On Sept. 17, 2019, she sat down at her computer and typed out an email to Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. At the time, she wasn’t sure what she wanted, other than some dignity. But as she reflected on what had happened to her the past summer, the pain and the swirl of anger and confusion hadn’t dulled.
So Sarah—not her real name, which Sports Illustrated has agreed to withhold after deeming her account credible and independently corroborating it when possible—reached out to one of the most powerful figures in sports.
She was writing about what she described as “inappropriate behavior” at the hands of “an Executive from the Dallas Mavericks,” whom she would, in later communications with the team, specify was the director of player personnel, Tony Ronzone. In the subject field of her email she wrote: “Sexual Harassment Incident - Mavs Executive July 2019: Response Request.”
Mark Cuban had already dealt with a Mavericks #MeToo scandal the previous year, after an SI investigative report revealed a “corrosive” corporate culture riddled with what were deemed “institutional failures.” As Anne Milgram, the lawyer hired to investigate the organization, wrote in her summary report: “There were three bad actors, but it was more than that. It’s important to understand how this was handled.”
Cuban seemed to accept this, saying, “I’m just sorry I didn’t see it. I’m sorry I didn’t recognize it. I just hope that out of this we’ll be better and we can avoid it and we can help make everybody just smarter about the whole thing.” As part of an NBA sanction, the team contributed $10 million to organizations that promote women in leadership roles and combat domestic violence.
In the wake of the scandal, Cuban hired a new CEO, Cynthia Marshall, to change the culture. A longtime executive at AT&T, Marshall issued a “100 Day Plan for the Front Office,” which stated, “Our vision is that by 2019, the Dallas Mavericks organization will be setting the NBA standard. ... Our immediate key focus areas include modeling a zero-tolerance policy for inappropriate behavior.”
Yet here it was a year later, and a woman was contacting the Mavericks about an executive she said had forced himself on her late at night in a Las Vegas hotel room. Today, another 10 months later, the incident has not yielded punishment, or, in Sarah’s view, justice. A lawyer for Ronzone denied Sarah’s account in a statement, describing her claims as “meritless.” Marshall told SI that the Mavericks investigated the matter, and Ronzone remains with the team, because “there was no evidence presented of sexual assault.” She said that a group of “seasoned investigators” had examined the issue for the team. “It is our process to investigate thoroughly,” Marshall said.
But SI found that the Mavericks were not able to obtain key pieces of evidence: Sarah told multiple people her account of the incident in its direct aftermath—including one person, in a phone call, minutes after she says it happened. These so-called contemporaneous accounts are considered critical and potentially weighty in cases with no eye witnesses.
According to emails viewed by SI, Sarah’s lawyers offered attorneys working for the Mavericks access to sworn statements from those individuals, contingent on the team agreeing to a nondisclosure agreement—but the Mavericks lawyers did not respond. (A lawyer representing the Mavericks, Thomas Melsheimer from the firm Winston & Strawn, said in a letter to SI that Sarah and her attorneys “refused to provide those declarations to the Mavericks and to us unless certain conditions were agreed upon – conditions that went well beyond protecting the identity of the individuals who executed those affidavits or statements.”)
Sarah says that she remains open to sharing the sworn declarations and other documents with an independent body, including the NBA—just not the Mavericks. "I have nothing to hide," she says. "But I lost trust in [the Mavericks]."
Winston & Strawn lawyers hired by the Mavericks also argued that the organization was not responsible for Ronzone’s behavior, since he was not acting in an official capacity for the team—a position directly at odds with Cuban and the Mavericks’ public stance of accountability.
If nothing else, Sarah’s situation provides a case study of the gnarled and untidy nature of a #MeToo investigation in a sports context, revealing just how many obstacles are placed in the path of a woman seeking justice after she reports a sexual assault—and just how quickly the process can grow complicated. Her story shows how an organization can overlook critical pieces of information and evidence; how—even with well-meaning executives acting in good faith—the processes can break down; and how wide a gulf can exist between teams’ words and, finally, their actions.
Sarah has also seen a prominent lawyer eagerly seek to represent her when 40% of a settlement was in the offing, only to feel as though the lawyers backed off upon realizing she was more interested in gaining dignity than in gaining a check. Sarah learned that there are so many forces aligned to silence accounts of sexual assault and how easy it is for complaints to fall between the cracks, for survivors to grow quiet and then grow silent.
Which is precisely why she has chosen not to.
In basketball terms, Sarah likens what happened to her to a “physical mismatch.” That’s how she says she felt after getting thrown onto the bed of a Las Vegas hotel room in July 2019. The “opponent” in this case was twice her weight and roughly a foot taller.
This, she says, is what happened that night: The man, Tony Ronzone, a longtime NBA executive, first tried to kiss her, sticking his tongue down her throat. When she said “no,” and added that she was married, he said, “It doesn’t matter. We’re in Vegas. No one’s going to know.”
He then, she says, threw her onto the bed—with force—and straddled her, pinning her body. “I couldn’t move an inch,” she says. She recalls telling Ronzone: “You’re making me feel really uncomfortable right now.”
She wriggled away, she says, but again, Ronzone positioned himself on top of her, placing her hand on his crotch. When she pulled away, he then tried to place his hand inside her pants. Again, she pulled away. He started pawing her breasts, still trying to kiss her, all the while saying, “You know you want to.”
Sarah says she, assuredly, did not want to do anything other than leave. She says that, reeking of alcohol, Ronzone tried to kiss her again, so aggressively that his saliva was all over the outside of her mouth. Twice she recalls asking him, “Can I leave now?” He finally relented, and, in her words, she “escaped the room.”
As she walked down the hall, she says, she didn’t fully process that she had been assaulted. She questioned her own conduct more than his. Why did she even go to his room under his pretense of having her pick up the tickets he’d promised to an NBA Summer League game? Was she really that naive? Though she was wearing a wedding ring and had mentioned her husband and family, did she do anything that gave him the wrong idea? And what was she going to do now?
Confused and in distress, she says, Sarah took out her phone and, at 3:57 a.m., according to phone records provided to SI, called another acquaintance from the basketball world, a former Homeland Security federal agent who is now a security consultant for an NBA team in the Eastern Conference. He, too, was in Vegas for Summer League. They spoke for 14 minutes: When he heard what happened, he could tell that she was upset and he suggested that she call the police and file a report. Sarah brushed off the suggestion. She says: “I’m thinking, What are they going to do? It’s not like I was raped.”
A few months later, the former federal agent signed a sworn declaration—prepared in case of legal action and reviewed by SI—recounting his late-night conversation with Sarah about her encounter with a Mavericks employee “in a managerial position.” (He cannot recall whether she identified Ronzone by name that night over the phone.)
“[Sarah] sounded very upset,” the former agent said in the declaration. He then described what Sarah told him that night, an account that aligns with her story today. “While [Sarah] was in his room, he aggressively forced himself on her,” the agent recalled Sarah saying. “He pushed her down on the bed and got on top of her and was forcefully kissing her. [Sarah] told me she was resisting and refusing.”
In a phone interview with SI last month, the former agent said, “I work with victims all the time,” referencing the eight years he spent specializing in human trafficking with Homeland Security. “I have no reason not to believe her.” He gave a sworn statement, after all, he said. His main concern, overall, though, was Sarah. “I tried to give her support, to guide her,” because he worried about the long-term effects this could have on her.
Days later, Sarah confided in another friend by phone, recounting the incident. The friend, an executive in the sports industry, also signed a sworn declaration, which SI has reviewed, recounting his conversations with Sarah and the fact that “she felt like she was violated.” Requesting anonymity, the friend told SI, “It jumped out at me that this was a team supposedly cleaning things up. It wasn’t handled well, and I say that not as a sports executive but as someone who wants to see people held accountable.” In August, she also confided in a friend who was a senior executive at Walmart and he, too, signed a sworn declaration.
In the ensuing year, Sarah feels that she was overwhelmed by not only a physical mismatch, but by a power one, too. She says she is neither famous nor aspires to be. Ronzone, 55, is the ultimate well-connected NBA insider. He was involved with USA Basketball for years, from 2006–2013, and, according to the Mavs’ own website, had “his fingerprints all over” the scouting of the team’s star, Luka Doncic. She was completely unfamiliar with sexual harassment and assault, unsure what questions to ask or where to turn for support.
Sarah was no casual basketball fan. In the 1990s, she had a Division I scholarship offer. She worked at the summer camp of an NBA and WNBA team for more than a decade, including two years as director. She founded a nonprofit in Asia that, per its public filing, uses basketball to provide education and infrastructure to underserved areas.
In July 2018, she was in Las Vegas, where she doesn’t live full-time, but keeps a residence. The Mavericks were in town for Summer League. Sarah was invited to a casual group dinner at the Palazzo with NBA coaches and execs, and, by chance, was seated next to Tony Ronzone, a veteran NBA international scout who, since 2012, has been the Mavericks’ director of player personnel. She says that it was easy to see why Ronzone has been an effective NBA scout and executive. He possesses an outsize personality, tells a great story and wasn’t afraid to stretch the truth.
She says that when she originally met Ronzone, and he didn’t realize she knew basketball, he told her, “I run the Dallas Mavericks.” She responded, “Hmmm. I know you are not Mark Cuban, and I know Donnie Nelson runs the basketball side.” He admitted she was right, but told her he is their “right-hand man.” Afterward, she met up with Darrell Armstrong, a Mavs assistant, and a friend of Sarah’s for more than 20 years. She told him of the coincidence of having just met his colleague.
A year later, in the summer of 2019, Sarah again ran into Ronzone in Las Vegas, where he was back for the Mavs’ Summer League. Ronzone remembered Sarah from the dinner and asked whether she wanted tickets to a Mavs Summer League game. He also invited her to dinner with another coworker. Sarah accepted.
Sarah says that Ronzone listened when she told him about her nonprofit and how it could really use the support of the Mavericks—both financially and as a seal of approval. She recalls him promising: “You will never have to pay for anything again” and that the Mavericks’ support was “a done deal.”
When Ronzone suggested they keep the conversation going after dinner, she agreed. She says that they had drinks at the Venetian, the hotel connected to the Palazzo, where he was staying. Ronzone, she says, kept assuring her that he would help her nonprofit and bragged about his connections to get it done. And, she says, he wasn’t shy about name-dropping or self-promoting. She says he told her he’d discovered Giannis Antetokounmpo, Yao Ming and Kristaps Porzingis. He took out his phone to show photos of him posed with Kobe Bryant. He flipped through his contacts, she says, and showed her that he had Kobe’s and Steph Curry’s cell numbers.
She says that she tried to steer the conversation back to her nonprofit and her camp. He kept assuring her that he would personally see to it that the Mavericks would be a sponsor.
Sarah estimates that it was sometime after 3 a.m. when she thanked him for a fun evening filled with basketball talk. He told her to come up to his room to pick up the Summer League tickets he promised. She says that she declined repeatedly, but he was persistent, telling her it would be easier than going to will call the next day. “He insisted on showing me his ‘massive suite,’ which ended up being a lie,” she says. “He wore me down and so I followed him upstairs.”
Presented by SI with a series of questions and allegations, Ronzone declined comment and forwarded the question to his personal lawyer, Mark Baute, perhaps best known for his successful representation of NBA player Derrick Rose in a 2018 sexual assault trial.
Via email, Baute issued a statement on behalf of his client: “Her claims are meritless, her allegations change every month, and we are unclear on how or why her husband, who was there with her, did not come by to get the tickets.” (Sarah denies this and contends that her husband has never met Ronzone and was not present, but with her parents that entire evening.) Baute concluded his statement, “If any lawsuit is ever filed, we look forward to proving Mr. Ronzone’s innocence.”
The next few days, Sarah recalls, were a blur, a blizzard of texts and phone calls. When she saw her friend Armstrong, she told him what had happened. He would tell her that if the Mavericks bosses found out, Ronzone would be fired on the spot. (SI has examined texts confirming Armstrong’s statement that Ronzone would be fired; Armstrong did not respond to SI’s multiple requests seeking comment.)
Sarah and Ronzone kept texting as well. There was a practical reason for it, she says. The afternoon after she went to his room, she couldn’t find her credit card and ID and had a vague recollection that they fell out when he tossed her on the bed. She wrote: “Did I happen to leave my credit and ID in there? I can’t find it smh.”
He responded two minutes later: “I’m not in room - got up early [and] didn’t check - I get back around 6pm I will check for you - hope they are in room.”
Later that evening she located her wallet and texted Ronzone.
He replied: “Seeeee i knew you were good to go :) I got dinner with aussies at 8:25 let’s meet up later for a great time :)”
She responded “:).”
They continued texting, sometimes at her initiation. “Honestly, I can’t say why,” she now says, “other than I still wanted the Mavericks [affiliation] for my camps. I was hoping to maintain the business relationship.”
Ronzone tried to arrange another rendezvous for that night. She ignored the invitation. The texting, all with a joking tone, resumed early the next morning. At 7:18 a.m. Ronzone wrote, “Can you come to my room.”
Finally, she says, she had to be blunt, texting, “How can I say this in a nice way? That I’m not interested in hooking up. Ur fun to be with but I’m married. I know no one will know but I would...and that’s enuf.”
His response, hours later, was short: “K”
The next day he texted, “Also you know I’m married !!”
“Glad ur married,” she wrote. “Now I can black mail u into helping me with my camps or else I go to the wife LMAO. Just kidding.”
Baute, the lawyer for Ronzone, focused on this text in his statement to SI: “On July 11, she sent a sarcastic text indicating she may try to blackmail Mr. Ronzone, but claimed it was done in jest. Her first set of lawyers fired her as a client.” (Both Sarah and her former lawyers deny that she was ever “fired” as a client.)
Baute’s statement continued, “She thereafter devoted two weeks to more text exchanges with Mr. Ronzone concerning getting shorts and t-shirts mailed … for a youth team, and at no time did she ever claim or mention anything about being groped by him, and she was not groped by him.”
Looking back, Sarah concedes that the text about blackmail was a “weird” response. She says she was mimicking the banter she and Ronzone had over text. And she was fixated on his assurances that the Mavs would help with her nonprofit. “I thought: How great would it be to have an NBA team behind my work?” she says. “But I noticed when I tried to restart the discussion, Tony had gotten vague about the Mav’s sponsorship.”
She wrote to him: “So does not hooking up mean u won’t help me with my camps?”
He replied almost instantly: “LOL!!! Will help !!”
He would add, “Send me [an] email of what you need for how many participants—with address to send and will get to you … Will do it next year.”
Sarah questioned whether she should tell her husband. She knew he would be supportive; she also knew that he would be furious at the situation. And she worried this would impact their marriage. When the Mavericks faced their #MeToo situation in 2018, Mark Cuban apologized, “to the women involved, and the women who were in a couple of cases assaulted. … Not just to them, but to their families. Because this is not just something that’s an incident and then it’s over. It stays with people and it stays with families.” Sarah says she was learning this firsthand.
Last August, Sarah went overseas to run her basketball camp, subsidized entirely with her own funds. On the long flight home, she says, she thought a lot about what had happened and how wrong it all was. She toggled from one emotion to another. “I felt like I handled it so poorly. But at the same time, I’m thinking, I’m no expert in this. I didn’t want Tony to lose his job; but why should I be the only one to suffer? I wanted to feel heard.”
Both lawyers and psychologists say this suite of emotions is normal. “After you've been … sexually assaulted, there are many women [who] do not want to think about it, don't want to know about it. And so it takes a long time to figure out how to speak about it and how to process it,” says Mariann Wang, a Manhattan-based civil rights attorney whose practice consists largely of sex abuse cases. After someone is assaulted, “You do not know how to deal with it and then you think, You know what, I'm going to control the situation. This guy took something away from me, I'm going to go back and I'm in charge now."
When Sarah replayed her own situation, she felt taken advantage of. She says: “Although I never gave in to sleep with him, I felt like a piece of meat. I wanted to move on; but if I did that, no one would be accountable and the same thing would happen to another woman.” So she decided to email Ronzone’s boss.
Thankfully, Mark Cuban’s email address is not difficult to find. She sat at her laptop, and began to write. It was Sept. 17, 2019. She framed the email by asking for the financial support from the Dallas Mavericks that she said Ronzone had promised and had never materialized. But she used the opportunity to tell Cuban about what had happened in Vegas.
Cuban did not respond directly, but clearly forwarded the email to Cynthia Wales, who, in the wake of the 2018 scandal, had been hired as the Mavs’ chief ethics and compliance officer. Within 24 hours, Wales called Sarah, asking her to recount details. According to Sarah, Wales vowed that the Mavs would “make this right” and “do the right thing.” (Wales, who is no longer with the Mavericks, did not respond to SI’s messages over several weeks seeking comment.)
Multiple lawyers unaffiliated with the Mavericks situation interviewed by SI were surprised that the team chose to investigate internally. “As a matter of best practices, it was clearly a lapse in judgment to let HR conduct the investigation of these allegations,” says Kim Susser, a New York victims’ rights lawyer who has served as an independent investigator for sexual harassment claims. “And it’s especially shocking given the team’s experience [in 2018], having paid considerably and suffered public scandal over similar allegations. … In addition to the underlying physiological effects of trauma on memory and linear thinking, who asks the question is another factor relevant to how credibility is assessed.” (Marshall defended the choice. In one of many exchanges with SI, she wrote: “The investigation was led by the Mavericks’ Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer who also led other investigations that resulted in terminations of Dallas Mavericks employees.”)
After speaking to Wales the first time, Sarah had trouble sleeping. She stayed up late that night, reading through the “Report of the Independent Investigation” of the team that resulted from the 2018 scandal. She emailed Wales at 3:30 a.m., expressing worries that people would not believe her or they’d blame her. “I don’t know if I made the right decision to come forward,” she wrote, “as I’ve seen women get shamed for it. But I’ve prayed on it a lot and I know 100% did not deserve to be treated like this. I don’t think it’s right to be sexually assaulted in exchange for his help.”
Wales contacted Sarah later that day, Sept. 19. She recalls Wales telling her that Cuban brought her in because he was trying to change the culture of the team. “She assured me that [Cuban] is a family man, would never want anyone with this type of behavior representing the team, and said that the only person who should be embarrassed by what happened is Tony.”
She says, though, that what began cordially took a turn. Wales, for instance, asked Sarah whether she could recall Ronzone’s room number at the Palazzo. Asked why that was important, Wales responded that Ronzone was claiming that Sarah was never in his room. Sarah was puzzled. She had a text from Ronzone saying he’d check his room for her credit card and ID, clearly suggesting she’d been there. She could describe the room, including the foldaway couch. She also wondered: Couldn’t the Mavericks ask for the hotel’s security footage? She even volunteered to take a polygraph test.
“When you make an allegation against a powerful institution—like an NBA team—the story is reduced to ‘your version of the truth,’ ” she says. “It’s like, anything short of video evidence is picked apart.”
On Sept. 27, Wales called to tell Sarah that the Mavericks would send shirts to her to provide to campers. Sarah was offended and declined. She wrote to Wales: “Seeing that [Ronzone] is still an official representative of the Mavericks, after knowing what he has done to me, makes me feel like I was misled into divulging personal information and forced to relive the events of that awful night, thus victimizing me all over again. Cynthia, I genuinely believe you misled and played me too. There was no reason to tell me what [Ronzone] did was inappropriate and Mark would never accept this type of behavior then do nothing.” In the same email, she also asked Wales whether the Mavs had reported the complaint to the NBA, “hoping the league would conduct a more thorough investigation.”
As a result of the 2018 investigation, the Mavericks are required to immediately report to the NBA any instances or allegations of significant misconduct by an employee. The NBA tells SI that the Mavericks did report the incident, as well as the existence of the team’s ongoing investigation, in November, and that the league remained in communication with the team about the matter.
In a series of conversations with SI, Marshall was adamant that the Mavericks handled the situation appropriately. “We take care of our business. There is a speak-up culture and we do thorough investigations. … And so, based on the available evidence, based on what was presented to us it was determined that there was not a sufficient basis to support the allegations.”
Last October, frustrated and feeling unheard, Sarah reached out to SI. She also, at the encouragement of a friend, reached out to a prominent lawyer, Lisa Bloom, she says, “to get legal help navigating going public with my story.” This, too, quickly grew complicated.
After she spoke with Bloom’s associate Vernon L. Ellicott on Oct. 8, he emailed: “You have an opportunity here to stand up for all women everywhere who have been taken advantage of by a man who uses his power to gain sexual favors.”
Ellicott and Bloom suggested Sarah try to negotiate a settlement with the Mavericks. In one email, Bloom wrote to Sarah: “The NBA has swept too many of these cases under the rug. Every woman who speaks up helps many others. Let’s talk about options and you can decide what’s best for you.”
Sarah says she agonized. “I worried that a lawsuit would make it seem like I was only interested in money,” she says. “They assured me I had a good case, that they were good at their jobs, that staying out of the media would be less messy and complicated, and I could expect a high-six-, maybe even seven-figure settlement that would help my nonprofit. They pushed me to remain publicly silent, to no longer talk to the media and instead trust them.”
Bloom told SI she takes issue with the characterization that she exerted pressure and that any dollar figure was promised. “We walked [Sarah] through her options and supported her choice as to what was best for her, which changed as the process went along. This is normal.”
Sarah signed the retainer agreement with Bloom’s firm. She made clear, however, that she was uncomfortable agreeing to a settlement that included a nondisclosure agreement forbidding her from speaking about her experience. Per the contract with Bloom’s firm, the lawyers would have received 40% of any financial outcome. On Oct. 15, Ellicott wrote to Sarah: “We won’t know the amount until the end of mediation, but we will know they are willing to pay something as soon as we set up the mediation itself. The risk/reward ratio for you is extremely high.”