NBA players have always got abuse from fans. But is it getting worse?

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Derrick Jones Jr;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Derrick Jones Jr</a> of the <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Dallas Mavericks;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Dallas Mavericks</a> greets fans after making a three-pointer during this season’s playoffs.</span><span>Photograph: Tony Gutierrez/AP</span>

Former NBA champion Jim Chones, who won a ring with the 1980 Showtime Lakers, believes the relationship between fans and players has changed since his era. In decades past, the NBA was purely a sports league, one that provided entertainment to those in the seats or watching on television. Now, though, he says, it’s an entire “social network.”

“This fan is different,” Chones tells the Guardian. “If you’re basing what a fan is on traditional values and issues and character, you’re going to miss the whole boat.”

Today, Chones says, fans have access to just about anything they want. With smart phones, fans can stream multiple games, surf the web, gamble, chat with friends, work or even watch a movie while attending a game. With these splintered attentions, Chones believes the NBA must cater to what fans want or else risk being left behind. Yes, we’ve now hit the fan empowerment era.

“It becomes a thing of access,” says Chones, who played in the pros for 10 years. “It becomes a thing of ‘This is what I want and if you can’t provide it, I have other choices.’”

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Fans have more leverage than ever, he says. But that change isn’t always positive. While social norms have changed since the harsher (read: more racist) mid-20th century, there remains a tendency for fans to treat players more and more like objects and less like human beings. To highlight just one example, during an NBA game earlier this year, a white fan called Russell Westbrook “boy” repeatedly (it wasn’t the first time the guard had heard the slur from fans either). Of course, these stories have, sadly, long been part of a league in which most players are Black, and most fans are white. It’s happened as far back as the 1960s when Bill Russell had his bedroom smeared with feces or later when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar overheard vile and degrading remarks or when Vernon Maxwell punched a fan for talking about his wife’s miscarriage. So, access isn’t always a good thing – and social media means that fans can now pour scorn and abuse on players away from the court, 24 hours a day.

Nevertheless, the NBA is pushed to offer more of it. That’s led to all sorts of entertainment and theme nights in arenas. If you ask Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, arenas can also create an overly disruptive nightclub atmosphere, which is something Chones’ former employer, Jerry Buss, famously started in the 1980s with the Fabulous Forum and Playboy-like Forum Club. “It’s like a South Beach club out there. What are we doing?” Kerr lamented after a November game. “I couldn’t hear anything out there. It’s just the whole game, it’s just thumping techno club music. Can we just have a basketball game any more?”

Chones says he understands Kerr’s concerns, but adds, “I like Steve, but Steve is pretty narrow … The NBA is more than a basketball league. It’s a social network – it drives conversation, culture, fashion, mental health. All of that we push through the NBA. So, you’re getting a different kind of fan. It’s more than wins and losses.”

Attempts at entertainment aside, though, there are many instances when fans can feel as if they deserve too much (which is something Steve Balmer’s new hyper-game-focused Los Angeles Clippers arena is trying to combat). That’s when an ugly side of entitlement comes in.

“I think there’s some cities that can be, in the minds of some players, a little worse than others,” longtime NBA announcer Kevin Calabro says, judiciously. “I know back in the day when we had intense rivalries in Seattle, there were some cities we’d go to and certainly the fans could get the attention of some of the players. But as long as you don’t get personal, you don’t use foul language, fans should be free to enjoy themselves.”

But sometimes fans do get too personal or demand too much. “Fans have and will continue to cross the line,” says Boston Celtics legend Robert Parish. “Taking too many liberties. We as people have to realize your words and actions have consequences. [And] alcohol does not help with the discipline and behavior of the fans [either].”

While many are great on the whole, some fans have also been rabid, especially those in Boston and Los Angeles during the heated Lakers-Celtics rivalry of the 1980s. More recently, there have been events that have gone too far. While some fan encounters have been merely annoying or crude, like when these fans told Dallas star Luka Dončić to use a treadmill (and he had them kicked out), or when fans berated Suns star Kevin Durant as if he was a robot, not a human being, or when others booed him in Oklahoma City relentlessly, there are times when it gets worse. In another instance, Westbrook almost got into a fight with angry fans in Utah, saying to the hecklers, “I’ll fuck you up. You and your wife.” And just weeks ago, he got into it with a Charlotte fan who called him “Westbrick.” Chris Paul’s family was also berated by fans in the stands during a recent playoff game, leading Paul to tweet, “Wanna fine players for saying stuff to the fans but the fans can put they hands on our families….fuck that!!” And Kyrie Irving, who has had a great deal of friction with fans for his political views and his relationship to cities he’s played in over the years, famously give the double-bird salute to Boston ticket holders not long ago during a wave of “Kyrie sucks” chants.

“Kyrie and Russell’s actions were warranted,” notes Parish, “because the fans make it personal when family members are talked about negatively. We as people must behave better. But that’s wishful thinking.”

Four-time NBA All-Star Michael Ray Richardson, who suited up eight years in the league before playing nearly two decades in Europe, says fan behavior that goes too far isn’t just limited to the United States. And sometimes it’s even worse abroad.

“I remember in Europe,” Richardson says, “Greece is one of the worst places I ever played in the world. I remember us calling a timeout and someone threw a firecracker in the middle of our huddle. They were throwing pop cans. Being in Greece, it’s a mess. In the US, it’s not really like that. You can get some fans that can be really rude after they had three or four drinks, but other than that it’s not that bad.”

For Richardson, playing and coaching in hostile environments was nothing new. And he believes fans say things from the safety of the stands that they would not say face to face.

“I think when they’re calling names or when they’re using racial slurs or if they’re throwing things in the stands and all of that, that’s a little bit too much,” Richardson says. “To use racial slurs or personal things, I think that’s over the limit. Because fans can come and say one thing to you when you’re on the basketball court. But if you’re outside of the court, I guarantee they wouldn’t be saying anything like that.”

Today with betting becoming more of a priority in the game, friction between players and fans may be even more heightened than in the past. What the future of this relationship will be is anyone’s guess. But, as Chones says, fans are in the driver’s seat more than ever – even in the supremely popular NBA. Whether or not that’s a good thing, time will tell.