that “makes completely baseless claims.” They added that the organization has both documentary and eyewitness evidence “that directly contradict” the report.
“We urge everyone not to rush to judgment here,” that statement read. “Especially based on lies, innuendo and a false narrative to attack our organization and its leadership.”
Suns general manager James Jones extended his support in a statement: “None of what’s been said describes the Robert Sarver I know, respect and like — it just doesn’t.”
Suns team president and CEO Jason Rowley also weighed in, saying in a statement that the story was “completely outrageous and false.”
In November 2021, ESPN published a damning report describing “a toxic and sometimes hostile workplace under Sarver,” in which he used racially insensitive language and acted inappropriately toward women.
Among the findings, former Suns head coach Earl Watson went on record to describe a conversation with Sarver following a game against the Warriors that he found offensive. According to Watson, Sarver repeatedly used the N-word when allegedly recounting Draymond Green‘s words despite Watson telling him to stop.
The NBA announced in November that it was hiring Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz to conduct a comprehensive investigation into the Sarver allegations.
Sarver weighs in again
After the ESPN report went live, Sarver said he would welcome an investigation into the allegations made about him. He said in a statement that it “may prove our only outlet for clearing my name and the reputation of an organization which I’m so very proud.”
Sarver called many of the findings in the report “inaccurate and misleading.”
“I have never called anyone or any group of people the N-word, or referred to anyone or any group of people by that word, either verbally or in writing,” Sarver said. “I don’t use that word. It is abhorrent and ugly and denigrating and against everything I believe in.”
Rowley echoed Sarver, saying in a statement that he welcomed an investigation.
Suns vice chairman Andy Kohlberg also came to Sarver’s defense, saying in a statement that he had never seen or heard Sarver make any racist, sexist or misogynistic statements. He added that he was never contacted for the ESPN story.
The Suns played a game against the Houston Rockets the same day the ESPN report came out.
After the game, star players Chris Paul and Devin Booker were asked about the allegations.
“For us, it’s about controlling what we can control — and that’s hooping,” said Paul, who also played for the Los Angeles Clippers when former owner Donald Sterling was banned for life in 2014 after a tape was leaked of him making racist comments.
Booker was asked directly if he had heard Sarver use the N-word.
“My seven years that I’ve been here, I haven’t noticed that, but that doesn’t make me insensitive to the subject,” Booker said. “…I think the NBA open investigation will do their due diligence of bringing out facts.
Almost a year after the ESPN report, on Sept. 13, the NBA announced Sarver would be suspended for a year and fined $10 million following the investigation, which included interviews with 320 people and the evaluation of more than 80,000 documents.
Among the findings, the investigation concluded Sarver had used the N-word at least five times “when recounting the statements of others.”
It also found Sarver had engaged in “inequitable conduct” toward female employees, made “many sex-related comments in the workplace” and “made inappropriate comments about the physical appearance of female employees.”
Also key among the report: There weren’t any findings racial or gender-based animus.
Silver takes questions about Sarver’s punishment
Silver spoke to the media following the Board of Governors meeting in New York on Sept. 14, defending his punishment of Sarver.
Silver, who had been widely praised for banning Sterling for life just three months into his tenure as NBA commissioner, called the Sarver and Sterling situations “dramatically different.”
He issued a firm rebuke of Sarver’s words and behavior, calling it “beyond the pale.” But he pointed to the fact that the report found no racial or gender-based animus and added that he looked at the totality of Saver’s 18-year tenure when deciding his punishment.
The face of the league speaks out
Later that day, LeBron James, who has the most powerful voice in the league with more than 184 million combined followers on Twitter and Instagram, was the first player to call out the NBA’s handling of the Sarver situation.
A few hours later, Suns superstar Chris Paul weighed in, also taking issue with Sarver’s punishment.
Paul tweeted that the “sanctions fell short in addressing what we can all agree was atrocious behavior.” Paul added that he was “horrified and disappointed” by the report, especially with respect to Sarver’s conduct toward women.
Suns minority owner calls for Sarver to step down
On Sept. 15, Suns minority owner Jahm Najafi called for Sarver’s resignation in a statement.
“I cannot in good judgment sit back and allow our children and future generations of fans to think that this behavior is tolerated because of wealth and privilege,” Najafi said. “Therefore, in accordance with my commitment to helping eradicate any form of racism, sexism and bias, as Vice Chairman of the Phoenix Suns, I am calling for the resignation of Robert Sarver.”
The purse strings tighten
On Sept. 16, PayPal, the jersey sponsor of the Suns, released a statement saying it would not renew its sponsorship with the team if Sarver returned following his one-year suspension.
“PayPal is a values-driven company and has a strong record of combatting racism, sexism, and all forms of discrimination,” the statement read. “We have reviewed the report of the NBA league’s independent investigation into Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver and have found his conduct unacceptable and in conflict with our values. PayPal’s sponsorship with the Suns is set to expire at the end of the current season. In light of the findings of the NBA’s investigation, we will not renew our sponsorship should Robert Sarver remain involved with the Suns organization, after serving his suspension.”
NBA Players’ Association supports ban
In an appearance on ESPN’s “NBA Today” on Sept. 16, NBAPA executive director Tamika Tremaglio said she wants Sarver banned from the NBA.
“We are absolutely calling for that,” she said. “We do not want him to be in a position where he is managing or engaging with individuals who are engaging with our players or the players themselves. We are absolutely clear from the findings that are in the report that we do not want him to be in that position.”
Draymond Green chimes in
On Sept. 20, Draymond Green called for NBA owners to hold a vote on whether Sarver should be banned.
“To think that someone like Robert Sarver that’s acting in that manner can continue to represent us? That’s bulls—,” Green said on his podcast, “The Draymond Green Show.” “You can’t continue to represent way more people than yourself with those views, with speaking to people the way he did, with treating African Americans and women the way he has, that’s not OK.”
Sarver announces plans to sell the team
Sarver ultimately decided he had no choice but to sell the team. With some of the league’s biggest players calling for a harsher punishment, sponsors threatening to bail and members of his own organization publicly speaking out against him, the walls began to close in on the 60-year-old owner beyond the point of return.
“PayPal saying they wouldn’t renew [changed everything],” one owner told FOX Sports. “I’m sure other sponsors [were threatening] as well. That’s a boatload of money his partners wouldn’t be happy about [losing].”
In a statement, Sarver said he expected the suspension would allow him to “make amends and remove my personal controversy,” adding, “but in our current unforgiving climate, it has become painfully clear that is no longer possible.”
LeBron weighs in again
Hours after Sarver’s announcement, James weighed in tweeting, “I’m so proud to be a part of a league committed to progress!”
Silver adds his thoughts
Silver went on to release a statement applauding Sarver’s decision.
“I fully support the decision by Robert Sarver to sell the Phoenix Suns and Mercury,” he said. “This is the right next step for the organization and community.”
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter at @melissarohlin.
Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.
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