The Celtics banned a fan from attending games at TD Garden through next season after Golden State center DeMarcus Cousins accused him of mouthing a racial epithet at him during the Warriors’ Jan. 26 game against the Celtics.
The fan is under 18 years old and he will also be under lifetime probation, and if he violates the terms of the two-year ban, he will receive a lifetime ban.
Yahoo! Sports initially reported the ban late Thursday night, and the Celtics had faced mounting criticism that the punishment did not appear especially severe. But the team was unable to corroborate Cousins’s account via interviews or film reviews, it said in a statement. A league source said the fan vehemently denied mouthing the racial epithet at Cousins, so the team did not feel it was appropriate to issue a lifetime ban.
The source said the fan sitting a few rows behind the Warriors’ bench was taunting Cousins during the game. At one point, the source said, Cousins saw the fan mouth the n-word at him and Warriors and TD Garden security were alerted.
The fan was removed from the arena, and the Celtics launched a multi-day investigation in which they interviewed fans who were sitting in that section and others in the bench area, and also reviewed all available video that could have shed light on the alleged incident.
No one corroborated Cousins’s claim. And while the video made it clear that the fan was speaking to Cousins during the game, the exact words were not clear. The source said that if there was any evidence that the fan had used racially charged language, or if any others in the area had corroborated Cousins’s story, a lifetime ban would have been implemented.
Nevertheless, the Celtics took Cousins’s word and decided to act by instituting the two-year ban. A TD Garden spokesperson said the fan has also been banned from all other arena events during this time, and a league source said the owner of the seat the fan was using that night has also been placed on lifetime probation.
On Friday night, Celtics guard Marcus Smart said he became aware of the Cousins incident earlier in the day.
“It’s real discouraging to hear that it happened here, especially being an African-American player who plays for this organization,” Smart told the Globe. “These fans cheer and I give my heart out for these fans every night, so to hear that, it is disappointing and kind of makes you rethink a little bit.”
Smart, who was drafted by the Celtics in 2014 and is the team’s most tenured player, said he faced an incident of racism at TD Garden earlier in his career, but declined to go into detail, saying simply that “it was a long time ago.”
“I’ve dealt with a lot of things, here in my own city, and out of this city,” Smart said. “I get it. I’ve seen it. I’m not surprised, and it has to be fixed, plain and simple. Obviously as a player and being in that situation before, I can understand. It’s hard to go out there and play. You focus on [basketball] and you’ve got people just out there just being really ignorant. Real, real ignorant.”
Smart said he was disheartened to learn that the fan involved in the Cousins incident is a minor.
“I blame his parents,” Smart said. “You teach that. Ignorance is taught. You’re not born with ignorance. If the kid really said what was said, then yeah, I blame his parents. Some of it’s on him, but you’ve got to do a better job.”
“But it’s important not to blame every fan in the building. Just like in life, there’s always people that just were raised differently, and ignorance is a key in their life and it’s something that has to be fixed. It has to be talked about and has to be addressed, and if not, it’s going to continue.”
A source said the Celtics were in contact with both the Warriors and the NBA during and after their investigation, and both sides were satisfied with the outcome. It was relayed to the Celtics that Cousins did not wish to turn the incident into a bigger issue, the source said.
One Celtics source who has been with the organization for more than 15 years said this is believed to be the first time during that time that a fan has been banned from TD Garden for allegedly racially charged language.
It can be difficult to enforce a ban, particularly with nearly 20,000 fans coming through the turnstiles at each game. But the Celtics and TD Garden have several measures in place. The source said the seats the fan was in will be monitored, and arena security will be made aware of the situation. Also, the lifetime probation is believed to serve as another deterrent.
The Celtics have stressed that this was not a case in which they covered up an ugly incident and then acted when it became public. The punishment was handed down nearly two months ago, away from the public eye. The source said the team also wants to make it clear that the two-year punishment in no way indicates that the Celtics are skeptical of Cousins’s claim. They just were unable to verify it.
The Utah Jazz recently banned two fans for life for separate offensive and inappropriate interactions with Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook. On March 11, Westbrook and a fan got into a heated exchange in which Westbrook was seen on video threatening to fight a man and his wife after the man allegedly told Westbrook to “get down on your knees like you’re used to.” After an investigation, that fan received a lifetime ban from Jazz home games.
A few days later, the Deseret News reported that the Jazz banned another fan for life because of a verbal altercation with Westbrook in which the fan repeatedly called Westbrook “boy.” There was video evidence in both incidents involving Jazz fans.
To Russell Westbrook’s defense, here is even further proof of his previous interactions with Utah Jazz fans. In this video, @russwest44 is called a “boy” by a Jazz fan ahead of Game 4 of OKC’s first-round playoff series against Utah on April 23, 2018 at Vivint Arena. pic.twitter.com/lc6slA7fTo— Eric Woodyard (@E_Woodyard) March 13, 2019
After the first Westbrook incident created a league-wide stir, Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving said that the situations are hardly uncommon.
“It happens so often,” Irving said. “Just most of the time it doesn’t get documented. This one is the first time it actually got caught on camera.”
He added later: “When it’s an individual battle with a person in the crowd and they say something violently disrespectful like that, then it’s going to warrant a reaction. Because I think at the same time if we were out and about with our families, ain’t nobody saying no [expletive] like that to us.”
In a May 2017 Red Sox game at Fenway Park, Orioles outfielder Adam Jones said that a fan directed a racial slur at him, and that a bag of peanuts was thrown at him. At a Red Sox game later that week, a fan overheard another fan using a racial slur when speaking about the national anthem that had been sung by a Kenyan woman. That fan was kicked out of Fenway Park and the Red Sox later said he had received a lifetime ban, too.
In the wake of those incidents, Boston’s major professional sports teams worked together to create a public service announcement encouraging fans to take a stand against racism at their sporting events, and they showed the video at their respective arenas. The Celtics continue to rebroadcast the 2017 PSA.