The NBA could barely bask in its slow return to normalcy, hardly get its feet into a non-bubble postseason before fans in three cities treated players to a full serving of disrespect.
Ugly incidents Wednesday in Philadelphia, New York and Salt Lake City did nothing to foster appreciation between the players and fans, only reminding players why they often resented the paying customers to begin with.
Fans being allowed back into NBA arenas added some soul to a game that relies on the entire atmosphere being electric, creating a shared experience for 15,000 people and a wistful one for those viewing — the better the show, the more the game feels like an event you don’t want to miss.
That element had been missing, arenas being as sterile as they were sterilized for safety in the wake of playing a season in the midst of COVID-19. It’s a huge reason why last summer in Orlando didn’t feel as authentic, and these few weeks were supposed to feel like the honeymoon period.
NBA players openly talked about how they missed the fans, the extra chills and added intensity. The TV networks certainly did, considering how the announcers make note of the new circumstances as if they’re contractually obligated.
And it’s hard to deny the games haven’t been better with the added heat, as the crowds are a critical component of the sport, similar to the referees or the familiar sounds of a longtime play-by-play voice.
But while most paying fans know how to conduct themselves like adults who have respect for the athletes in front of them or their families nearby, the few outliers taint the image of the whole.
Russell Westbrook — a fine citizen by all accounts — has repeatedly caught abuse in the last few years, most recently getting popcorn dumped on him by a fan as he limped to the locker room in Philadelphia, a true addition of insult to injury.
He’s had incidents in Denver and Utah, where he’s seemingly minding his own business and fans feel entitled to cross the line.
Fans in Utah were harassing the parents of Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant, leading to the ejection of three people Wednesday night.
Even in the course of high-stakes competition, this was supposed to be a communal gathering, a respite from a year of global misery caused by none but dealt with by all. We were all supposed to embrace in this slow crawl to a new normal, but perhaps this resentment is just something that has to be added into the equation moving forward.
This isn’t the case of the coddled, NBA players being sensitive, being unable to take a little heckling from opposing fans during the playoffs. It’s gone to the land of assault, and although the fans have been identified and suspended “indefinitely,” they should be suspended for life.
It’s hard to negotiate the visual of white fans going after Black players, unprompted and seemingly doing so under the shroud of privilege and entitlement. Westbrook may be a lot of things, but he’s spot on when he says nobody would do that to him in the streets, where the penalty for such disrespect would be hands — and not in a biblical way.
“To be completely honest, man, this s*** is getting out of hand,” Westbrook said. “Especially for me, the amount of disrespect, the amount of fans just doing whatever the f*** they want to do. In any other setting, I’m all for fans enjoying the game. It’s part of sports; I get it. But there are some things that cross the line. In any other setting, I know for a fact that fans … wouldn’t come up, a guy wouldn’t come up on the street and pour popcorn on my head. Because we’d know what happen."
Of course, being an athlete means signing a pact with the intimacy of the game, especially NBA players. The courtside seats are expensive and part of the appeal of being a fan relative to the other professional sports.
Being a little blind and a little deaf should come with the territory within reason. Most fans are respectful and most players can appreciate a little banter, a little trash talking. It’s part of the game, but it’s also a job — and we can’t forget that when expecting them to routinely check their emotions at the metal detector yet empty their emotional and athletic tank at the same time.
We all know what would happen if players channel their inner Ron Artest circa 2004, take umbrage to the disrespect and create an incident that reverberated around the world. In fact, someone like Westbrook would take 30 seconds in a steel cage with one of these brave fans, WWE-style, and have them in a figure-four leglock before the bell rings.
Due to that volatile relationship, all sides must behave and the fans have been the ones dragging on their end of the bargain. Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving took flack openly hoping the Boston Celtics fans do not code their displeasure with racism this weekend, given the city’s sensitive history with race and the franchise’s history with Black players.
“I mean, it’s not my first time being an opponent in Boston, so I’m just looking forward to competing with my teammates and hopefully we can just keep it strictly basketball, there’s no belligerence or any racism going on, subtle racism and people yelling s*** from the crowd,” Irving said.
And even if one can question his motives or sincerity, the events of the last few days means all eyes will be on Boston this weekend to make sure the fans stay above board. Irving is an easy target to poke fun at, and so is Boston as a city and sports town.
Irving will be the target of a hostile and scorned Celtics fan base, still burned over Irving leaving their parquet floors for the ones in Brooklyn — and it’s their right. The passion is what fuels interest in the NBA, so the league office has to lean into that as opposed to deterring or chastising the viewing public.
It’s much easier to hold the players to a higher standard than the thousands who make their way through the turnstiles, especially as the league is trying to re-establish its relationship and recoup lost revenue from empty seats in the pandemic.
The NBA assumes its fans are happy to be back, and they very may well be. But they cannot assume good behavior or factor in a few bad apples as something acceptable.
No one can say they didn’t know better, or that their behavior should be worthy of redemption. There’s only one solution because it’s clear some fans can’t be trusted.
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