- When tragedy strikes and a professional sports franchise find itself in the middle of a real-world issue, how should it respond? The Kings struggled with that very question as tensions erupted after Stephon Clark was shot and killed by Sacramento police.
SACRAMENTO — The fans came Tuesday night because they liked the Kings, or they wanted to see the new hi-tech arena, or perhaps to witness Dirk Nowitzki hit one more three before hobbling into the sunset. It certainly wasn’t for the game: Sacramento versus Dallas, two tanking teams in a meaningless late-season matchup.
The protesters? They came out of frustration and anger. A nearby City Council meeting, open to the public, had reached capacity. Inside, Stevante Clark, the brother of Stephon Clark, jumped on the table next to Sacramento mayor Darrell Steinberg, swearing, yelling, and demanding justice for his brother, who on March 18th was shot and killed by Sacramento police in his grandmother’s backyard. The police, who fired 20 times, discovered Clark carried no weapon, only a cellphone. In the days since, the city had roiled while, nationally, the incident touched off memories of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner. For six days, the protesters had grieved and raged. And now they were on the move again.
They arrived at Golden 1 Center a little after 6 p.m., a couple hundred or so strong, shouting and carrying signs. "WHERE IS THE JUSTICE?" read one. "FIRE BAD COPS" read another. The Kings locked the doors for safety reasons, just as they had the previous Thursday. In the main lobby, Kings owner Vivek Ranadive huddled with Kings COO Matina Kolokotronis and NBA VP of Basketball Ops Kiki VanDeWeghe, in town to discuss rules changes, the phone pressed to his ear. Word arrived from the league office: Play on. And so, as the crowd outside remained—men, children, women, some on megaphones, some flipping off the police, some converted Kings fans who’d joined in—the PA announcer inside addressed the smattering in the stands in surreal fashion: “I HAVE ONNNNNNNE QUESTION,” he roared. “WHO’S READY FOR SOME KINGS BASKETBALL????!?!”
This wasn’t supposed to happen, at least not twice. Last Thursday, on March 22nd, more than 1,000 protesters had locked arms around the arena after streaming through the city, shutting down I–5 at one point. The Kings had responded quickly. Closed the doors. Offered refunds to those who couldn’t get in. Invited the 2,000 inside to migrate to the best seats. Provided free food and sodas to spectators and arena staff. After the game, at the urging of Kings players and executives, Ranadive took the microphone and addressed the crowd. His delivery wasn’t particularly smooth but he seemed genuine, and his message resonated. “We stand here before you, old, young, black, white, brown, and we are all united in our commitment,” he began. Then, haltingly, he spoke about how this wasn’t business as usual, and promised to “work really hard to bring everybody together” and “prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again.”
In the following days, his words gained traction, spreading across social media. Ranadive is a billionaire but he’s also one of only two NBA owners of color (along with Michael Jordan), a man who emigrated from India with $50 in his pocket at the age of 17 to pursue a dream. His is not the familiar face of the powerful in this country, and particularly pro sports. Around the league, his actions were praised. Steve Kerr called Ranadive’s words “beautiful.”
Three nights later, the Celtics arrived, and both teams took the court wearing shirts that read “Accountability. We are One” on the front and “#StephonClark” on the other. During the game, a PSA played: Al Horford and Vince Carter and Garrett Temple and Jaylen Brown and others, grim-faced, speaking directly to the camera. “These tragedies have to stop.” “We will not stick to sports.” “There must be accountability.” Like Ranadive’s address, the PSA spread across the internet. Once again, the world saw NBA players speaking out and driving the conversation, just as they’d worn “I Can’t Breathe” shirts in 2014, and just as Kerr, Gregg Popovich, LeBron James, and others have turned media availability sessions into referendums on cultural, social, and political issues, trying to keep the conversation going, refusing to shut up and dribble. Here was the Kings’ moment to stand up and be heard. Nationally and locally, they were lauded.
But that was Sunday.
Now it was Tuesday, and the sports news cycle had moved on. The city of Sacramento, however, hadn’t.
The Player: Garrett Temple
Garrett Temple sits in a swivel chair in a coaches’ room in Golden 1 Center on Tuesday afternoon, two days after the PSA and hours before the second protest, pondering how to turn moments into meaningful change.
Temple is 31 years old. His grandfather, Collis Sr., received federal money to get his master’s degree at Michigan State after LSU, which wouldn’t integrate for decades, turned him away. His father, Collis Jr., was the first African-American basketball player at LSU. “I was raised to speak my mind,” Temple says. “So if it’s something I feel passionate about I’m going to do it.”
His career has not been glamorous. A defensive specialist and chemistry guy, he’s played all over the world: the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the Erie BayHawks, an Italian pro team, then a succession of 10-day NBA contracts. Finally, stability. Four seasons with the Wizards, followed by a multi-year deal with the Kings in 2016. Upon arriving in Sacramento, he “adopted” nearby Sacramento Charter High, providing financial support and mentoring students. He met with Daniel Hahn, the city’s first African-American police chief, to talk about building trust in a racially-fractured community. Temple liked the police chief—“I realized he was a good guy, a guy who did it the right way.” They passed out turkeys together at Thanksgiving. Continued a dialogue.
Now, Temple, who is also a VP of the NBA Player’s Association, has a new platform. He was among those who pushed Ranadive to speak after the first protest. That night, along with Doug Christie and Vince Carter, he met with community activist Barry Accuis, the leader of the protest, after the game. In a hallway, they spoke for 45 minutes, discussing tangible next steps. Then, on Sunday, Temple helped spearhead the T-shirts, and worked on the PSA. He is well aware that, had he never made an NBA roster, his opinions wouldn’t carry this kind of weight. “It’s not right, but it’s life,” he says. “It’s just the way things are. That’s one of the things I talk to kids about. Not to think their words don’t mean anything right now, because they do. But if they aren’t being listened to or the things they want to see changed aren’t changing, then use that as motivation to continue to pursue whatever you’re passionate about so you can get a to a level where people have to listen. A lawyer, a doctor, an athlete obviously. The bigger the platform, the more people listen. That’s just the way the world works.”
This past Monday, Temple met with Hahn again, hoping to get perspective. Not at the station but at the house of Temple’s chaplain. They discussed police protocol. (“Why not keep your cover if you have a gun?” asked Temple, wondering why a nonviolent arrest hadn’t been possible). Hahn explained that legal issues play in. How do you legislate when a policeman can fire? What should the punishment be for a mistake? “To be honest, the accountability factor probably won’t be this time, because you can’t retroactively judge them,” Temple says. “In this country we’ve come to realize that a lot of things that are legal are not moral.” A few hours later, Temple drove to Genesis Missionary Baptist Church, in the Meadowview neighborhood, for a previously-scheduled community event called “Huddle Up”, free for boys age 10 to 18. Upon arriving, Temple realized—coincidentally—that they were within blocks of the backyard where Clark was shot. Not only that, but the topic of the forum, decided upon weeks earlier, struck him as preordained: Anger.
Now, sitting in Golden 1, Temple has more to say. Much more. How the national conversation matters but this really starts on the local level. That if you focus too broadly you can lose sight of the goal. How if you change local laws, and perceptions, then incremental steps can add up. But what really matters, he believes, is getting at, “the implicit bias we are all guilty of,” how, “when a cop sees a black guy in a black neighborhood running away, that bias kicks in because they’re human, like all us.” So hold community events, like the town hall Temple tells me he is part of this Friday, along with Doug Christie and Vince Carter, in a low-income neighborhood (he hopes to organize another one between the police and the community in the weeks to come, for the kind of back-and-forth he had with Hahn).
Really, though, Temple says he can only do so much. He’s an itinerant professional athlete. The nature of the business is that he’s on the road much of the year, goes home during the summer, and could be traded a year from now, on to the next city. “It’s tough” he says as we stand up at the end of our conversation. “It’s a situation where the guy you’re going to speak to next has a lot to do with that. Trying to continue the conversation because of his voice, because of the platform he has, as a non-athlete, a businessman, a chairman of an NBA team.”
The Owner: Vivek Ranadive
Vivek Ranadive’s story is unique in the annals of the league. Most likely, you’re familiar with at least some of his public narratives. First, he was that obsessed tech guy in Malcolm Gladwell’s story, the one who reverse-engineered girls basketball and deduced that his seventh-grade daughter’s team could win if they applied full court pressure all game long (it worked). Then he was the savior of Sacramento, retaining the Kings, who seemed bound for Seattle, by wooing David Stern and the other owners, promising a new vision. When it came to basketball, Ranadive aimed to disrupt the game. He discussed cherry-picking as a permanent strategy, installed David Arseneault as the coach of Sacramento’s D League team, with instructions to run the “The System” offense (famous for producing Jack Taylor’s 138-point game at Grinnell). He invited fans to watch the draft process on livestream. But theory didn’t translate into results. He fired coaches and front office execs. Players groused. The team floundered, seemingly adrift. And, with the exception of this year’s draft class, which is promising, the latest narrative stuck.
Last Thursday, though, the owner showed a different side. It wasn’t the first time he’d spoken out. Ranadive condemned Donald Sterling from the start. He privately declined to participate in the Charlotte All-Star game in the wake of the state’s LGBT laws, before the league pulled the event. Before this season, he publicly supported his players if they decided to kneel for the anthem. He is, after all, the son of a man jailed for speaking out (Vivek’s father, Yeshwant, a military pilot and general secretary of the National Pilots Association in India, was arrested for grounding a plane he felt was unsafe).
Now though, sitting in a plush chair in the owner’s room, four flat screens shimmering behind him, he is hesitant to take credit, or to say anything of substance on the record. Over the course of 35 minutes, he takes great pains to praise “his folks” and “his team”, which include Kolokotronis and VP of Communications Joelle Terry, both of whom sit in on the interview and chime in at various points, speaking for Ranadive or declaring comments on or off the record. Pushed on what comes next, Ranadive says they are discussing ideas, but nothing specific is set. Asked if he sees this as an opportunity to speak out more forcefully, perhaps in the manner of Kerr and Popovich, Terry interjects to make a distinction. “They have a lot more interaction with the media,” she says.
I remind them that I am part of the media.
Perhaps it is a learned caution (Ranadive has a history of putting his foot in his mouth). Regardless, he sticks to platitudes. “We just want to do the right thing Chris,” he says when I ask about concrete actions. “So many people have helped me along the way and so many people have stood up for me and given me opportunity and given me the benefit of the doubt, so there’s kind of a feeling that if you’re in a position to help and support somebody else, that’s right and fair and just.”
It’s commendable. It’s also vague. Maybe it’s just me, the reporter, hoping and projecting, but I want details. Targeted action. But maybe that’s too much to ask. After all, Ranadive has already had an impact on the community. He said he’d renovate downtown Sacramento and has; the arena is impressive and the surrounding area, known as Downtown Commons, is vibrant. The team regularly sells out home games. Ranadive makes every new player read his mission statement, which he laminates and posts, about how the goal of the team is to “make the world a better place.” He likes to talk about the arena as a “communal fireplace,” a place where “fans can celebrate or worship the players or express their opinions.” In this case, they certainly have.
At the end of our interview, when I ask if there’s anything he’d like to add, Ranadive finally ventures off script for a moment. “I’ll say one thing and you might not want me to say it,” he says, glancing at Terry and Kolokotronis, who look dismayed. But Ranadive continues. “I come from a military family. My father fought in World War II. My son is in the military.” He pauses. “I have the highest, highest regard for those who protect us and serve, so I just don’t want to be painted as a guy who’s anti-police or anti-military, because I’m not.”
And here, the man underneath emerges. He is a conflicted father. He wants to do right by the team, and the community, and the media, and his business, but also by his family and his principles. These things are complicated.
We shake hands and part ways.
Within half an hour, the protesters arrive.
Temple is one of the first to know. Pregame, he is texting with Accuis. “They are on their way,” Accuis writes. “Operation Shutdown.”
And then: frustrated fans, locked doors, chanting. As the night unfolds, thoughts inside the arena turn to the next few days. Thursday is Clark’s funeral. Al Sharpton is scheduled to speak. What if it happens again? Will the police be ready? On Saturday, the Warriors come to town. “I felt like today was more like the stragglers,” says Doug Christie, who has become an important community voice in the past week, watching from his broadcast booth above the court. “Not organized, as I understand it. That’s when thing can go wrong.”
Outside, protesters and fans clash, arguing, and one scuffle reportedly breaks out. Some people press their faces to the glass doors. Down by the player’s entrance, a little before halftime, a youth dance team, leotard-wearing girls of 8, 9, and 10 years old, is smuggled in along with their mothers. Some of the girls are crying. So are some of the moms.
Before halftime, the Kings announce the entrance is closed for the night. Refunds again. The fans and protesters slowly disperse.
Only this time the public reaction is different. The fans on Thursday were overwhelmingly positive—offering to send ticket refunds to the Clark family, taking pride in the team (Ranadive showed me a photo of a Peet’s barista who insisted on buying his muffin and Americano the next day). Now the mood has changed. Turned darker. On the Kings’ official Twitter feed, some of the comments are nasty. Racist. Blaming the Kings for a lack of police presence, and the protesters for screwing up the game. What does this have to do with basketball, they want to know?
By Wednesday morning, Temple had watched the video of Stevante at the council meeting. He saw the tweet from an account, apparently run by the Clark family, saying the Kings aren’t the problem.
Still, Temple is okay if the protesters return Thursday or Saturday. They are not targeting the Kings. They are looking for visibility and, in a city without any other major professional teams, the Kings have become what Vivek said he wanted: a primary civic presence. “I completely understand what they’re doing and support the protests,” Temple says Wednesday afternoon by phone. His message to fans: Maybe arrive extra early if you really want to get into the game. But also realize that this is just a game, and that this issue isn’t a one-time thing, to be considered for 24 hours and then discarded. That it might disrupt lives longer than that. “Some of the reactions are like, ‘I have to think about this for a week, or a month, or a year?” Temple says. “Hey, you might have to think about this the rest of your life.”
He’s speaking not just about the fans. In the locker room before the game Tuesday, one of his teammates complained about the situation. Why were they were protesting at the game, again. Hadn’t they already done that?
Says Temple: “And another of my teammates said, ‘They’re doing it so you don’t get shot, bro! This is you out there. Your life. They’re protesting for young black men’s lives.’” Temple pauses. “As if one protest is going to solve all these problems.’
It brought to mind the scene outside Golden 1 Tuesday night. By 9:45 p.m., half an hour after the game, all was quiet outside the arena. No protesters, no fans. A lone cameraman checked his watch, waiting to shoot a segment.
By the glass doors of the main concourse, the site of so much anger hours earlier, one arena worker wielded a broom, another a mop. They were almost done; the concrete was near-spotless. No trash remained. Within a few minutes, all would be cleaned up and back to normal. Life would go on, as if nothing had happened.
And that’s where this story was going to end. On a note of relative frustration.
But then, at 9:54 p.m. Wednesday night, the team sent a press release, via email. In it, the Kings announced they were setting up an education fund for Stephon Clark’s children and partnering with Black Lives Matter to set up a multi-year partnership to promote African-American education with the Build. Black. Coalition, which formed in the wake of the protests and carries the slogan, “This is a movement, not a moment.” The goal, according to the Kings release: “To support transformational change for Black communities in Sacramento.”
It’s not noted whether this came from Ranadive or Kolokotronis or others, whether it was primarily motivated by keeping protesters from attending upcoming games or an interest in the city or, likely, a combination of the two. But does it matter? This is an NBA team making a meaningful, lasting investment in the community. And that, for now, is something.