SACRAMENTO — Here inside Golden 1 Center on Thursday night, it looked and sounded like a normal regular season NBA game. As the Sacramento Kings prepared to host the Indiana Pacers, fans entered through the turnstiles and milled around, buying drinks and ice cream and cotton candy, and finding their way to their seats.
Outside the arena, dozens of local police officers dressed in riot gear were stationed all around the arena’s perimeter, ensuring those fans were able to get inside after protests over the fatal police shooting of Stephon Clark on March 18 had prevented the majority of fans from getting into two of the team’s previous three home games. Temporary fences created mazes to funnel ticketed fans from the street to the entrances — and to prevent non-ticketed protesters from having access to them, and with the ability to block them.
The protests of the death of Clark, meanwhile, continued just a couple of blocks away. The 22-year-old black father was shot at 20 times in his grandparents’ backyard by two officers who believed he was an armed burglary suspect. Clark had a cellphone in his hands, which was mistaken for a gun, and footage of the shooting has sparked protests not just in Sacramento, but around the country.
All of it made for an odd juxtaposition — the reality of a city still coming to grips with Clark’s death, and the convenient distraction of a basketball game to, at least temporarily, allow the 11,360 in attendance Thursday night to think about something else for a couple of hours.
“It’s been a hectic week for everybody,” Kings Guard Garrett Temple said after the Kings lost, 106-103, to the Pacers. “People have been looking in the stands and just trying to see if their family made it in, did my wife and kids make it in … that’s stressful.
“At the end of the day, [for] our family and friends, safety is first and foremost. It was good we were able to get back to normal, not have to worry about if our people got into the game or not.”
It may not have exactly been a typical way for people to get into the game, but they were able to. That was a change from the games on March 22 against the Atlanta Hawks, when only 2,500 people got in, and Tuesday against the Dallas Mavericks, which about 4,000 people attended.
“The route into the venue was much more secure and circuitous than it usually is,” said Josh Dennis, a fan from Sacramento who made the trip in. “It was real difficult getting down here on the light rail.”
He was attending the game with another fan, Carlos Trejo, who was one of the fans who tried to attend the Atlanta game — only to be kept from getting inside by the protesters blocking the doors.
While he said the frustration of missing the game had been mitigated by getting a refund of his tickets, it still made for a strange experience.
“It was tough getting down here, but everyone’s been chill since we got here,” he said.
“It’s been more annoying than anything else. But I get it. I get it.”
Another fan, A.J. Banks, had been one of the fortunate few to make it into Tuesday’s game against Dallas. Originally seated in the upper deck, Banks was allowed to move down to the lower bowl, where he was eventually seated just 10 rows from the court.
He said it was a strange feeling being in an arena where it was so quiet, the ball could be heard bouncing off the rim, and sneakers could be heard squeaking on the court.
“It was really weird. You could walk around and see nobody here inside at the concession stands or anything like that.”
Thursday’s game came a few hours after Clark’s funeral, which also was held in the city. The service was paid for, in part, by longtime NBA veteran Matt Barnes, a Sacramento native, who attended and told reporters that, as the father of two boys, he felt the need to get involved.
“I’ve been talking to the family since it happened, just trying to get an understanding of what’s going on, and their grief and their pain,” Barnes said. “I chose to step in to try to eliminate any financial burdens, because they’re already going through enough.
“This is where I grew up. This is where I kind of got my name at, and it’s something where I wanted to come and try to make a difference.”
As an organization, the Kings have tried to do the same. After the initial game March 22 in which protesters locked arms and barred fans from attending, team owner Vivek Ranadive stepped to center court after a Kings victory, took the microphone and said he recognized and respected the ability of people to peacefully protest in the manner they had that night, and that the organization was committed to doing something about it.
Thursday, the Kings followed through on that promise, announcing they had created an education fund for Clark’s children.
“This fund cannot fix the issues that led to the death of their father,” the team said in a statement, “but it will secure opportunities for their futures while the family and the city grapples with healing.”
The combination of creating the educational fund and partnering with local organizations — the Build. Black. Coalition and Black Lives Matter Sacramento — sent a message to Temple, among others, that Ranadive and the rest of the organization were willing to follow through on his pledge.
“To see the Kings step up, as an organization, and start backing different organizations, local organizations, that was a big deal,” Temple said. “[It] showed what Vivek said after the game wasn’t just talk.
“He really wants to step in and help the community.”
But change will not come overnight, and the raw emotions that have been unleashed by Clark’s death will not dissipate quickly, either. Several blocks from the arena, the intersection of 8th and J streets was overwhelmed by protesters, stopping traffic in all directions as they chanted and held signs to protest Clark’s death.
“The goal is to have people actually care,” said Adam Joseph, a protester who recently moved to Sacramento from Oakland. “If you stop business as usual, you have people asking, ‘Why are they doing this?’ If you have people asking the question, ‘Why are they blocking traffic? Why are they actually stopping business as usual?’ It’s because of the ongoing police murder under the color of law.
“The only reason people are seeing this now is because of body cameras and the immediately asked give me the evidence, give me camera footage.
“I think this can actually change policy.”
A “pro-police” rally that had been scheduled to take place at the arena before Thursday’s game and had been promoted in a news release earlier in the day never materialized, with multiple police officers on the scene saying they had heard nothing about a planned counterprotest.
Meanwhile, the Kings are trying to expand the conversation. Along with announcing the creation of the scholarship fund, the franchise also said Temple, Vince Carter and longtime Kings player and current television analyst Doug Christie were going to take part in a forum with local youth at a local church Friday night.
All three men spoke of the importance of being able to take part in the event, and to give people an outlet to voice their frustrations and ask the questions they hope to get answers to.
“It’s just us doing our part,” Carter said. “It’s a touchy, sensitive subject. But it’s something that needs to be done. A healthy conversation needs to happen. We just need to educate ourselves, on both sides of the fence. Whatever side of the fence you’re on, whether you’re neutral, it’s a conversation that needs to happen.
“It’s one of those when we sit here and say, ‘Where do we go from here?’ That’s what the conversation is. You figure out where do we go from here. Because if you don’t, we all sit here in our feelings, and you never get anything accomplished.
“Not that it doesn’t happen everywhere else around the world, but this is us doing our part in the moment right now, and I’m glad they allowed me to do so.”
Those conversations are only just beginning here, and it’s hard to see them stopping anytime soon.
But Christie hopes that by beginning that dialogue — both on a personal level, as well as a larger one thanks to the work of the franchise — that it can help the healing process begin for a community that remains fractured more than a week after Clark’s death.
“Absolutely,” Christie said. “The first thing is always conversation and communication. That, in and of itself, is taking place right now.
“That will hopefully lead to a bigger forum where law enforcement and everybody is involved, and just the ability to have those conversations, to understand what one side is feeling, what another side is feeling.
“Is it going to fix everything? No, probably not. But the first step in that is the ability to communicate, and that’s happening. Me personally, that’s what I’m excited and proud for, so we can continue to have those tough conversations.”