Observing two cultural celebrations at the same time can lead to controversy, the Sacramento Kings learned this week.
On Monday night, the team hastily removed free “Year of the Monkey” T-shirts for fans from arena seats after complaints that the giveaway was racially insensitive on the first night of Black History Month.
The Lunar New Year, an Asian festival that will start on Monday in the United States, is the highlight of the Chinese calendar. Each year is based on a symbol of the Chinese horoscope, and this is the Year of the Monkey, the ninth of 12 animals in the cycle. But the team’s effort to celebrate seemed misplaced to some at the start of the annual celebration of African-American heritage.
Images of workers removing the shirts from seats at the Sleep Train arena, where the Kings were playing the Milwaukee Bucks, were published on social media.
On Facebook, former NBA All-Star Marques Johnson, a television analyst for the Bucks, described an encounter he had on Monday night with DeMarcus Cousins, the Kings’ All-Star center, who objected to the shirts: “I walk into the building, and DeMarcus Cousins calls me over to an animated discussion he’s having with Kings operations people. He ask me, ‘Olskool, what you think about this T-Shirt?’ Told him a little insensitive on 1st day of Black History Month. They pulled the shirts …”
On Monday night, players and coaches were wearing Black History Month shirts during warm-up. Cousins did not play on Monday night because of a sprained ankle.
The Kings went on to defeat the Bucks, 111-104.
The NBA has celebrated the Lunar New Year before as part of its community engagement programs. In 2015, it ushered in the Year of the Goat with activities including prizes, performances and special foods to celebrate the diversity of the league’s fan base.
This year, other teams in the league have participated in New Year events. Charlotte Hornets guard Jeremy Lin and players from other teams were featured in a television “Dining Table” spot as part of celebrations from Feb. 3-21.
The Sacramento Bee newspaper reported that the “Year of the Monkey” shirts were removed from the seats about 90 minutes before the game started. Other celebrations marking the Lunar Year went ahead as planned, including a ribbon dance by the Kings’ dancers.
“We all need a lesson in sensitivity,” the Kings’ president, Chris Granger, told The Sacramento Bee. “In an effort to celebrate Chinese New Year, we had some concerns about the T-shirt giveaway, so we pulled them all before the doors opened. Certainly we don’t want to offend anybody, and we acted as soon as we heard the concern.”