The NBA could be on the doorstep of catastrophe, a repeat of the public-relations disaster from 15 years ago, when the invisible line between fans and athletes was crossed during a massive brawl at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook got into a heated confrontation with two Utah Jazz fans Monday night while Westbrook was on the bench. Westbrook says he was told by the fan to “get on his knees like he’s used to.” Westbrook replied in kind, telling the fan, “I’ll [expletive] you up, you and your wife,” later explaining to the media that both fans issued verbal assaults that caused him to reply.
In February in Denver, Westbrook was hit by a young fan while on the sideline, and Westbrook then lectured the boy, telling him he shouldn’t touch people he doesn’t know.
It’s easy to focus on Westbrook because he’s perceived as volatile, and by making a statement about a fan’s wife, the lens has turned from what should be the topic and how close we may be to another disaster.
For all the things Westbrook is on the floor, one thing he doesn’t appear to be is a liar.
The fan, while feigning ignorance after the game, was found to have multiple tweets insulting Westbrook that date back to the Thunder-Jazz playoff series last spring. Apparently he decided to take it a step further Monday night, and it resulted in a lifetime ban from the Utah Jazz.
But that ban is a Band-Aid on the growing tensions between fan and athlete, illustrating how close we truly are to a confrontation that could rival the “Malice at the Palace” — the brawl that took place during an Indiana Pacers-Detroit Pistons game on Nov. 19, 2004.
Heckling happens, and professionals are usually astute enough to tell the difference between the usual comments fans make and the ones fans wouldn’t dare say to a 6-foot-5 stranger on the street.
So much has appeared to change from that Friday night in November when a cup hit Indiana Pacers star Ron Artest — now known as Metta World Peace — resulting in Artest sprinting behind the scorer’s table to confront the fan before all hell broke loose.
Then-commissioner David Stern came down with a heavy hand, issuing suspensions and fines the league hasn’t seen since, and a dress code eventually followed in an attempt to change perceptions about the players.
Regardless of the undertones and backlash from the incident, the league’s efforts to repair its image worked, and there are now likable players whose Q ratings are at all-time highs.
Even one-time instigator Stephen Jackson, who ran into the stands that night, once diffused a situation with an unruly fan with humor during a stoppage at Auburn Hills several years later.
Jackson realized what he had to lose wasn’t worth it and he took the high road, which Utah Jazz players did in the aftermath of the Westbrook incident.
Second-year star Donovan Mitchell issued a thoughtful statement to several media outlets Tuesday, playing peacemaker while admitting, “This is not the first time something like this has happened in our arena.”
In arenas, security has been beefed up, which has made it difficult for working media and wandering fans to get around certain parts of the building. But there have been instances in which well-meaning fans — along with a few goofballs — have trespassed into the players’ domain.
Are we sure the next fan who wants to become a social-media phenomenon won’t cross the line and provoke a physical confrontation? And if so, will a player feel threatened and act first, just to protect himself?
It seems far-fetched, when one reasonably considers Salt Lake City as one of the more hostile environments for visitors, and Westbrook as an easy antagonist for his play and his mouth. And considering what happened 15 years ago, Artest’s season-long suspension should serve as a deterrent to any player.
But consider this: Commissioner Adam Silver has talked about today’s players being more “unhappy” than ever, and although he doesn’t have to experience it himself, players’ Instagram comment sections are often toxic and their Twitter mentions are breeding grounds for the worst type of hate, both anonymous and unmasked.
“I think it’s reflective of where we are as a country,” a high-ranking front-office member told Yahoo Sports. “Those fans are what they’re gonna be. Back in our day, we could let it roll off. Today’s players, they aren’t taking this [expletive] anymore.”
The NBA has always had to balance the fact that the majority of its ticket-paying customers are white, while its players are overwhelmingly black. Escalating salaries, a 24-hour news cycle and social media have created a gulf between the players and the public, all while bringing the two sides in a much more intimate space than ever before.
Common fans know the names of players’ wives’ and what their children look like. Westbrook made mention multiple times about “protecting his family,” along with the racial element he felt from the fan.
Mitchell, in his statement, referenced racism and hate speech while hinting at the negative reputation Utah has among fellow players, which gives Westbrook’s claims more credence.
Kevin Durant, arguably the game’s best player, comes across as surly from the daily reaction he gets on social media and even created a dummy account in order to “fight back.”
We didn’t know how close we were to things breaking down 15 years ago. The “Malice at the Palace” seemingly came out of nowhere, the ultimate anomaly.
But the recent events feel like a warning shot more than a close call.
The NBA, by sheer proximity, offers the best fan experience of the four major sports. The players don’t wear helmets or equipment to shield their faces from the fans. And oftentimes, paying the price of admission gives one a front-row seat at human emotion at its rawest form: When competition meets concentration and stakes, a fan can witness unparalleled brilliance, inspiration or even history.
But the price of admission doesn’t allow participation from the customers, and the league must do a better job of defining the line that isn’t to be crossed — no matter how much the ticket is.
In recent years the NBA and its teams have done more to maximize its greatest advantage at a live event, adding more expensive seats on the floor to allow high-paying customers to get closer to the action. For all the revenue it adds, it also presents a risk of situations in which fans feel emboldened by the communal aspect and feel protected by the perceived boundaries and 20,000 allies all aboard for the same goal.
The usually forward-thinking NBA has a chance to get in front of this and not ignore what appears to be obvious to the naked eye. It needs to prevent the next “Malice at the Palace” before it even has a chance to begin.
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