Scenes from the NBA playoffs. As the Golden State Warriors’ Draymond Green walked from the court to the locker-room to get stitches in a cut under his right eye, the Memphis Grizzlies’ fans lustily booed and heckled his every step. So, he lifted both hands over his head and gave them two hearty middle fingers. The interaction was caught on camera and he was fined $25,000 for reacting to the mob.
“I’ll take the fine and go make an appearance and make up the money,” said Green. “But it felt really good to flip them off. You’re going to boo someone that got elbowed in the eye and blood running down your face. I could have had a concussion and everything. So, if they are going to be that nasty, I can be that nasty, too. I make $25 million a year. I should be just fine.”
More than once during the Brooklyn Nets' defeat by the Boston Celtics at the TD Garden, Kyrie Irving gave his own middle finger salutes to a home crowd that was determinedly barracking his every touch. As he made his way to the locker-room at half-time, a man shouted, "Kyrie, you suck!" at him, and he responded, "Suck my d**k! B**ch!" The NBA fined him $50,000 for the obscene gestures and the use of profanity against supporters who once cheered him on during his time as a Celtic.
“When people start yelling p***y and b**ch and f**k you... there’s only so much you can take as a competitor,” said Irving. “We’re the ones expected to be docile, and be humble, and take the humble approach. Nah, f**k that, it’s the playoffs. This is what it is. I know what to expect in here, and that’s the same energy I’m giving back to them.”
During the fourth quarter of Game Four against the Dallas Mavericks on Mothers’ Day, the Phoenix Suns’ Chris Paul got kind of distracted when he saw two fans trying to hug his mother, Robin, and shoving his wife, Jada, as they sat with his children. “I’ll see you later,” shouted an irate Paul as security led the offending pair away. Afterwards, he tweeted, “Wanna fine players for saying stuff to the fans but the fans can put they hands on our families. f*** that!!”
For the second year in a row, the denouement to the NBA season has spawned exhilarating series, preternatural individual performances, and a litany of unsavoury incidents involving idiots in the stands overstepping boundaries.
Twelve months ago, the Atlanta Hawks' Trae Young was spat at in Madison Square Garden as he put the Knicks to the sword, the Memphis Grizzlies' Ja Morant was racially abused by three Utah Jazz supporters, and Russell Westbrook had popcorn dumped on his head while departing the fray against the Philadelphia 76ers with an injury. Only the names and offenders have changed. The spirit of disgusting rancour remains the same.
There are different schools of thought about why behaviour has so noticeably deteriorated of late. A popular theory attributes the increasing lack of basic decency to the side-effects of the pandemic, as if being locked out of games for a time suddenly entitled people to ratchet up their abusive antics once they got back in. Something of a pattern across a lot of sports.
Witness the Premier League pitch invasions and baseball, which has had several incidents of objects being flung from the crowd in recent weeks. The proximity of fans to the players in the NBA, close enough to touch and to shout insults that will be heard, is bound to make the situation even more volatile.
Others, including ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, doyen of basketball reporters, reckon the growth of legalised sports gambling in America may also be inflaming the passions of those watching who now, literally, have skin in the game.
The NBA has strenuously denied this is the case but that’s the same NBA which has signed two lucrative contracts with betting companies, and which, later this year, is expected to negotiate a broadcast rights deal with one of those predatory outfits. Players have told Wojnarowski they feel the atmosphere in arenas has changed for the worse since wagering (a national epidemic here) became a much larger part of the night out.
If the intimate, open nature of the basketball arena and the availability of alcohol has always guaranteed a raucous atmosphere, the arrival of in-game gambling at more venues may explain why, these days, the biggest stars often bring personal bodyguards to sit with their families courtside. There is a view abroad that the league can and should do more to protect the players and rein in the fans because something needs to get done before matters get even worse.
"I've always said, we could put an end to all this stuff, some of the stuff these fans say, let's take 'em right down to centre court for five minutes," said Charles Barkley, the Hall of Fame player turned television pundit.
“Just give me five minutes at centre court with ‘em, and just say, ‘you ain’t gonna press no charges, ain’t nobody gonna be sued civilly. Say what you just said to me right to my face right here for these five minutes, and I’m gonna beat the hell out of you.’”
Barkley may have been playing for laughs, but the NBA has yet to offer any better solution.