ESPN on Monday postponed the premiere of "Down in the Valley," a documentary in its "30 for 30" series about the 2013 effort to prevent the Sacramento Kings from moving to another city. The decision came in response to the renewed focus on allegations that Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson — a former NBA All-Star, and a key figure in the fight to keep the Kings in Sacramento — sexually abused a teenager while a member of the Phoenix Suns in 1996.
Johnson has repeatedly disputed the allegations, and never faced criminal charges in connection to the claims. Still, in light of the spotlight shone in recent weeks on that dark corner of his past, ESPN has decided to delay the national broadcast premiere, originally slated for Oct. 20, of a documentary that details — in the words of the network's summary — how Sacramento's "favorite son fought to pull off perhaps the most unconventional upset in NBA history." The film, in its current form, "is a tribute to Johnson, and by its own logic, he can do no wrong," according to Max Rivlin-Nadler of The New Republic.
“We are re-evaluating the content presentation of it and delaying the premiere,” said John Dahl, the vice president and executive producer of ESPN Films and Original Content. “When [director] Jason Hehir and we collectively agree that the film is ready and we are comfortable with it, then we will pick that air date. I think the most important thing here is to make sure it’s clear that we are not tone deaf and we’re aware of a renewed focus on certain issues." [...]
“We are aware of the renewed focus out there on events and issues and allegations in Mayor Johnson’s past,” Dahl said. “We know what is out there and we acknowledge that it is out there and we want to make sure that it is clear to everyone that we are responsible how we handle the story.”
The Phoenix New Times reported in 1997 that a 16-year-old girl said Johnson, then 29, had "fondled her genitals on several occasions." The report includes a transcript of a phone call reportedly made by Johnson to the young girl, referred to as "Kim Adams" by the New Times, that was secretly taped by the Phoenix police sex crimes unit:
Kim broaches one incident she alleges occurred inside the guesthouse at Johnson's sprawling home on the side of Camelback Mountain.
"Well, I was naked and you were naked, and it wasn't a hug," Kim says.
"Well, I felt that it was, you know, a hug, and you know, I didn't, to be honest, remember if we were both naked at that time. That is the night at the guesthouse?"
"Yeah. . . ," the girl says. "Why would I be upset if it was just a hug?"
"Well, I said the hug was more intimate than it should have been. . . . But I don't believe I touched your private parts in those areas. And you did feel bad the next day and that's why we talked about it."
"Well, if it was just a hug, why were either one of us naked?"
"Again, I didn't recall us being a hundred percent naked."
After reviewing the results of Phoenix police's investigation into the claims, the Maricopa County, Ariz., Attorney's Office decided not to prosecute Johnson, saying the case did not have a "reasonable likelihood of conviction." The New Times' own investigation also turned up "no definitive proof that Kevin Johnson committed a crime." Johnson has repeatedly disputed the claims over the years.
One year later, according to the paper, an attorney representing the teenager delivered a letter to Johnson demanding $750,000, or else a civil lawsuit would be filed. No such suit ever developed; according to the Sacramento Bee, "Johnson signed a draft confidential settlement" to pay the accuser $230,000.
The allegations resurfaced last month, when Deadspin published a piece by Dave McKenna — who has written frequently and critically about Johnson over the past year and a half — in which a woman named Mandi Koba says she was "Kim Adams," and that she "took Johnson’s money in exchange for a pledge to never mention Kevin Johnson ever again except to 'a priest, a therapist, or a lawyer.'" Koba, now 36 and a mother of three, said she had decided now — nearly 20 years later, after several similar allegations against Johnson over the years — to speak out, even if it meant facing repercussions for violating the 1997 agreement.
"I just felt like I wasn’t doing anything but protecting him,” Koba, who now volunteers as a crisis responder for sexual assault victims, told McKenna. "[...] For the longest time, I would feel that it was my fault — I hadn’t done enough to stop him. I know that’s ridiculous. I couldn’t stop him. But I felt responsible for their pain. I don’t know who they are, and they likely cannot tell anybody but their therapist or the priest or attorney.”
After Deadspin ran its story, Johnson spokesman Ben Sosenko denied any wrongdoing on the mayor's part, telling the Bee: “These allegations are two decades old. They were thoroughly investigated and rejected by law enforcement and reported in the media. They weren’t true then and they aren’t true now. Period.”
Johnson also denied the allegations to Sacramento ABC affiliate KXTV: "It's very unfortunate. Something happened 20 years ago and it's not true. You just got to move on. That's just part of the territory."
Last week, Deadspin published video of Koba's 1996 interview with Phoenix police, in which the detective to whom she's speaking "tells her that he, too, believes that Johnson 'is probably taking advantage of other young people.'"
The allegations were a topic of discussion during the making of "Down in the Valley," according to Marcos Breton of the Bee:
A source close to Johnson who is familiar with the production of the film said ESPN was granted full access to the mayor over a 20-month period in 2014 and 2015. Several times, he said, documentary director Jason Hehir discussed whether or not to address the allegations against Johnson. Ultimately, he and ESPN jointly decided to leave them out because they were deemed unrelated to the primary narrative of saving the Kings, the source said.
Johnson’s camp was incredulous Monday that ESPN would announce postponing the film just hours before hundreds of Sacramentans gathered to celebrate its viewing at the Crest Theatre. [...]
“It’s fair to say that the new material, in terms of putting a name and a face on ... the accuser ... [caused ESPN] to acknowledge and address [it],” Dahl said Monday.
The Sacramento premiere of the film went on as scheduled Monday. Prior to the screening, Johnson deflected questions about the sexual abuse allegations as par for the course in the dirty business of politics.
Whether this broadcast postponement will turn into a straight cancellation remains to be seen. Dahl told SI's Deitsch that the network will endeavor to be responsible in its handling of the film amid the revived attention on the allegations: "We put a lot of thought of into this and it’s most important to us to be responsible.”
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