There was a time, during a pregame chat in Chicago, when Paul Silas (then coaching the Hornets) was talking about the gradual softening of the NBA. In his 16 years in the league, from 1964 to 1980, he’d seen countless players assault each other on the floor, coaches battle coaches, coaches battle players and players fly into the stands to throttle hecklers.
“When I played,” Silas said, “we knew what the NBA stood for: No Boys Allowed. Can’t do that now. Too many cameras all around.”
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That was 2003. Oh, the cameras we have now, coach.
Silas’ lament came to mind when seeing Thunder star Russell Westbrook, again, in a tiff Monday night with a fan in the heat of an NBA game. The incident was caught on camera, of course, a reminder that Westbrook, on the court, is a jerk.
Westbrook is cuddly as a porcupine, sweet as battery acid. He taunts opposing benches. He taunts opposing crowds. He has a long list of NBA-types with whom he has had some form of beef: Patrick Beverley, Jusuf Nurkic (and the Trail Blazers in general), Joel Embiid, Reggie Jackson, reporters of all types, even Rocky, the Nuggets’ mascot.
We should want him to be that way. Star-caliber jerks are rare in sports. Westbrook, though, should not have to take heightened fan abuse simply because he has a sour disposition.
Things get heated between Russell Westbrook and Utah Jazz fans again. “I’ll f*ck you up. You and your wife,” he says. Not sure what these fans said to him, but he also had issues with Jazz fans during the postseason. pic.twitter.com/LquwRmLVNy
Five Utah Jazz fans received “warning cards” that their comments, gestures and/or behaviors directed at players were in violation of the NBA Fan Code of Conduct, but were able to return to their seats after their altercation with Russell Westbrook.
Yet, this kind of thing keeps happening. Every time a new incident arises, it’s broadcast and replayed, shared on social media and dissected on talk shows. That sets up Westbrook for the next incident, and the next, and the one after that, until it all blurs together. It’s more Russ being Russ.
But it’s not Russ. It’s the fans.
This sort of thing happens to Westbrook more than any other player, and to an extent, that is his own doing. He enjoys the villain’s role. He interacts with fans. He talks a lot of trash. It fuels him. We should want some of that from our players. I’d rather root for my jerk than for a guy who shares pregame hugs and yuk-yuks with opponents.
Fans have taken Westbrook’s willingness to play the villain and piled on, though. They have tried to find new and creative ways to get under his skin. Consider, for example, Denver, one place where Westbrook is not well-liked. It has been the scene of two Westbrook incidents in the past 13 months.
Last February, Westbrook was walking off the floor in Denver when a fan stepped onto the court and shouted something in Westbrook’s face. Incredulous, Westbrook pushed the fan back and looked around for security. This February in Denver, as Westbrook leapt out of bounds, a young fan reached out and gave him a tug. Westbrook, much to his credit, calmly chided the boy’s father, but left it at that.
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Neither incident could be pinned on Westbrook. But because he is the interactive bad guy, crowd members seem to hold him to a different standard. Hey, any guy with his hat on backwards can just jump on the floor and yell in Russ’s mug! Any kid can grab Russ by the arm mid-game!
That brings us to Utah, a place that has long drawn Westbrook’s ire. On Monday, he had a verbal confrontation with a man sitting in the front row, and the incident was caught on cellphone camera. The takeaway from the video will be Westbrook telling the fan he would “f— up” both him and his wife.
Westbrook was absolutely wrong to bring the man’s wife into his threat, even if, as Westbrook said, she had insulted him, too. He said after the game he has never, and would never, hit a woman. He should have specifically apologized for that.
Westbrook offered no apology, though. He insisted there was more to the story. He suggested there was a racial aspect to the taunts from the fan, who, according to Westbrook, told him to get on his knees. The fan, interviewed later by local media, claimed he’d only said that Westbrook should go to the bench and ice his knees.
Russell Westbrook says the comment from the Jazz fan that set him off was: “Get down on your knees like you’re used to.” pic.twitter.com/i0vIlblSwJ
Video of the rest of Russell Westbrook’s statement: “I just think that there’s got to be something done. There’s got to be some consequences for those type of people who come to the game just to say and do whatever they want to say.” pic.twitter.com/qHkg7Aa4Aw
Shane Keisel, the Jazz fan who was involved in a verbal altercation with Russell Westbrook during the Jazz loss to the Thunder, explains his side of what happened. @KSL5TV @kslsports #nba pic.twitter.com/ScCSRttTCg
Armchair lawyers will parse the credibility of those claims. Those inclined toward a dislike of Westbrook will lean toward the fan’s account, and his backers will lean toward Westbrook’s version.
But for Westbrook, this has to be getting tiresome. Last spring, Westbrook was confronted by Jazz fans twice during a playoff game, when leaving the court at halftime during the series-clinching Game 6 loss and after the game. Security was called in, and in his postgame press conference, Westbrook did not hold back.
“Here in Utah, a lot of disrespectful, vulgar things are said to the players here with these fans,” Westbrook said. “They are truly disrespectful, talking about your families, your kids. It is a disrespect to the game, and I think it is something that needs to be brought up.”
There is history with Westbrook and Jazz fans, then, and there has been a long litany of NBA players who have stated crowds in Utah can be especially nasty with the use of racial epithets. After Westbrook’s complaints last year, former Warriors guard Stephen Jackson said on Fox Sports that a fan was allowed to hold a life-size cutout of him in a prison uniform during the 2007 playoffs.
“It’s definitely not a place for the brothers,” Jackson said.
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Journeyman forward Matt Barnes once told radio host Colin Cowherd that, in Salt Lake City, there are “more N-words than black people in the city.” And J.R. Smith told GQ that what makes shooting free throws difficult is “when you’re in Utah and people are shouting the N-word that’s tough.”
In fairness, Utah is hardly the only locale that has been accused of racial taunts by its sporting fan base. I’m based in Boston, and there was an accusation by Orioles outfielder Adam Jones two years ago that Red Sox fans used racist terms to taunt him. The NHL’s Blackhawks banned four fans last year for using slurs, and shortly thereafter, the Cavaliers banned a fan for using racist taunts against Spurs guard Patty Mills.
But Utah’s reputation is there, and Westbrook is attuned to it. Maybe he overreacted, maybe he misheard the fan in question. That would be a surprise, though, given how much trash talk Westbrook has willingly accepted over the years. He is accustomed to playing the jerk and has a lengthy history of handling heckles and crowd scorn. He’s quite good at it, in fact.
Westbrook’s willingness to play the villain should not open him to physical contact of any kind, racial insults or anything else outside the bounds of good taste. He takes it, though, until finally he reacts, gets caught on video and sets off a new wave of outrage over his latest confrontation.
The cycle repeats and repeats. Problem is, it’s not Westbrook who has trouble dealing with harsh crowds. It’s harsh crowds that have trouble dealing with Westbrook.
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