The Celtics were understandably wobbly in their return home after a four-game West Coast trip, and they began Thursday’s game with the Sacramento Kings with little sense of urgency.
Yet, they regained their swagger with a 16-2 run late in the third quarter and won, 126-120, as expected.
Kyrie Irving registered his second career triple-double with 31 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists, a testament to how versatile and helpful he’s been this season in categories other than scoring.
And it seems Irving has been concentrating so much on the Celtics’ recent resurgence and getting the heck out of Los Angeles, he said he was unaware of the incident involving Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook and the Utah Jazz fan who apparently yelled demeaning and racist comments at Westbrook during a Thunder win at Vivint Smart Home Arena on March 11.
After hearing the insult from the fan, Westbrook threatened to accost the fan and his wife, whom Westbrook accused of yelling the same racially derogatory statement. Westbrook was fined $25,000 for his threats and the fan was banned from any event at Vivint Smart Home Arena after the Jazz investigated the incident.
Irving had to be told about the incident and then chuckled because he said one of these incidents, which he said are common, was finally caught on camera.
“It’s funny because it happens so often,” he said. “Most of the time it doesn’t get documented. I think this was the first time that it actually got caught on camera and you caught a player responding like that on camera.
“It’s no justification on either side, who’s right? Who’s wrong? But at the same time, we’re trying to protect the league that goes about being compassionate for the players, being compassionate for the fans and being very compassionate about your team and who you root for, the players. It’s a big thing and we all try to protect the league and when it’s an individual battle with a person in the crowd and they say something like violently disrespectful like that, then it’s going to warrant a reaction.”
Irving was fined $25,000 in Oct. 2017 when a fan at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia screamed as Irving walked through the tunnel to the locker room, “Kyrie, where’s LeBron?” Irving responded with an offensive statement and drew a fine.
During a home game in Boston last season, a fan, whose companion was waiting a few feet away, tried to incite Irving by screaming the same question as he walked through the tunnel after a victory. Irving ignored the fan.
“At the same time I think if we were out and about with our families, ain’t nobody saying no [expletive] like that to us,” Irving said. “And so then it becomes like a human being thing and things escalate and the NBA comes in and do what they’re supposed to do and protects the players. I don’t know who’s right or who’s wrong in that [Westbrook] situation but I’m glad everyone’s OK. But when disrespectful stuff happens like that, it’s going to warrant a reaction.
“So we all know Russ and if somebody says something like that, he’s just not going crazy out of nowhere like that. I’m just glad he’s OK. I’ve heard so many things over my career and just this one time it got documented by somebody.”
NBA players, especially superstars such as Irving, have to develop thick skins and when fans find vulnerability, such as Irving’s then-decayed relationship with James, they will hammer at it with verbal jabs.
In Westbrook’s situation, the fan tried to find a creative way to say something blatantly racist without saying a racial term. Some fans are clever in their jeering, and most players have no issue with the common, “You can’t shoot” or “Your team stinks” or “Airball” type of heckles but when they get personal or even worse, racial, then the players almost feel obligated to stand up for themselves, as they should.
No one condones players threatening fans, but the players are men and women first, then players. Boston has been renowned for jeering fans, but the fans have been respectful for the most part. The fact is location doesn’t particularly matter anymore.
Some fans realize they have an opportunity to become 15-minute celebrities and their videos parade on the Internet if they catch the right athlete at the wrong time. The NBA has to do more to protect the player, and teams need to follow the Jazz’s lead and discipline fans who overstep their moral limits.
“I’ve heard it all. Utah, Phoenix, California. Wherever you want to go, fans are going to be passionate about their teams but that’s just taking it too far and in Utah the fans are right on top of you,” Irving said. “Their fans are literally in the bleachers, sitting right next to you on the bench. I don’t really mind the fan interaction but not while I’m at work and you’re trying to get me to [become agitated] because let me come into your office and yell in your ear like that. I value the respect thing and people’s professions.”