Behavior of Raptors fans casts shadow over NBA Finals

TORONTO — Earlier this season, I had a chance to call up DeMarcus Cousins for a one-on-one interview. One of the questions I wanted to ask him was about a Boston Celtics fan who was banned for two seasons after he called Cousins the n-word. I asked him whether players talk to each other about these experiences and if it casts an overall impression on any particular NBA city.

“Not at all,” Cousins said. “I don’t label an entire city or an entire fanbase because of a few bad apples. The individual was ignorant. It is what it is.” My exchange with Cousins was the first thing I thought of when Kevin Durant went down with an injury in the second quarter of Game 5 Monday and fans inside Scotiabank Arena erupted with cheers.

Aside from a courtside fan who was caught on the television broadcast taunting Durant while he was on the ground by waving goodbye to him, it is hard to quantify exactly how much of the cheering was because the Raptors got a fast break off a turnover, and the general basketball chaos that was breaking out on the court, and how much of it was because Durant was down. But if Kyle Lowry, Danny Green and Serge Ibaka were telling the fans to quiet down, then there was enough cheers in the crowd that made them uncomfortable. Even if it’s just a few bad apples, the Raptors fanbase can’t have it both ways. If Warriors minority investor Mark Stevens shoving Lowry from his courtside seat was disrespectful and idiotic, fans cheering a player being injured is equally idiotic.

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The most disappointing part is that so much of this magical playoff run by the Raptors has centered around their terrific fanbase. We’ve celebrated Jurassic Park watch parties that have sprung out all across Canada and into the United States. We are in awe of fans who show up several days before a Raptors game just to be at the front of the line for these watch parties. Masai Ujiri even showed up to thank those fans the evening before Game 5. The bad apples ruin it for everyone else. It’s hard to see those crowd shots of well-behaved Raptors fans cheering and not think about the terrible taste the cheering of Durant’s injury left in a lot of people’s mouths on Monday. It’s hard to read headlines about Canadian fans celebrating without a single arrest made and then go on social media and see a Warriors fan getting sucker punched after the game.

Jimmy Kimmel might want you to think all Canadian fans are all kind people incapable of trash talking an opponent, but we all know that is not true. Not in Toronto, nor anywhere else. Ultimately, the sports arena is just another social setting. It doesn’t represent some idealistic viewpoint of the best of society. There are truly fans who are there because they’re passionate about sports. There are also people who are there to be seen. And within those groups are people without the decency to show any decorum, who will yell out the most ridiculous things at players, even cheering an injury because they’re suited up for the other team. Anyone who has ever attended a sporting event has been caught sitting in a nightmare section where grown ups are swearing and being inappropriate, often in front of children. There are people who could care less how they act in public.

It does bring me to another point which does feel secondary: if you’re going to report the despicable fan behavior after the initial reaction to the injury, there should be appropriate context to the more supportive cheers and a “KD” chant that broke out as he was being helped to the locker room. It is not that the latter negates the former, because again, these are fan responses that can’t be quantified. Nobody can sit here and say there were 20 percent bad apples in the crowd, and 80 percent who reacted appropriately. It was a combination of both. But context matters too, and when just one part of what happened is being reported, well, I think most of us are aware of the larger issues enveloping us in the world of selective news coverage.

It’s strange to think when I walked into the arena on Monday, there was an excitement and nervousness about seeing the Toronto Raptors potentially clinch an NBA championship at home, and to do it with fans cheering them on from across the country. I walked out of Game 5 with only Durant’s long-term health status and how strange the entire evening felt on my mind.

Sports can be weird sometimes, and the weirdest part of Monday, a potential Finals-clinching game, was walking out and getting some perspective on how sports, the thing that consumes a lot of us, and has consumed me for the past few months, truly doesn’t matter when you put it into proper perspective. The game went on after Durant’s injury, because it always does, but it truly didn’t feel the same again, even though the Raptors had a chance to win an NBA championship on the final possession of the game. All of that felt secondary to knowing one of the best players of this generation might have just suffered a career-altering injury.

Durant’s injury and the fan reaction afterwards will unfortunately be the moment all of us will remember when we reflect back on this series. Somebody will win a championship, but it does feel like the final result of this series will be overshadowed regardless. As for the Raptors and their fans, this isn’t some kind of permanent stain, but it’s a reminder that romanticizing an entire fanbase comes with risks.

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