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The NBA’s progressive status is being put to the test

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Brian Fleuratin takes a look at the protest surrounding Stephon Clark ... and the NBA’s reaction do it, both in Sacramento, where the killing took place ... and Golden State, where Steve Kerr was put on the line about it.

Hundreds Attend Sacramento City Council Meeting On Death Of Stephon Clark Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

On Sunday March 18, the Sacramento Police received a 911 call about a break-in occurring in the backyard of a local home. It was there they encountered a 22-year-old man named Stephon Clark.

After a one-minute encounter, the officers shot at Clark 20 times, seven of them hitting him in the back. Clark died shortly thereafter. In the aftermath of the shooting, the police informed the public that Clark was in possession of a gun at the time of the shooting. They later clarified and said he had a tool bar on him. Finally, we came to learn that Clark only had a cell phone on him when he was killed. Clark is survived by two young sons and a fianceé.

The fallout from the shooting has been swift and severe. Clark's death was another part of a trend of police killing people across the country, usually without consequences (in Houston, a 34-year-old man named Danny Ray Thomas was shot and killed by the police a few days after Clark's death. Like Clark, Thomas was unarmed.) The police have opened an investigation into the shooting and have placed the two officers on leave. The community reaction has been even stronger and leads us to the next part of the story.

On Thursday evening, the Sacramento Kings hosted the Atlanta Hawks. Throughout the day, members of the community protested throughout town. They went to City Hall, slowed down (and briefly shut down) traffic on the Interstate freeway, and later at Golden 1 Center, home of the Kings. Protesters rallied in front of the arena and delayed the start of the game as fans were unable to enter. When asked why he was protesting and why he was protesting at the Kings arena, local resident Adam Joseph had this to say:

The protesters succeeded in stopping “business as usual” and the Kings decided to refund the tickets of the fans who were unable to get in. After the Kings won, team owner Vivek Randadive addressed the crowd as well as the larger Sacramento community...

Prior to the Kings' next game, they and the Boston Celtics released a PSA that addressed the shooting and what they planned to do going forward:

There's a lot to take in here. Usually, when teams discuss matters of race and justice, they focus primarily on unity and speak in generalities so as not to offend parts of the paying public and fans across the league.

Think back to what Michael Jordan wrote about the discriminatory HB2 for ESPN’s The Undefeated two years ago. Jordan received a lot of praise for speaking out (including from me), but his message didn't really delve into specifics. Jordan's message ultimately was non-polarizing and sought to appeal to everybody. It looked as if Randadive would follow in that same track, but the Kings have gone about things quite differently. After the first protests, Randadive met with the organizer of the protest, Barry Accius, and the two had a productive conversation about what was going on and what Randadive could do to help out. Here’s how Accius described the meeting:

The Kings helped out, and then some. On Thursday, they announced a new partnership with the Build. Black. Coalition. and the Sacramento chapter of Black Lives Matter. The partnership will involve the Kings creating a college fund for both of Stephon Clark's kids as well investing in the education and economic development of young Black people in Sacramento. The move has earned praise from leaders in the city and as time goes on, we’ll see how it takes shape.

After reading that news, I thought back to the summer of 2016. That summer, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Paul opened the ESPYs challenging themselves and their fellow athletes to speak up and do more in the community. Later that summer, Milwaukee Bucks president Peter Feigin made news when he called Milwaukee the most racist, segregated place he’s ever lived in, although he later walked that back. What the Kings did is similar to what happened in 2016 as they’ve helped shine a light on an important issue related to race and justice. Where the approaches differ is that the Kings have put in place a plan that is actionable and specific to the goals they are setting out to accomplish while the other two instances just set the table for future discussion.

As the Kings acknowledged, their plan can't fix all the problems that led to the police killing Clark, but their partnership with Black Lives Matter can help make progress in that direction. Across their various chapters in the United States, Black Lives Matter has consistently called for police reform and, more importantly, accountability. Through the use of a variety of approaches, they’ve applied pressure to elected officials, law enforcement, and businesses as they’ve fought to create a more equal society. It’s caused them to be deeply unpopular among a large portion of the country, but that’s not a new phenomenon when you challenge racism in the US.

The Kings can't do what Black Lives Matter does, but with their platform, privileges, and resources, they can help shine a light on what they do and connect them to leaders in certain circles that can go about making things better for the community. Sometimes you gotta take the direct approach instead of hoping police town halls and ride along’s will fix the problem of police killing Black people.

The NBA has prided itself on its willingness to discuss matters of race and society. Players (past and present) and coaches have used their platforms to talk about and organize people on issues that are important to them. The league has earned praise from practically every corner of the Internet and they approach these issues in a far different manner than the NFL and MLB. Even with that, there’s still room for them to be challenged ... and they have been.

SB Nation’s Tyler Ricky Tynes was in Sacramento covering the rally Matt Barnes was holding for Stephon Clark nearby, and had this exchange with Warriors coach Steve Kerr prior to the Warriors-Kings game:

Here's a video of their interaction as well:

While confrontational, I didn’t think the question was out of bounds. It's always OK to ask allies about what they've done and whether it's possible that they can do more. We know Kerr and the Warriors track record is solid on this front, and they're comfortable explaining themselves when challenged. I think we sometimes get overly defensive when supporters of a cause face confrontational questions from the groups they're advocating for. Although those questions can put us on the defensive and cause us to become a bit uncomfortable, that challenge only works to help as we become more informed as to what's going on and how we can help.

Over the past couple of years, the NBA has positioned themselves as contributors in discussions about race and justice in the United States, in part an outgrowth of how African-Americans dominate the game. They've used their platforms to talk about how racism is hurting America and what we need to do to combat that. Situations like the killing of Stephon Clark at the hands of Sacramento police officers demand more action and so far, the Sacramento Kings have stepped up.

When a similar situation like this happens again in the future, we'll see if other teams follow what the Kings have done. They've taken on the mantle of being the most progressive sports league, and they'll have to continue living up to that lofty standard.