The New York-based law firm leading the NBA’s investigation into the workplace culture of the Phoenix Suns under owner Robert Sarver has begun scheduling and conducting in-person interviews of current and former team employees, but it’s unclear whether those who have signed non-disclosure agreements will be able to speak freely to investigators.
One former Suns employee told ESPN they remain uncertain about whether they can speak freely about their experiences in Phoenix, saying they would be "happy to speak" with the investigators if they are assured they will not face legal consequences. The employee is hopeful that "the NBA would have my back."
A former Suns human resources employee previously told ESPN that the organization would often make a settlement agreement when an employee threatened to sue or raised issues that could lead to legal action. It's unclear how many former employees have signed non-disclosure agreements, but team sources said the number of former employees who signed NDAs, along with the total amount spent on severance packages, is of interest to minority members of the Suns ownership group.
It’s crunch time for Bob Iger if the outgoing Disney executive chairman wants to announce another gig before he leaves the company at the end of the year. Several options are still on the table, I’m told, but one potential scenario could be particularly interesting: NBA owner. Iger has told at least a couple friends that he’d love to front a bid for the Phoenix Suns if the hoops team were to become available, which it just might in the next couple months.
He’s close with Silver, thanks to years of Disney’s ABC and ESPN broadcasting games. And he’s even closer with Chris Paul, who was president of the NBA Players Association when the Covid “bubble” games were staged at Disney’s compound in Florida, and who happens to play for the Suns. “I consider him a very good friend,” Iger said of Paul last year. Iger has long harbored sports ambitions, at one point pursuing an NFL team in his L.A. hometown, which, of course, is just a short 45 minute private flight to Phoenix. And Iger and his family are close with billionaire private equity mogul Tony Ressler and his wife, Jami Gertz (yes, the actress), who own the Atlanta Hawks.
The 23-year-old claimed that he hadn’t heard about the episode with Rose, because he’s following Paul’s and Devin Booker’s lead to limit his social media usage. “Them dudes, they’re the most famous athletes in the NBA right now and they block it out,” Ayton said. “I can block it out, too.” The report regarding Sarver, however, was too seismic for a member of the Suns to possibly avoid. So Ayton fell back on focusing on what was in his power to control—a standard mode for professional athletes at large. “All I do,” Ayton said, “is put my head down and work.”
In initial remarks made to Phoenix Suns employees Monday, lawyers from the New York-based Wachtell Lipton firm that's investigating the team and majority owner Robert Sarver addressed concerns about retaliation, confidentiality and a timeline for completion, league sources told ESPN. Two attorneys from the firm -- David Anders and Sarah Eddy -- were in Phoenix and led the talk to employees over a Zoom call, league sources said.
The attorneys on the call explained that anyone who would like to remain confidential in a potential final report would indeed have their identity kept confidential, according to league sources. Employees were also told, league sources said, that a thorough investigation would take time and that the attorneys were interested in all perspectives from all employees.
Duane Rankin: "It's easy to get distracted, I can tell you that. It's easy to not focus on the task at hand, but we're doing a good job of making sure we just take it one day at a time." Jae Crowder as #Suns have won five straight games amid #NBA investigating Robert Sarver allegations. #NBA75
Among the eulogizers that night was Robert Sarver, the Suns and Mercury majority owner who, following last week’s lengthy ESPN report that prompted an NBA investigation, stands accused of misogyny, racism and creating a toxic work environment in Phoenix. (In statements, Sarver has denied most of the allegations.) A month after the event, at Wendy Heckmann’s request, Sarver’s executive assistant sent a link to download a full recording of it to nearly two dozen members of the ownership group and some of their spouses, according to a screenshot of the email obtained by Sports Illustrated.
Made aware of this story on Tuesday night, neither the Suns nor Sarver chose to comment. An NBA spokesperson told SI that the league is aware of the video. Heckmann’s widow Wendy told SI on Tuesday that Sarver’s remarks were in keeping with the spirit of the event, and she was not offended by them. “It was a roast—that’s what my husband wanted,” Wendy Heckmann said when reached by phone. “He wanted everybody to laugh at his expense, basically, and tell funny stories, and that’s what everybody did.” She added, referring to the reported allegations against Sarver, “That is not the Robert that I know. Robert is a really good person and I’ve never heard him say anything derogatory or anything with any kind of racial flair or any kind of sexist flair or anything—he’s never done that in my presence.”
A repeated theme in ESPN’s report was Suns employees saying that Sarver’s brand of humor offended them or made them uncomfortable—that what he found funny, they found demeaning. The comments in his roast raise similar concerns, according to a current member of the Suns organization who first saw the video as it circulated within the franchise. “I would characterize [the video] as being inappropriate, outrageous, and consistent with Robert Sarver’s pattern of behavior over the years,” the person told SI. Distributing the video within the Suns organization, the person added, delivered a clear message: “That this behavior is not unacceptable for others to follow.”
Three former Phoenix Suns employees have received messages from Penny Sarver, the wife of Robert Sarver, who is the team's majority owner. Two messages came from the @pennsar Instagram account and another was a text message from a number that belongs to Penny Sarver. These former employees say they consider the messages an attempt to intimidate them.
When reached for comment, Penny Sarver confirmed she sent the messages and said she looks forward to the NBA's investigation. "Over the weekend, I decided on my own to reach out to a few people to try to set the record straight and to share how disappointed and hurt I am by the lies that are circulating about my husband and The Suns organization," Penny Sarver said. "I shared the betrayal that I felt and I touched on some of the pain that we are going through as a family. "Any suggestion that I tried to 'intimidate' anyone is as silly as it is wrong and outrageous."
"This is Penny Sarver," one message began. "I know a lot of bridges were burned between you and Robert and you are very bitter. I want to remind you that real lives are at stake here." Later, the message added, "Please put your hatred aside and realize the hurt you are causing by spreading lies and fabrications. Is your time in the spotlight that important? If something happens to one of my children, I will hold you and Earl Watson personally responsible. Think about your own child for a second and imagine the tables turned."
Chris Haynes: I've heard about these stories about Robert Sarver for years. None of it surprised me. Matter of fact, Earl (Watson) told me about some of these things when he was you know, when he was the the head coach of the Phoenix Suns back there.
Tim MacMahon: Security just confiscated this Suns fan’s sign. It’s the first anti-Robert Sarver sign I’ve seen at the Footprint Center since the NBA opened its investigation into the allegations of racist and misogynistic behavior by the Suns owner. pic.twitter.com/jmAedJJKDX
Duane Rankin: "He will keep them focused on what they need to do." Hawks coach Nate McMillan on Monty Williams leading #Suns through this difficult situation w/team owner Robert Sarver allegations. "Obviously his players, and I think this organization, has a great deal of respect for him."
Duane Rankin: Mikal Bridges said #ESPN report of allegations aimed at Robert Sarver is "disturbing," but is focused on winnng basketball games. He also said his personal interactions with Sarver have been good. #Suns pic.twitter.com/pIWqEDTioX
Baron Davis seems to believe the troubling allegations against Robert Sarver are true ... 'cause the ex-NBA star tells TMZ Sports he thinks the Suns owner "is a piece of s***." The former Golden State Warriors guard said he sat next to the 60-year-old at some point during the NBA lockout in 2011 ... and he clearly got a bad vibe from the dude. "Are you surprised?" Davis said out at LAX on Friday of the racist and misogynistic accusations against Sarver. "God damn, man. Look at that motherf***er."
What is your overall reaction to the entire ESPN story? Upset? Angry? Robert Sarver: "More than anything, I’m frustrated and sad. I’ve taken responsibility for mistakes I’ve made, but most of the claims from nameless 'sources' are false or too vague to even sensibly address. Those who have known me for decades know I don’t use the language attributed to me, and they have gone on record to say that the accusations of racism and sexism are false. It is just not who I am, and it is directly contrary to the values at the center of the Suns organization. I am devastated that these false attacks are what our fans will associate with this organization that I love.
Robet Sarver: "I don’t know how to prove I didn’t do something. Friends and colleagues, white and Black, who attest they’ve known me for 10 and 20 years and have never heard me use language like this or behave in a racist or sexist way are told their own experiences with me aren’t relevant. There was only one named source in the entire piece to stand behind these accusations, former coach Earl Watson. I understand that he is frustrated with me because we terminated him.”
Are you planning to sue ESPN? Robert Sarver: "I’m currently evaluating my options, and I have retained defamation counsel. I have not ruled out any course of action. My immediate concern is cooperating with the NBA’s investigation, which I am confident will clear my name and the Suns organization."
Kendra Andrews: I asked Steve Kerr if he had any additional comments on the allegations against Suns owner Robert Sarver. “From here on, I’m going to refrain from commenting. Obviously a lot going on.” Kerr was quoted in ESPN’s story saying he was surprised to hear the allegations.
Brian Lewis: Steve Nash on #Suns owner Robert Sarver: “It was sad to read. That hasn't been my experience with Robert. But I'm obviously very sensitive to those type of situations. So disappointing that that's out there.” #nets #nba
To put things into context, seven years ago, 10 members of the current Suns roster were under the age of 21. Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges — the young core that makes up this contender — weren’t in the NBA yet. Paul has a unique vantage point aside from the unfortunate déjà vu of dealing with an issue of this magnitude. His experience, leadership and guidance will be critical for a team and group of players who have never experienced anything along these lines. “I mean, I’m here,” Paul told The Athletic. “That wasn’t the plan — you don’t plan any of these things to happen. But like I said, it’s a great locker room to be in, a great coaching staff. So, you know, anything that happens, we sort of deal with it together.”
After the game, Paul spoke to reporters and was asked to compare the current situation to what happened with Sterling and the Clippers. “I don’t know; I don’t know,” Paul said. “I feel like, you know, situations are different. You know, we dealt with that in that time… when all that happened. I think right now, like (Suns guard Devin Booker) said, we’re not insensitive to everything that was said or what-not, but we don’t know all the details, right? So the NBA will do its investigation. And in that time, all of us on our team will continue to play and do what we do.”
Speaking Thursday on ESPN’s “NBA Today,” Vince Carter, who briefly played for the Suns, offered his own troublesome anecdote about Sarver. “I’ve heard and kinda experienced this as a player coming back after I played there,” said Carter. “He walked into the locker room, from what I was told from two teammates that are reliable and [I] trust in what they say. He wasn’t happy with me playing well coming back into Phoenix. “We were winning the game and he wanted them to take me out,” Carter went on. “Put me on the ground. ‘Don’t let him have fun in our building.’ He felt like I was trying to show him and the team up.”
Grant Napear: How sad is it that in this day and age one needs to have "financial privilege" to speak the truth? Spot on by Earl! That is exactly what is going on in our society...people afraid of losing their jobs for speaking the truth!
"As someone who is the caretaker of a program, I find all these things that are being said serious in nature," Williams said Thursday before the Suns' 123-111 win over the Houston Rockets. "It takes courage to come out and express yourself. But at the same time, I'm aware there are two sides to this equation. ... We still have to wait to see how clear the facts can appear."
Williams is in his third year as coach of the team. He pointed out that all of the allegations in the story took place before he came to the franchise in 2019. "If any of that stuff happened while I was here, I wouldn't be in this seat," Williams said. "The league is doing an investigation, and we'll know more obviously once that is settled."
Williams said he had spoken with team captain and leader Chris Paul about the matter. "As far as Chris is concerned, I think he probably feels the same way. I can't speak for him," Williams said.
Duane Rankin: "I wasn't aware of the situation and in my 7 years that I've been here, I haven't noticed that but that doesn't make me insensitive to the subject." Devin Booker on alleged argument between Earl Watson and Robert Sarver and Sarver using N-Word in relation to Draymond Green. #Suns pic.twitter.com/LM8f9kERE6
Jason Rowley, President & CEO on behalf of Suns Legacy Partners, LLC: "The Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury organization vehemently reject the claims made in today’s ESPN article. Our two organizations have always worked hard to create an environment that is respectful and diverse; where racism, sexism and damaging behavior of any kind are not condoned. Today’s story contains false information and narratives perpetuated by a reporter who has struggled unsuccessfully to match the facts to a story he decided he wanted to tell a year ago. He twisted statements and circumstances to fit his preconceived narrative. He broke every rule of journalism by first deciding on his findings and then cherry-picking events and unreliable sources to prop up his demonstrably false claims.
As Woj described in his report, this same law firm not only handled the Sterling investigation in LA, but also, that of former Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson. For what it’s worth, both cases involved either leaked audio recordings or emails wherein Sterling and Levenson used racist remarks. Moreover, both cases led to Sterling and Levenson being forced to sell their stock in their respective teams.
Salman Ali: Stephen Silas on Suns report: “I’m kind of like everyone else. I’m on the outside looking in… We just happen to be in Phoenix on this day.”
Mark Medina: Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams on the Robert Sarver allegations: "These allegations are sensitive. That's an understatement. At the same time, there are things that are not clear yet." Williams added the specifics of the story predates his time with the Suns
Kellan Olson: Monty Williams said the Suns' locker room is strong. Said they have a ton of leaders in their locker room. He does not tell them what to say. Monty said it takes courage for those to come forward but also emphasized there are 2 sides. What happened in LA with Sterling was clear.
Mark Medina: Suns coach Monty Williams on Chris Paul: "Chris and I talk a lot. Where I might be amiss, he'll help me and vice versa. In this situation, we'll rally around each other and hoop. That's what we do. At the same time, these are uncomfortable situations."
Gerald Bourguet: Monty Williams admitted this is one of those days he doesn't want to be here answering questions, but he will continue to be show up as the NBA's investigation continues, answering our questions and trying to be at his best for the group of guys he's tasked with leading
Duane Rankin: Monty Williams said Deandre Ayton (leg) will play, Cameron Payne (hip) won't. He also said he's OK with players being uneasy about playing. #Suns
Sarver is the team’s controlling owner and owns approximately 35% of the Suns, a person familiar with details of the ownership structure told USA TODAY Sports. The person requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about those details. Suns vice chairman Jahm Najafi is the team’s second-largest investor, USA TODAY has learned, and he released a strongly worded statement Thursday. “I have been made aware of the allegations against Robert Sarver, the managing partner who runs the Phoenix Suns,” Najafi said in the statement. “The conduct he is alleged to have committed has stunned and saddened me and is unacceptable.
Najafi is the CEO of Najafi Companies, a private investment firm based in Phoenix. The Suns’ web site says the company has “ holdings in sectors including sports, consumer, media, technology, and real estate.” Late last year, Najafi made a significant investment into Formula 1’s McLaren Racing, making him a vice chairman of the auto sports team. Could Najafi, who joined the ownership group in 2009, and other shareholders try to force Sarver to sell his shares or somehow overtake him as the controlling owner? Certainly possible.
Vincent Goodwill: NBPA Statement on Robert Sarver: “We are continuing to review the allegations in today’s ESPN story. We view these allegations as serious and applaud the League’s decision to conduct an investigation. We will defer any further comments until that process has been concluded.”
Marc Stein: Philly's Doc Rivers, who found himself coaching a team in a similar position to Phoenix in 2014 with the Clippers, when asked tonight if he has advice for the Suns' Monty Williams: "Monty's my best friend in the NBA," Rivers said. More NBA from me: marcstein.Substack.com
Marc Stein: Rivers said he preferred not to discuss the Phoenix situation as an outsider but the implication was clear that he will make himself available if needed for counsel with the Suns' Williams sure to face countless questions about managing his team amid a league investigation.
Adrian Wojnarowski: The NBA has launched an investigation into the Suns and Robert Sarver, league says.
Two current Suns employees said there is considerable internal support throughout the organization for an independent investigation into the franchise's culture and that many employees would, as one said, be "more than willing to talk" to investigators. Said the second employee, "A lot of people view this as their chance to right this ship."
Both employees noted, however, that a looming concern voiced among the organization's rank and file is whether sensitive information, as well as their identities, would remain confidential to ward off any potential retaliation from Suns' leadership. Said the first Suns employee, "We have to be protected."
Michael McCann: The NBA used Wachtell Lipton, which is an elite law firm, to investigate the Los Angeles Lakers for tampering in 2017. The firm also represented the group headlined by Alex Rodriguez that recently purchased the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Gerald Bourguet: New statements from Suns president/CEO Jason Rowley and owner Robert Sarver: pic.twitter.com/17Zpk3H6Z4
Schultz, who according to his Twitter bio is not currently employed by ESPN, joined Arizona Sports’ Burns & Gambo to provide further clarity on his report of the report. “This report is a monster,” he said. “As bad as you might think it might be for us to be having this conversation, it’s worse. What I was told some of the things that are going to surface in this report, including sexual harassment, it is jaw-dropping. There’s just no way that with all of these people on the record, men and women, that he’s going to be able to survive this in my eyes.”
Schultz said he is reporting that former head coach Earl Watson and former general manager Ryan McDonough are both on the record in the story. “What I was told was that there has been a kind of sweep under the rug culture that he has fostered,” Schultz said of Sarver.
Phoenix radio host John Gambadoro tweeted that more than 50 people were interviewed for the ESPN story. It was supposed to run at the end of the regular season and ESPN senior NBA writer Baxter Holmes was involved. It is unclear what other reporters, if any, are also working on the piece.
John Gambadoro: Spoke with two people that had prominent roles in Suns organization in past. One said "wouldn't be surprised no matter what were to happen there" The other said "I believe it is total BS, I would not have worked in an environment like that if that were true" -
Suns general manager James Jones and CEO Jason Rowley both backed Sarver. Jones said the rumors didn’t describe what he knows about Sarver and Rowley said Sarver was not a racist or sexist. "I will also say that reporter in this instance has shown a reckless disregard for the truth. He has harassed employees, former employees, and family members; used truths, half-truths and rumors to manufacture a story in which he’s heavily invested and then perpetuate a completely false narrative within the sports industry to back it up. His tactics throughout this process have been without any basis in journalism ethics or even morality," Rowley added.
“This story is completely outrageous and false,” Rowley said. “It doesn’t represent — at all — the Robert Sarver I’ve worked alongside of for 15 years. He’s not a racist and he’s not a sexist. I will also say that reporter in this instance has shown a reckless disregard for the truth. He has harassed employees, former employees, and family members; used truths, half-truths and rumors to manufacture a story in which he’s heavily invested and then perpetuate a completely false narrative within the sports industry to back it up.”
Duane Rankin: #Suns reactions to team owner Robert Sarver allegations. Chris Paul talked about having "solid" locker room. Devin Booker said "something has to come out first" before commenting. Mikal Bridges said "we all have distractions in this world," but said they just "locked in" #Suns
Gerald Bourguet: Monty Williams on keeping the Suns focused despite what's going on with the impending Sarver story: "I'm not gonna talk about any of that, and nothing will invade or erode our culture. That's something that we've said from Day 1."
Duane Rankin: "I've been through a lot in my life, and basketball is place I get to have great joy." Monty Williams when asked about not allowing the Robert Sarver accusations to affect team culture. He also said that he needs more information and process it. #Suns
Jordan Schultz: 🚨 Breaking: The NBA is preparing for a massive story accusing #Suns owner Robert Sarver of racism, sexism and sexual harassment in a series of incidents, sources say. With enough evidence to support such claims, there’s a real chance the league would forcibly remove Sarver.