Over the decades, the NBA has thrived by wrapping fans and superstars in tight spaces, creating the best gaming atmosphere in any pro sports league. It’s good business to have fans of a stone’s throw at superstars — you know, as long as they never rock.
No one has stoned yet. But in the past two weeks, four future Hall of Famers have complained publicly about fan behavior. Kyrie Irving (in Boston) and Draymond Green (in Memphis) each gives fans a double-bird. Joel Embiid fired back at Toronto fans. Then, this past week, Chris Paul said Dallas fans were harassing and in contact with his family. Paul was understandably angry.
All of this is enough to make you wonder if the league is heading for a Malice in the Palace redux. A combination of unusual factors led to the 2004 Palace of Auburn Hills brawl: the league’s most ardent player, Indiana star Metta Sandiford-Artest (formerly Ron Artest); one of its hottest fights at the time, the Pistons-Pacers; a fan throwing a drink with Greg Maddux – just like Artest. But today’s climate is worrying in other ways.
Excessive public discourse is fueled by anger; Fans of the word and even the physical accosting of the players are just one example of this. Many of today’s stars are dissatisfied (because they’re hyperaware of the little ones, especially on social media) and empowered (because they’re hyperaware that their organizations need them, and fans are more likely to side with the players in any dispute than 20 years ago). Many are also rightly disappointed with the continuing slow pace of racial development in society and don’t want to take any kind of abuse away from anyone. Twenty or even 10 years ago, Green and Irving were expected to apologize. However, the two made it clear that they had no regrets.
Embiid said he lost the respect of Toronto fans when they sang “F — Embiid” after he did the postshot celebration on the plane and later got a hard elbow in the face from Pascal Siakam which resulted of orbital fracture and turbulence.
On his return to the second round (the Sixers eliminated the Raptors), Embiid was asked about the incident and said it wasn’t just a problem in Toronto: “It’s already happening in some arenas these days, where fans feel it’s OK. to say, ‘K to someone.’ The [There are] a group of kids in the arena. I don’t think that’s OK If you answer this, it’s almost like the Draymond situation, and you’re fine in the league. … I just spoke for everyone in the NBA. Like I said, if you give it, you have to get it too. ”
All of this seems reasonable, and no one should have to shout insults in an arena full of kids, but Embiid also emphasized the disconnect between some of the stars and the league office. The NBA thinks it has mechanisms to keep the atmosphere of the game warm instead of explosive. But players have to believe that the mechanisms work and that those mechanisms are enough. Otherwise, the league runs the risk of having players who can do more than just flip the bird.
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And yes, if you respond to the fans by giving them the finger, you’re fine in the league. But you can also do what LeBron James did in Indianapolis earlier this season: Say security and drive the fans away. The NBA has emphasized that option to players in recent years.
Embiid’s argument, “If you give it, you have to get it too,” means that when fans scoff, players have to respond the same way. But the standard for a player who earns millions of dollars a year, and always, is higher than for fans who pay to get in to watch. Part of a professional athlete’s job is to know when not to restore it. If the fan heckling disappears, the player must tell security. If NBA players are no longer satisfied with that kind of resolution, commissioner Adam Silver should recognize it and be proactive in resolving it.
Fan-player conflicts aren’t a new problem, and the NBA is actually better at dealing with it than ever. In 1995, Rockets guard Vernon Maxwell went to the stands and hit a heckler. His penalty: 10 -game suspension and a $ 20,000 fine. Nine years later, Artest resisted the stances, and was then suspended by commissioner David Stern for the remainder of the season.
Nowadays, many teams ban fans for long periods of time and use face recognition technology to enforce bans. More importantly: Each team will travel with at least one security guard, and most superstars will also bring their own. Paul’s personal bodyguard sits behind the Suns ’bench in Dallas. He can’t stop fan aggressions, but he’s in a position to deal with it. The Mavericks drove the fan out of the arena.
Paul still has every right to be angry. Most people would have. but he tweeted in response the Dallas incident— “Good players want to say things to the fans but the fans can put their hands on our families” —shows the dangerous balance the NBA faces today. It is reasonable for Silver to point out that his league is not permit fans to touch the families of the players; the Dallas fan, after all, was fired. But that’s little comfort to a star point guard who says his mom and wife were driven by Mother’s Day fans. (The Mavericks said “uncontrollable fans tried to give unwanted hugs” and were fired.)
If Embiid says “he speaks for everyone in the NBA,” and three other stars support him fully in their actions, that should be a concern for the league. The NBA sees how ugly these incidents are. Together, the league and its players need to make sure they don’t get hurt again.
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