Sunday, November 28, 2021

NBA fans wanted a show. They also get a clarification.

Isaiah Thomas finally felt that a conversation was okay.

Thomas, a member of the Washington Wizards in 2019-20, played in Philadelphia against the 76ers. A fan had cursed at him while holding outstretched middle fingers from both his hands.

After it happened for the third time, Thomas went into the stands – calmly, he said – to talk to the flag.

“I do not want to go in there alone and try to create chaos,” Thomas said. “But in my situation, I needed to say something to that man and let him know it was not right.”

The banner, Thomas said, quickly apologized, saying he was sorry that a free-throw Thomas had made prevented him from redeeming a campaign for a free Frosty.

“It means you do not respect me as a human being,” Thomas said. “I think that’s why the players are so sad now. It’s like, ‘Do you look at us as human beings? As humans? Or just someone you get to watch? ‘”

The NBA, moving into the second round of the playoffs, has given fans plenty to look forward to, from the great game from Phoenix Devin Booker, the quick exit from the Los Angeles Lakers and the adaptation of the Nets stars to the battles for an opmanship between Denver Nikola Jokic and Portland’s Damian Lillard.

But the playoffs are also defined by unruly fan behavior as NBA arenas began to open to near-capacity in time for the playoffs. The last time there were so many fans in arenas was before the NBA was at the center of the protests for social justice and equality that created the country in the fall. Fans return to see many of the same players – but the players are not the same. The message from athletes, especially those who are black, is that they want to be respected.

In New York, a fan of Atlanta Hawks guard spat Trae Young. In Utah, the family of Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant was targeted with racist and sinister remarks while watching in the stands. In Boston, Nets guard Kyrie Irving had a water bottle thrown in his direction. In Philadelphia, a fan dumped popcorn on Washington’s Russell Westbrook as he left the floor after an injury.

“What if he wanted to run into the stands and lay his hands on that fan?” Said Thomas. “Everyone would have said he was wrong. But in other environments in life, if I walk down the street and someone pours popcorn on me, what do you think will happen? ”

In some ways, rauk behavior is another indicator of a return to pre-pandemic life. Sport is often a clumsy one for society, and to one point extreme behavior is rooted in fandom – hence the term fanatic. As the country reopens, airlines are experiencing violent behavior and people are struggling in the stands at baseball stadiums.

In basketball, fans are stimulated by the charged atmosphere of the playoffs, and some are encouraged by fluid courage. The intimacy of the sport allows fans to be near players, and while the players are in post-season form, the security forces are not yet back in the rhythm of hosting so many fans for the first time in more than a year.

“Fans are encouraged and diminish the value of these athletes as human beings when they engage with them in this way,” said David West, a retired striker who won two championships with Golden State.

Emerging from the pandemic may have created a bill between NBA fans and players. Some fans may have exalted frustration at being isolated for so long. Kevin Durant, Irving’s Nets teammate, said the pandemic quarantine had “led many people.” The incidents involve only a small fraction of the thousands of fans who have returned to NBA arenas. The seriousness of the behavior cannot be defined under a unique classification.

But some travel beyond the traditional heckling of, say, Spike Lee in Madison Square Garden mocking an opponent. They involve subtle and overt racism – “underlying racism and just treating people as if they were in a human zoo,” Irving said. And while the interactions are not new, the violations are documented through social media and arena cameras, and players seem more willing to speak out against them.

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“In general, this seems to be what happens when people have not been outside for a year and a half,” said Louis Moore, an associate professor of history at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. “Specifically, it’s part of who we are as fans. That’s fandom. That’s a mess. And then it’s even more specific when it appears that these NBA events are targeted at black athletes. It’s part of American sport. ”

Before Irving, a former Celtic, returned to Boston, he asked fans not to be belligerent or racist. Black athletes in several sports, including Celtics legend Bill Russell, who once had someone break into his home and be defecated on his bed, have talked about the racism they have experienced in Boston. The treatment goes all the way back to George Dixon, who was the first black man to win a worldwide boxing match and fought in the United States in the period after the Civil War.

Boston police have arrested Cole Buckley, a 21-year-old from Braintree, Mass., On suspicion of throwing the water bottle at Irving. Buckley pleaded not guilty to a charge of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon.

“I’ve had situations so often throughout my career where we don’t really talk about it because we want to be mentally tough,” Irving said after the incident. “We want to be tough. We do not want to be called soft, otherwise we are not man enough to deal with boos. ”

As in Boston, opposing players have also spoken out against the treatment they have received in Utah. In 2019, two fans at the Vivint Smart Home Arena were ruled out for using racist language against Westbrook.

“You felt this sense of anxiety found in some of the fans,” West said of playing in Utah, adding, “I never let it ever affect me, but it did not physically affect me either.”

The fans involved in the events of the first round were expelled from the arenas indefinitely.

“There is zero tolerance for inappropriate and disrespectful fan behavior at our game,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in an interview. “Fans who participate in similar actions in our arenas are caught and banned from participating. The safety of players, officials and all participants is our highest priority, which is why we have worked diligently with our team and law enforcement to increase the safety presence in our arenas for the rest of the playoffs and will pursue all remedies against anyone who violates our code of conduct for fans . ”

In Utah, Jazz owner Ryan Smith provided Morant’s family with pitches for Game 5. Tee Morant, Ja’s father, praised the organization and the Jazz players for their response, though his wife, Jamie, decided to return to Salt Lake City.

“It was a nice gesture from Jazz,” Tee Morant said ESPN. “It was unfortunate. It was just a couple of fans – most of them were big and cheered right along with us. ”

Durant told reporters after the Irving incident that fans had to “grow up” and treat players with respect. “These men are humans,” he said, adding that the players are not “animals” and “not in a circus.”

In 2019, Thomas received a suspension of two games after the Frosty incident, and two fans – one who had kept his middle fingers up against Thomas and another heckler – were suspended from Wells Fargo Arena for a year.

“The consequences, I do not know what it should be,” said Thomas, “but I think it should be a little more so fans would think twice about what they do before they do it, or what they say before they say so. But I do not think the arena ban scares anyone away. ”

He continued: “I have not answered what they could possibly do. I know the NBA is on top of everything for the players, but something must definitely change. ”

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