NBA Coach Luke Walton Sued for Sexual Assault by Sports Reporter Kelli Tennant

By Robert Silverman
Yong Teck Lim/Getty

Current Sacramento Kings and former Los Angeles Lakers Head Coach Luke Walton allegedly sexually assaulted a female reporter while he was an assistant with the Golden State Warriors, according to a lawsuit first reported by TMZ.

In the lawsuit, Kelli Tennant, who was working as a reporter with SportsNet LA, claims she met Walton at the Hotel Casa Del Mar in Santa Monica, California, per the Los Angeles Times. The purpose of the meeting was to present him with a copy of her 2014 book, The Transition: Every Athlete’s Guide to Life After Sports, for which Walton penned the foreword. (Tennant was a star volleyball player at the University of Southern California before starting a career in sports media.)

The two had maintained a working relationship and according to the lawsuit, Tennant viewed Walton as a “trusted mentor and colleague.” The lawsuit doesn’t specify a date when the incident allegedly took place, but Tennant does claim that after arriving at the hotel, Walton, who married his current wife in 2013, suggested they return to his hotel room. There, he “pinned Ms. Tennant on the bed, placing his hips and legs over her body,” the lawsuit, which was filed on Monday, claims, and “began forcing kisses on her neck, face, and chest.”

Despite Tennant’s attempts to physically extricate herself, Walton allegedly restrained her and continued to molest her, touching her breasts and groin, despite her loud, vocal protests demanding he stop. According to the lawsuit: “[Tennant] was afraid she was about to be raped.” After Walton finally let her go and just as she reached the hotel door, Tennant recalled hearing him say: “Good to see you.”

In a statement, the Sacramento Kings said: “We are aware of the report and are gathering additional information. We have no further comment at this time.” Similarly, the Warriors said in a statement: “We became aware of the alleged incident and story this evening and are in the process of seeking more information. We’ll have no further comment at this time.” For their part, the Lakers denied having any knowledge of alleged assault:

Garo Mardirossian, the attorney representing Tennant, did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast. He told the Los Angeles Times that further information would be provided at an upcoming press conference, though he did not say whether Tennant had reported the incident to the police prior to filing suit. Luke Walton’s attorney, Mark Baute, released the following statement to ESPN regarding Tennant’s lawsuit: “Luke Walton retained me to defend him against these baseless allegations. The accuser is an opportunist, not a victim, and her claim is not credible. We intend to prove this in a courtroom.”

Tennant continued to encounter Walton professionally following the alleged assault. At a charity event in May 2017, Walton “uttered vulgar, guttural sounds at her in a lewd manner,” then said, “Mmmm… you’re killing me in that dress!” and embraced her in an aggressive and unwanted manner, the suit claims. (Tennant left SportsNet LA in 2017. She now is working on multiple ventures, including covering the Association of Volleyball Professionals tour for Amazon Prime.)

The son of NBA Hall of Famer Bill Walton, Walton graduated from the University of Arizona in 2003, where he won a national championship in 2001. He was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round, and proved to be a journeyman if cerebral player and deft passer, neatly slotting into then-Head Coach Phil Jackson’s triangle offense and winning two titles over the course of his pro career.

After retiring in 2013, he was hired as an assistant coach by the Lakers D-League affiliate, the Los Angeles D-Fenders. He quickly moved up the ranks, joining the Golden State Warriors staff in 2014, and serving as the team’s head coach in 2015 while Steve Kerr was sidelined by a botched spinal surgery. Though none of the wins were officially credited to his record, he was named coach of the month when the Warriors zoomed out to a 19-0 start on the way to winning a league-record 73 games.

In April 2016, he left the Bay Area to take the reins of the Lakers. Initially, Walton was credited with helping to nurture the development of the Lakers’ young core, but the arrival of LeBron James in the summer of 2018 dramatically altered management’s expectations, and led to a tumultuous and ultimately dysfunctional season. Though newly hired team president Magic Johnson appeared to give Walton a long leash in September should the team struggle to integrate a band of mismatched veteran free-agent signings, his tolerance with losing didn’t last.

By November, ESPN had reported that Johnson had berated his young coach in an “aggressive tone” after they lost three of their first eight. Still, Walton was able to right the ship, sporting a record of 20-14, when LeBron went down with a groin injury at the end of December. The team struggled in his absence and Walton began airing his frustrations.

By the end of the month, whispers began to circulate that LeBron once again had soured on his head coach, per ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan. At the end of the regular season, with the Lakers mired in the lottery, it seemed likely that his three-year tenure in Los Angeles had come to an end. Walton might have been canned sooner, had Johnson not shockingly announced that he was quitting during an impromptu press conference on April 9.

Amidst Johnson’s at times jarringly cheery proclamations that the job wasn’t fun anymore, he added that he couldn’t bring himself to tell owner Jeanie Buss, whom Johnson called his “sister,” that Walton needed to go.

Three days later, Walton was relieved of his head coaching duties. The Lakers described it as a mutual decision, but he didn’t have to wait long to find work. The Sacramento Kings hired Walton as head coach on April 15.

At the time, Warriors Head Coach Steve Kerr seemed dismayed by the Lakers’ decision to part ways with Walton. “They’re losing one of the best human beings in the NBA,” he said.

Read more at The Daily Beast.