On March 22, the Sacramento Kings had an option: ignore the reality outside their arena, or speak up.
Local activists had taken their anti-police brutality demonstration to Golden 1 Center in response to the death of Stephon Clark. Clark, 22, was shot to death by Sacramento police officers in his grandparents’ backyard four days prior. The two officers, responding to a vandalism complaint, pursued Clark onto the property. Mistaking his cell phone for a gun, they shot at Clark 20 times before giving him the opportunity to put up his hands. Further, the officers waited to call medical personnel and subsequently muted their body cameras. The story spread rapidly, aided by the quickly-released body cam footage.
Peaceful protesters took to the streets, chanting inside of Sacramento City Hall, shutting down Interstate 5, and landing at Golden 1 Center on the night of a Kings home game versus the Atlanta Hawks. Blocking arena entrances, the demonstration pressured law enforcement to lock the doors out of an abundance of caution. As a result, only about 2,000 fans were present for the game, which was delayed; after the game, attendees were addressed by Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé:
Instead of condemning the protests outside, Ranadivé made an earnest declaration: “we’re gonna work really hard to prevent this kind of a tragedy from happening again.” Ranadivé and the Kings decided to utilize their “big platform” to call attention to police violence and indicated that they were prepared to get to work with the Sacramento community in order to evoke change. Whether or not Ranadivé would truly make a commitment remained unclear that night–could it have just been lip service?
No empty promises here. The Kings players kept the discussion flowing while the organization around them facilitated their cause. On the Sunday following Ranadivé’s unprecedented pledge, the Kings and the visiting Celtics warmed up in t-shirts which demanded accountability for Stephon Clark’s murder. The powerful off-court alliance between the teams led to a public service announcement aired during the game:
It’s bigger than basketball. Al Horford makes it plain: “There must be accountability.” In the 30-second clip, players including Zach Randolph, Marcus Morris, Jaylen Brown, and Buddy Hield implore the necessity of change and reference the inevitable discomfort of it. The featured players span a 22-year age range, represent three continents, and agree on one thing: there is an epidemic, and silence is not an option.
On March 29, it was announced that the Sacramento Kings would engage in a multi-year partnership with the local Black Lives Matter chapter and the Build. Black. collaborative initiative. In this revolutionary move, the Kings have made a commitment to transformational change in specifically black communities. Instead of softly preaching unity, the Kings are unabashedly recognizing the very particular issues afflicting Sacramento’s black population.
Build. Black. is a coalition with focalized ambition: investing in and uplifting Sacramento’s black youth. With Build. Black. as a guide, the Kings will be advocating for health equity and access, justice and police reform in black communities, and investment in black neighborhoods and businesses. The Kings will be supporting education, workforce preparation, and economic development alongside the coalition of youth advocates, faith leaders, non-profits, and police accountability experts among other community leaders–all in the interests of black youth, their families, and the greater Sacramento community.
This is an extraordinary moment. By also joining forces with Black Lives Matter–a decentralized, grassroots liberation movement often demonized as a terroristic, extremist organization–the Kings are peeling away layers of general resistance to the mission of the campaign. By publicly endorsing Black Lives Matter, the Kings have turned a page; the NBA’s support of the efforts in Sacramento will only further legitimize the relationship.
On March 30, Garett Temple, Vince Carter, and Kings legend Doug Christie held a panel at “Kings & Queens Rise: A Youth Voice Forum for Healing,” organized by Build. Black. at the South Sacramento Christian Center. Temple, Carter, and Christie explored the essentials of listening, healing, and communication in order to create what Christie calls a “blueprint.” They are making plans for the transformative change they will be working to evoke in Sacramento and the country at large, and the first step is communication; Christie emphasizes that if we don’t want to stagnate in our commitment to supporting each other, we must communicate.
Following the panel, Temple described the “amazing” forum as “part of the change that we’re gonna create.” Carter maintained, “we’re here because we want to [be], not because we’re looking for any media coverage.” Press coverage will be crucial for spreading the word, but this is no vanity mission for the Kings. They’re all in.
This collision of social justice reform with the NBA has been a crucial moment for Kings players, past, present, and future.
On March 23, news broke that former Kings All-Star DeMarcus Cousins had reached out to Stephon Clark’s family, hopeful to field their funeral expenses. The remarkably generous Cousins devoted time, energy, mentorship, and millions of dollars to Sacramento during his six and a half seasons playing there; he continues to care for and be a resource to Sacramento youth despite being traded from the Kings to the New Orleans Pelicans. In 2015, Cousins paid for the funeral of local high school football player Jaulon Clavo.
Harry Giles, a 19-year-old Kings rookie, told the Sacramento Bee‘s Jason Jones that just a year and a half ago, he wouldn’t have expected himself to “be talking about stuff like this.” He points to Sacramento’s response to Stephon Clark’s death as part of his growth, acknowledging that he’s a teenager with a substantially different platform from a 19-year-old college sophomore. Giles is “still trying to learn … still trying to find a way to get more comfortable to talk about” topics like police brutality and systemic oppression while on the slippery slope of being an athlete in the public eye. He is lucky to be surrounded by veterans like Temple, who has emerged as the Kings’ figurehead in their effort to collaborate with the community, and Carter, who is more than twice Giles’s age.
Matt Barnes, Sacramento native and former King, is heavily invested in the aftermath of the Stephon Clark shooting. The newly retired NBA champion responded immediately to the disgraceful police killing in his hometown. Barnes was distraught, worried for his twin boys’ futures–but he mobilized. Making good use of his celebrity, Barnes turned to the media, and ultimately organized a rally in Stephon’s name. Barnes, who won his first NBA title in 2017 with the Golden State Warriors, scheduled his March for Action for March 31, the afternoon before the Kings would host the Warriors.
While Barnes was hopeful that members of the Kings organization and his former Warriors teammates would join him, only Temple made an appearance. It’s well-documented that the Warriors and coach Steve Kerr are unafraid and unapologetic when it comes to speaking on social and political issues (they were uninvited to a White House they didn’t plan to attend anyway, and chose to celebrate their championship by treating local D.C. kids to a trip to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture), so it was surprising that the Warriors did not take advantage of the opportunity. Sacramento is just 80 miles up the road from Oracle Arena, where the Warriors play; this is their community too. When asked about the choice to not attend, Kerr explained that while he is supportive of protests and had given his players the choice to attend, he feels “comfortable” enough with what he and his team have done in the past. Kevin Durant, in turn, said that while he and his teammates supported Barnes and the Clark family, the team had “a job to do.”
Barnes announced a commitment to funding the education and futures of Aiden and Cairo Clark, Stephon’s two young sons left fatherless. Acknowledging that “this is not a Sacramento problem” and in truth is a national epidemic in all black communities, Barnes expressed his plan to do as much as he possibly can in order to be a voice and vehicle of change.
Today, Sacramento is a hotbed of activism. The support of an NBA team is a tremendous development. Vivek Ranadivé and his organization won’t be sitting idly by, and hopefully, they can influence the league at large. The Kings have set an example: making explicit commitments to social justice reform is no small thing, but most crucially no bad thing. Facilitating growth and advocating for the well-being of the communities around NBA arenas is vastly more important than what happens on the hardwood.
On April 4, an unarmed, allegedly mentally ill black man was shot to death by police officers in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Saheed Vassell was holding what appeared to be a gun but was actually a pipe. Vassell, well known in the community, did not pose any legitimate danger when he was shot 10 times. Residents have begun protesting the unjust killing of their neighbor. Will the Brooklyn Nets take from what they’ve learned from the Sacramento Kings and respond?