(NEW YORK) — Brooklyn Nets’ player Kyrie Irving had a water bottle thrown at him, Washington Wizards’ star Russell Westbrook had popcorn dumped on his head, and the Atlanta Hawks’ Trae Young was spit on.
These are among a rash of incidents of fans behaving badly during the first round of the NBA playoffs, prompting the league to crack down on such unruly acts and leaving some players worried that spectators have forgotten proper game etiquette during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“You can tell those people have been in some sort of captivity for the last year and change, right? It’s kind of wild to see the liberties people are taking,” Wizards’ center Robin Lopez said on Monday after a security guard tackled a fan who ran onto the court during a playoff game between the Wizards and Philadelphia 76ers in Washington, D.C.’s Capital One Arena.
Wizards’ coach Scott Brooks went off on what he described as “knuckleheads” ruining it for all fans. Brooks asked any fan who can’t control their behavior to “just stay home.”
“Your thinking is barbaric,” Brooks said in a post-game interview Monday night. “We don’t need you. We don’t need your dollars. Get away from us.”
Monday’s fan commotion came just three days after a 76ers season ticket holder was caught on video dumping popcorn onto Westbrook’s head as the player was being helped off the court at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center following an injury.
“The amount of disrespect, the amount of fans just doing whatever the f— they want to do — it’s just out of pocket,” Westbrook said following the May 26 game. “There are certain things that cross the line. Any other setting … a guy were to come up on the street and pour popcorn on my head, you know what happens.”
“In these arenas, you got to start protecting the players,” Westbrook added. “We’ll see what the NBA does.”
The 76ers said in a statement that the fan who dumped popcorn on Westbrook was identified as a 76ers’ season ticket holder. The team said the fan “will be banned from all events at Wells Fargo Center indefinitely” and will have his season ticket membership revoked.
The NBA issued a statement over the weekend advising spectators to bone up on the league’s Fan Code of Conduct before attending games and warning of the consequences for anyone who violates the rules.
“The return of more NBA fans to our arenas has brought great excitement and energy to the start of the playoffs, but it is critical that we all show respect for players, officials and our fellow fans,” the NBA said in its statement. “An enhanced fan code of conduct will be vigorously enforced in order to ensure a safe and respectful environment for all involved.”
A Boston Celtics fan, identified by police as 21-year-old Cole Buckley, was arrested and charged with felony assault and battery with a dangerous weapon after he was caught on video allegedly hurling a plastic water bottle from the stands at Boston’s TD Garden that grazed Irving’s head after the Nets player led his team to a blowout victory, according to a police report obtained by ABC affiliate station WCVB-TV in Boston.
Buckley, who was released on $500 bail, was arraigned in Boston Municipal Court on Wednesday. A judge ordered him to stay away from TD Garden.
Buckley’s attorney, Stephen Neyman, had filed a motion to postpone the arraignment, arguing, “It provides for an effective, just alternative to a prosecution, particularly in a case like this, where an individual has no criminal record.” His request was denied.
Neyman and Buckley declined comment as they left the courthouse. But Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins issued stern words for the young man.
“It is not lost on me, that he chose to do this in a sport that is overwhelmingly Black men,” she said. “We have not charged him with a race-based hate crime, or a civil rights violation, but you don’t get to behave this way.”
Sunday’s game marked the first time since the start of the pandemic that the TD Garden allowed a full-capacity crowd.
Irving blamed the bottle-throwing incident on “underlying racism” and “treating people like they’re in a human zoo.” Buckley is a white student at the University of Rhode Island, according to the Boston police report.
“Throwing stuff at people, saying things. There’s a certain point where it gets to be too much,” said Irving, who previously played for the Celtics. “You see people just feel very entitled out here. … As a Black man playing in the NBA, dealing with a lot of this stuff, it’s fairly difficult. You never know what’s going to happen.”
Tricia McCorkle, a spokesperson for TD Garden, said the venue has “zero tolerance for violations of our guest code of conduct” and that Buckley is subject to a lifetime ban from the arena.
The New York Knicks also announced that it has banned a fan for allegedly spitting on Atlanta Hawks guard Young during a May 26 first-round playoff game at Madison Square Garden. During the game, Young was inbounding a ball when video showed a fan seated in the second row spit at the player over the heads fans seated courtside.
“We investigated the matter and determined that this patron, who is not a season ticket holder, did indeed spit on Trae Young, and for that reason, he is now banned from The Garden indefinitely,” the Knicks’ front office said in a statement. “We apologize to Trae and the entire Atlanta Hawks organization for this fan’s behavior. This was completely unacceptable and will not be tolerated in our venue. We have turned the information over to the appropriate authorities.”
In yet another ugly incident on May 26, three Utah Jazz fans were banned indefinitely from Salt Lake City’s Vivint Arena following a verbal confrontation in the stands that happened during Game 2 of the first-round playoff series between the Jazz and Memphis Grizzlies.
Jazz officials did not make details of the incident public, but in a post-game interview, Grizzlies’ player Ja Morant said racist and sexist comments were directed at his parents.
“My family should be able to cheer for me & my teammates without getting inappropriate [expletive] said to them,” Morant said in a post on Twitter.
Morant’s father, Tee Morant, told ESPN he and his family were subjected to verbal abuse on three separate occasions during the game and that security at Vivint Arena intervened in each incident. The names of the fans booted from the arena were not released.
“I know heckling,” Tee Morant told ESPN. “We were doing that the whole game. But that’s different than heckling. That’s straight-up disrespectful. That was too far out of line. You don’t say nothing like that heckling. That’s beyond heckling.”
Jazz officials issued an apology to Morant and his family and condemned the “unacceptable fan behavior.”
Jazz owner Ryan Smith also took to Twitter to say the franchise is “embarrassed and sorry.”
“The Utah Jazz have zero tolerance for offensive behavior,” Smith wrote. “We are committed to creating a respectful, competitive environment.”
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