The NBA takes pride in the fan experience. Years ago, many of the league’s owners bumped the media seats far away from the floor so they could sell those courtside and premium seats to their fans.
Of course it was a money-making venture first, and it does enhance the fan experience for those privileged enough to afford those seats. But it seems some fans feel the inherent right to not only cheer for their team but also heckle, chide and belittle opposing players.
This week in Salt Lake City, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook was caught on camera by Eric Woodyard of the Deseret News going back and forth from the Thunder bench with Jazz fan Shane Keisel. According to Westbrook, Keisel and his wife told Westbrook, an African American, to “get down on your knees like you’re used to.”
Keisel told a Salt Lake television station that he told Westbrook to keep icing his knees. A team investigation and a look at Keisel’s twitter account prompted the team to ban him from any event at Vivint Smart Arena. The club also banned two additional fans who were caught on tape calling Westbrook “boy” during the Western Conference playoffs last season.
Russell Westbrook says the fan and his wife told him to “to get down on your knees like you’re used to” which is why he responded. “As for beating up his wife, I’ve never put my hand on a woman. I never will. Never been in any domestic violence before and never have," he said. pic.twitter.com/f9SugcpBTP— Eric Woodyard (@E_Woodyard) March 12, 2019
Utah is considered one of most notorious NBA cities for hecklers and until this week, there have been little repercussions. If you are a member of the Jazz, you are a hero, if you are a member of the other team, you are essentially the enemy. Just ask Gordon Hayward, who was booed vigorously in his return to Salt Lake after playing seven seasons for the Jazz.
The racial element of Westbrook’s hecklers is disturbing, but there are fans who cross other lines with expletives, and sexist and homophobic remarks. Most players have no issues with heckles about their game, their on-court history, or their performance.
When fans intentionally try to ignite a response by continuously spouting insults, sometimes to the annoyance of other fans, it crosses the line. Fans such as Keisel know not to be overtly derogatory, so they make subliminal racial remarks, then claim the player was overly sensitive.
Fans don’t have to scream racial epithets to be racist, and the same goes for sexist or homophobic remarks. It’s time for some fans to just chill and enjoy the game, cheer for their team, soak in the atmosphere, and keep it clean.
It’s still confusing what fans such as Keisel get out of heckling opposing players with such profane language and then coming back and doing it the next night to another player. It’s apparent that Westbrook listens. Last season as he walked through the tunnel at Vivint Smart Arena following a playoff loss, he slapped a cell phone out of a fan’s hand and yelled at another.
Westbrook is emotional and takes these insults personally. And for some unscrupulous fans, he is a perfect target. Hence, his reaction to Keisel and his wife that drew a $25,000 fine.
It’s up to the teams and team security to regulate their fans. At TD Garden, there have been fans who have been approached and chided by security for profane remarks and even ejected from the game.
If there’s a standard by which players have to uphold or be fined, there has to be a standard for fans. There seemed to be a sense of pride in Keisel that he drove Westbrook to such threats, which is juvenile and absurd.
Is there a sense of jealously that Westbrook is a well-compensated, world-class African-American athlete who plays the game unapologetically and with brashness? Is it simply that Westbrook is demeaned racially only because he plays for the opposing team?
So Jae Crowder, Derrick Favors and Donovan Mitchell are Keisel’s heroes only because they play for the Jazz? Even though they are African-American? It seems some fans have things twisted. You don’t get to make racial, sexist or homophobic remarks and then call it good-natured ribbing.
You have to think Crowder, Favors and Mitchell view some of their home fans differently now. “What if I get traded? Will certain fans suddenly start saying those things to me?” “How comfortable am I really in Salt Lake City?” “Would some of these fans really embrace me if I were just a normal person and not wearing a Jazz uniform?”
It’s unfortunate that this is the latest weekly NBA topic because there are fans who come to the arena, root for their teams, eat a slice of pizza, and head home after a fun evening. During Thursday’s Celtics game against the Sacramento Kings, there were two young female fans, each under the age of 7, cheering for the Celtics as if it were the NBA Finals. They were donned in green, screaming “defense” and “go Celtics.”
These children remind you of the purity of cheering for the home team, wearing the colors and enjoying the fan experience. That’s what the NBA is all about. That’s what the league prides itself on.
It’s really sad that some fans have to spoil that for the sake of getting attention, or carrying out their jealous, embittered feelings against someone who is simply gifted, blessed and wearing the opposing uniform.
It may be Rivers’s best coaching job
The Clippers are proving they are doing more than just waiting for the summer to land free agents. Los Angeles has every intention of making the playoffs and making noise when it gets there. The Clippers battered the Celtics twice in the past few weeks.
Firstly, with a patchwork lineup, they rallied from a 28-point deficit to stun the Celtics in Boston. And on Monday, they scored more points against Boston than any team in the past 25 years, shooting 63 percent in a 140-115 win at Staples Center.
The Clippers were apparently tanking when they traded leading scorer Tobias Harris to the Philadelphia 76ers for role players. But that allowed players such as Danilo Gallinari and Lou Williams more of a scoring role. Also, players such as Montrezl Harrell have flourished under coach Doc Rivers, giving the club one of the more potent benches in the NBA.
Seven players scored in double figures against the Celtics, including Williams with 34 and Harrell with 20 — as reserves. Williams was an improbable plus-28 in his 23 minutes.
“Every night we have to win,” Rivers said. “We have to have great focus and we have to play to our character. When we do that, we have a chance to win. There’s still no guarantee. You can do all those things right and not win but we know with our team, if we don’t do them right, we’re not going to win. With this team you really enjoy coming to the games. You know they’re going to play right and that’s a good thing.”
Team owner Steve Ballmer said he wanted his team to 1) make the playoffs, 2) chase premium free agents and 3) become a championship contender quickly. The Clippers have enough salary cap space for two maximum free agents and plan to court free agents such as Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and perhaps even Kyrie Irving.
The Clippers are firmly in the playoffs with a month to go in the season in perhaps Rivers’s best work in 19 seasons as an NBA coach.
“It’s so easy to play for a guy that’s been a player in this league,” Irving said of Rivers after the Clippers’ most recent win. “He’s won a championship and he’s done unbelievable things in this league for his players by giving them confidence to go out and be who they are. Lou signed an extension for a reason and it’s Doc. He puts those guys in position and gives them freedom and keeps them encouraged throughout the whole game, especially when they’re at home. He really holds them to a standard and let’s them play.
“Who ever thought that [rookie] Shai Gilgeous-Alexander would be where he is now? Being on a playoff team that’s competing for a spot. They’re gonna keep getting the best out of you and that’s what you want.”
Rivers is taking the humble approach and he acknowledges coaching this team of journeymen, youngsters and upstarts has been enjoyable.
“We haven’t done anything yet. We have a lot of games left,” he said.
“We have a lot of games to get there and then if we do get there I want them to be excited. I like how hard we play and how well we play together and how offensively the ball moves. We’ve had five and six and seven guys scoring in double figures every night. If we can continue to do that offensively, it makes us really hard to guard.”
The player who has been most difficult to guard is Williams, who is a cinch for his third Sixth Man of the Year award, as he is averaging 20.3 points, his second consecutive season of averaging more than 20 points. Williams could be the best reserve in league history as he broke Dell Curry’s scoring record for players coming off the bench.
Williams has been a reserve for 815 of his 924 NBA appearances entering Friday.
“If you’re anything that ends in ‘ever’ in the NBA, it’s pretty impressive,” Rivers said.
“I didn’t know Curry was the leader, I didn’t know until two days ago, I was surprised by that. I knew [Williams] was good, I didn’t know he was that good. That’s amazing. The way Lou does it with his size and his shot and more importantly, how much he finishes in the paint, that’s what surprises me the most since coaching him, how often he gets in the paint and finishes over [big men] is remarkable.”
Williams seeks his respect. Early in his career, he was considered the heir apparent to Allen Iverson in Philadelphia. Instead, he became a scoring ace, a shooting guard in a point guard’s body. It took him a few years and a few teams to create an NBA niche and now he may be the best bench scorer of all time (along with Jamal Crawford).
“I don’t know what that stuff means, it has to mean something. I know it means a lot for the players,” Rivers said of awards. “For the organization, I don’t know. We’ve cornered the market [on sixth men of the year], let’s keep doing it.”
Rivers acknowledged he had Williams typecast as a score-only, me-first player when the Clippers acquired him from the Houston Rockets in the Chris Paul deal.
“Lou is as different of a player as I’ve ever coached,” Rivers said. “Usually you have a thought about what a player is and who he is. And he is the complete opposite of who I thought he was. He is a delight to coach. He is a tremendous leader in the locker room and from afar, I never coached him, I just saw him walk in and score, like he kind of did his thing and left. I thought he was more indifferent. He runs hot at times but you won’t notice it. But when he does, he gets on his guys.
“What I love the most about him is how much he teaches the young guys. He’s really in tune to them and those are things you didn’t know about the guy. I would have never guessed that, that he was that way. That has been to my benefit because he is that type of guy.”
Also acquired in the Paul deal was Patrick Beverley, a Marcus Smart-type of agitator who doesn’t back down from any challenge, even when, at 6 feet 3 inches, he’s assigned to the 6-9 Paul George.
“I thought he had the biggest impact,’’ Rivers said. “I thought he guarded Paul George as well as you can guard him. He does so many things for us, it allows us to win games.”
“Beverley plays with such a high motor, the thing that surprised me more is his IQ. He has an amazing basketball IQ. When we had Avery [Bradley], Avery was doing a lot of that. We wouldn’t put Avery on anyone of that size, so we kind of fell into it. I would love to say it’s coaching. All our threes are gone. We traded them all. I came up with let’s put Pat at the three and see what happens. He’s been fantastic.”
Doc: George legit MVP candidate
Oklahoma City forward Paul George fouled out of the Thunder’s loss vs. the Clippers in Los Angeles on March 8, then got into a Twitter exchange with Patrick Beverley about the officiating. George said the officials led to his subpar game; Beverley said it was his defense.
Rivers said he believes, despite the difficult game against the Clippers, George is a legitimate MVP candidate along with James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“It’s tough when you have Harden and Giannis in the league but if you look at his actual numbers, you can make him a favorite in some ways,” Rivers said. “This is by far his best offensive year and his clutch points that he’s made all year. I think what people miss with Paul, he is one of the top five, six defenders in the league and no one knows it and he just does it every night. He just does it his whole career. I think this year he’s been even better. He doesn’t do it with flair; he just kind of shuts you down and then goes about his job. I think that’s what people miss most about Paul, he’s a two-way player.”
There’s an outside chance the Clippers and Thunder could meet in the playoffs. Rivers said the OKC backcourt is one of the toughest to defend in the league.
“Paul George is taking eight threes a game and five of his makes are usually in the first eight seconds of the clock,” he said. “Russell is a one-man fastbreak, but you’ve got to get to him in the halfcourt somehow.
“They take more shots than every team in the league, meaning they offensive rebound and they create turnovers and they get out on the break,’’ Rivers said. “They’re aggressive at the ball and they’re more physical. They’re long and athletic, probably the longest team in the league — at least it feels like that when you’re playing them. You have to be really strong with the ball.”
The Big3, the Ice Cube-organized 3-on-3 basketball league, has added Joe Johnson and Josh Smith, the latest former standout NBA players to join. Former Celtic Kendrick Perkins as well as ex-NBA players Daniel Gibson, Gilbert Arenas, Carlos Arroyo, Royce White, Eddie House, Charlie Bell, Eddy Curry, Lamar Odom, Shannon Brown, Will Bynum, Al Jefferson, Mario Chalmers, Steve Blake, Rodney Carney and Greg Oden have also agreed to join the league. The deadline for players to sign up for the league – which guarantees a roster spot — or enter the draft pool, is Tuesday. The league is also expanding from eight teams to 12, serving as a post-retirement league. The question now is where these games will be televised. The Big3 and Fox Network, which broadcast the first two seasons, no longer have a contract . . . The Lakers are concerned about the blood clot injury sustained by promising forward Brandon Ingram that will cost him the rest of the season. Ingram, who last played March 1, was diagnosed with deep vein thrombosis in his right arm. Coach Luke Walton refused to elaborate on the injury this week and the organization is concerned it could affect Ingram’s career. Chris Bosh had his career shortened by blood clots as the Miami Heat refused to clear him to play, although he said he was healthy. Walton said guard Lonzo Ball would miss the rest of the season with the sprained ankle he sustained Jan. 19. Ball was beginning to participate in basketball activities but with no playoff spot at stake, Walton said it was best for the club to rest Ball and give him a full offseason of being healthy. Ball missed most of the last offseason following knee surgery. With the open roster spot, the Lakers signed feel-good story Andre Ingram, the 32-year-old G-League player who played two games last season and made his season debut against the Bulls. Once the Lakers weren’t able to make up ground for the final playoff spot after the All-Star break, the club decided to pull back and prepare for the draft lottery. LeBron James will be playing fewer minutes while the club gets a long look at draft picks Mo Wagner and Jonathan Williams, both of whom flourished against the Celtics recently.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.