The Reno Experiment: Inside Vivek Ranadivé’s Grand Scheme

The Reno Experiment: Inside Vivek Ranadivé’s Grand Scheme


Five years ago Kings owner and software CEO Vivek Ranadivé decided he wanted a basketball “lab,” so he turned over his D-League affiliate to a Division III assistant who installed a freakily frenetic scheme called The System. The “disruption” lasted just two seasons, but its tenets—threes and pace—are now all the rage in today’s NBA

When Dave Arseneault Jr. received the email, back in the fall of 2014, he assumed it was a mistake.

At the time, Arseneault was 28 and living in Grinnell, Iowa, a town of 9,000 an hour from Des Moines that dubs itself—somewhat aspirationally—the Jewel of the Prairie. It’s the kind of place where you leave your doors unlocked, you can walk most anywhere in 15 minutes, and the nicest hotel is a converted middle school.

Arseneault liked it. He also didn’t know much else. He had played basketball at Grinnell High, then at Grinnell College, the Division III liberal arts school on the north side of town, starring as a slow-but-savvy 6′ 1″ point guard. Now, five years after graduating, he held the title of “seasonal assistant” basketball coach, a job that paid him $5,000, with no benefits. He was renting a place while he and his girlfriend, Rachel Whitfield, talked about settling down. Arseneault’s eventual goal: work his way up the coaching ladder and maybe run his own D-III program someday.

So you can imagine his surprise when he opened his computer to find an email from an NBA executive, asking him to call. Since Arseneault knew no NBA executives and worked for a small school in the middle of nowhere, he assumed the email was either a) a mistake or b) meant for his father.

Dave Arseneault Sr. began coaching at Grinnell in 1989, taking over a program that hadn’t had a winning season in a quarter century. A curious, cheery man, he began experimenting. Different lineups. Unorthodox plays. Eventually, he hit upon the idea of playing not just fast, but really fast. He concocted something he called the System, which involved nonstop pressure and a deluge of three-pointers. Designed to mask a lack of talent with on-court chaos, the System was like a fun house mirror held up to the game: shots launched without discretion, ceded layups, outlandish statistics. For the most part, it worked. Grinnell began winning conference titles and breaking scoring records. Arseneault managed to both annoy purists and attract national attention, most memorably in 2012, when 5′ 10″ Jack Taylor set the single-game NCAA scoring record with 138 points in a 179–104 win over Faith Baptist Bible. So, yes, people knew about Dave Sr.

And yet, when Dave Jr. responded, Dean Oliver, newly hired by the Kings in basketball ops, didn’t mention Dave’s dad. Rather, Oliver said that he was conducting a coaching search. That he’d heard about the System- and found its potential intriguing. That Sacramento had big plans, perhaps bigger than any team, ever. And that he was curious whether Dave Jr.—a man with no head coaching experience, who was making ends meet because his dad supplemented his salary with 25 grand—would be interested in being the coach of the Reno Bighorns, the Kings’ NBA D-League affiliate.

Dave Jr. was silent for a moment. Then, as he recalls, he said the only thing he could think of. “Of course!”

A week later, he was on a plane to Sacramento.

Ranadivé was all in. As he told ESPN, “In Silicon Valley, you have a lab. In basketball, I wanted a lab.”

And so, on Oct. 17, 2014, the Kings introduced David -Arseneault Jr. as the new coach of the Bighorns. His marching orders, as he recalls, were that he had none. Says Arseneault, “There was pretty much nothing I couldn’t try.”

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