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Stuart Leavenworth: Kings dodged astrological disaster by pulling T-shirts

The Kings hastily removed ‘Year of the Monkey’ T-shirts for fans after concerns that they were racially insensitive on the first night of Black History Month.
The Kings hastily removed ‘Year of the Monkey’ T-shirts for fans after concerns that they were racially insensitive on the first night of Black History Month. hamezcua@sacbee.com

It was only fitting that the Year of the Monkey threw a wrench into what the Sacramento Kings originally hoped would be a stroke of marketing genius.

Just before their game Monday, the Kings pulled hundreds of T-shirts from seats at Sleep Train Arena after DeMarcus Cousins noted the bad timing of the souvenirs. The black shirts had monkeys on them, and Monday was the first day of Black History Month.

“Ganga!” would be the appropriate response in Chinese. That means awkward or embarrassing.

The Kings quickly pulled the shirts, concerned that African American fans wouldn’t understand they were meant to commemorate the start of Chinese New Year next Monday. While that was smart, I am not sure the team’s management has fully grasped the astrological consequences of taking risks during the Year of the Monkey.

According to the Chinese zodiac, people born in this year are known to be clever and sometimes mischievous. Yet sometimes their best intentions are mistaken for something offensive.

To make things worse, 2016 is not just the Year of the Monkey, it is the Year of the Fire Monkey – not seen since 1956. According to H.E. Tsem Rinpoche, a Buddhist monk, the Fire Monkey is the most active and aggressive of the monkey years.

The Fire Monkey, he says, “needs to think through his ideas before acting on them in order to safeguard his own interests.”

Clearly, Kings management had good intentions – at least from a marketing standpoint. California is home to more than 1.1 million Chinese Americans, and for many of them, the Lunar New Year is a crucial ritual for remembering ancestors and sharing time with family.

And the Kings are also trying to reach fans in China. Twice in 2014, the team played exhibitions in China, part of an NBA push to expand its popularity in a market of 1.35 billion people. Many games are shown on Chinese television, and undoubtedly the Kings relished the thought of Chinese fans viewing Sacramento fans wearing the T-shirts.

Yet timing is everything on Madison Avenue, and the Kings were fortunate that Cousins – not always known for his nuance – saw the potential insensitivity. By alerting management, he may have saved the team from being perceived as the next Howard Cosell, the late sports broadcaster who finally was called out in the early 1980s about referring to black athletes as “little monkeys.”

There is little comparison between Cosell’s careless mouth and what the Kings did. The T-shirt giveaway was more akin to the recent woes of Indian car company, Tata Motors. Tata recently realized that it is probably not a good idea to launch a new car named the Zica. (Sounds like “Zika,” as in scary virus.)

Kings President Chris Granger could have danced around the T-shirt controversy, thereby giving it a longer shelf life. Wisely, he did not.

“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,” he told The Bee’s Jason Jones. “Certainly we don’t want to offend anybody, and we acted as soon as we heard the concern.”

The only unanswered question is whether the Kings will ever hand out those Year of the Monkey shirts. Or will they end up in the dustbin of history – the dumpsters of Sleep Train Arena?

Either way, the episode should be a wake-up call for 2017, which, as it turns out, is the Year of the Rooster.

Stuart Leavenworth, The Bee’s former editorial page editor, spent the last two years as McClatchy’s bureau chief in China. He can be contacted at sleavenworth@mcclatchydc.com.

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