Have trolls ruined the relationship between NBA players and fans?

Oklahoma City fans got creative with their Kevin Durant trolling last year. (AP)
Oklahoma City fans got creative with their Kevin Durant trolling last year. (AP)

We are three games into the NBA season, and already two All-Stars have been fined for directing inappropriate language at heckling spectators. That doesn’t even include the reigning Finals MVP engaging a fan following an ejection on Saturday. This must be concerning for a league that has made positive player-fan interaction one of its biggest priorities ever since “The Malice at the Palace.”

In the age of the less-than-24-hour news cycle, social media and the art of the troll, fans are more informed than ever about what makes players tick, and players are more aware than ever about how fans feel about them. It’s impossible for that not to forge a divide in a hostile arena environment.

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Don’t get me wrong. I understand that spectators have verbally vomited bile over athletes for decades, and players have gone so far as punching and spitting on fans in years past. For the most part, those were isolated incidents. This is now a string of occurrences involving three of the game’s most prominent players a week into the season. That’s a disturbing trend, and one worth examining.

We don’t know what a Memphis Grizzlies fan said to ignite this exchange with New Orleans Pelicans star DeMarcus Cousins:

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But we do know what prompted Celtics star Kyrie Irving to tell a Philadelphia 76ers fan to “s*** my d***” on Friday:

“Kyrie, where’s LeBron?” the fan yelled, referencing the feud between Irving and James that led to their divorce in Cleveland. That’s fairly mild from a Philadelphia crowd, especially as it pertains to a Celtics-76ers rivalry that once saw a fan hurl a raw potato at John Havlicek during a game at Philly’s Convention Hall, but it speaks to the level of knowledge fans have about a player’s vulnerability, the frustration players feel over such taunting, and the growing divide between NBA players and fans.

That apparently wasn’t even the only time Irving and a Sixers fan exchanged words on Friday night:

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And Irving felt little remorse afterward:

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“Hell no,” Irving told reporters after the Boston Herald’s Mark Murphy asked if he had any regrets about the incident. “If he’s man enough to record it on video, then that’s on him. Glad that he got his [username] out there and his five seconds of fame and it going viral. That’s the social media platform we live on. I take full responsibility for what I said, excuse the kids at home, and you move on.”

He added, “At the end of the day, we’re human. It’s in the heat of the moment, and frustration arises.”

If we’ve learned anything through three games, it’s that fans are perfectly willing to provoke players verbally, and players are just as comfortable firing back, especially when it only cost Cousins and Irving a couple of $25,000 drops in buckets filled with nine-figure salary and endorsement contracts.

One can only imagine the suspension Vernon Maxwell would receive if his punch of a fan happened today, when a viral video would be playing on an ESPN loop. Thankfully, there have been no physical confrontations with fans this season, but this spiteful speech is a troublesome trend nonetheless.

And the venom is far worse on social media, where players are regularly subjected to everything from racism to death threats. Maybe in-arena heckling, even if the language isn’t quite so biting, puts a face to the endless amount of hateful tweets they see in their mentions, and vulgar responses are an instinctive response to that.

That obviously doesn’t really excuse any of it, though.

We know Durant has been subjected to some of the harshest criticism for an NBA player on social media, if only because we learned of his Twitter clap-back habits when it became apparent he operates burner accounts to respond to some of his more vocal critics. Durant seems all too conscious of a narrative put forth by many fans that his move from Oklahoma City to Golden State was a cowardly ring-chasing endeavor, and so we shouldn’t have been too surprised when he pointed at his ring finger in response to a heckling Memphian who was giving him the business after an ejection:

Warriors star Kevin Durant flashed his ring finger at a heckling Memphis fan after his ejection on Saturday. (NBATV screen shot)
Warriors star Kevin Durant flashed his ring finger at a heckling Memphis fan after his ejection on Saturday. (NBATV screen shot)

But Durant’s explanation of the exchange afterward offered another window into the player’s consciousness. “I’m sure everybody thinks I’m the angry black athlete so I got to put my middle finger up,” he told the media after Saturday’s 111-101 loss to the Grizzlies. “But no, I put my ring finger up.”

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Durant understands how he will be portrayed by the same fans who aim to incite that behavior. The “arrogant” angle was already being played up by some in response to Irving’s lack of regret. You can’t help but wonder if the current political climate — further fueled by President Donald Trump’s repeated attacks on athletes over the past month — is fanning the divide between players and fans.

The nation’s most powerful figure employs and endorses vitriol on an everyday basis. I don’t mean to suggest the president is directly responsible for fans spewing nonsense at players or Cousins and Irving respectively responding “F*** you, b****” and “S*** my d***,” but we live in a world where people are so accepting of language that frames others as inhuman that 62 million Americans were willing to overlook similarly sordid speech when electing their leader.

I’m also not about to make excuses for the language Cousins and Irving directed at fans, and I’m not naive enough to believe Kyrie won’t be subjected to LeBron-related digs at every road venue, but as long as we’re expecting players to let the hostility wash over them without saying a word, is it so much to ask spectators to consider their role in that divide as well? If you’re going to intentionally try to offend a hyper-competitive person, don’t be surprised when they return something offensive as well.

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Maybe this is the world we live in now. Maybe this has always been the world we live in, and it’s magnified by cellphone videos and social media accounts of the exchanges. Either way, we should all probably shoot to elevate our level of discourse and evolve past the virulence that the president has made en vogue, because name-calling will only reinforce how fans feel about players and vice versa.

The Philadelphia fan’s heckle to Irving — “Where’s LeBron?” — is tame in terms of fan antagonism, and a healthy dose of that is what makes sports fun. The running cupcake joke between Russell Westbrook and Durant was one of last season’s best storylines. Needless to say, Irving could have been more creative with his response, but maybe it’s time to consider the layers of bitterness that prompted his profane comeback so as to avoid any lazy generalizations about the petulance of highly paid athletes.

So, what is the NBA to do? They can threaten stiffer penalties against excessively heckling fans and retaliating players, but beyond that, it’s a divide that won’t be bridged by arena security. We should expect better from our trolls and demand better from our leaders. At the end of the day, we’re all human.

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Ben Rohrbach is a contributor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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