If you’re even a casual observer of the NBA, you’ve definitely heard about the flare-up between Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook and Utah Jazz fan Shane Keisel during the second quarter of Monday night’s game in Salt Lake City.
Westbrook claimed Keisel, who is white, told him to, “Get down on your knees like you’re used to.” (Keisel says he yelled: “Ice your knees up.”) Far more clear is the cell phone video capturing Westbrook’s profanity-laced reaction. Less than a day later, Keisel was banned for life from Jazz game whilee Westbrook was fined $25,000 by the league.
The incident has been a hot topic of discussion for the talking heads all week, but very few have been in the situation that Westbrook found himself at Vivint Smart Home Arena. I have. I played nine seasons over 11 years in the NBA and know first hand the climate at Jazz games. When it comes to racial abuse of the sort Westbrook alleged, Utah is as bad as it gets.
I can recall countless road trips looking around the arena in Salt Lake City and being shocked by the faces of hate glaring back from the crowd. Every away building is a hostile environment with passionate fans rooting for the home team and sometimes crossing the line. But in Utah, it’s different. There are abundantly clear racial undertones to the heckling that seem to hover in the arena.
Many commentators have criticized Westbrook, saying NBA players need to remain professional under any and all circumstances. That they need to exhibit more self-control. That they are getting paid millions of dollars … as if any dollar amount is a fair exchange for your dignity and pride. It’s almost as if people are demanding the same kind of superhuman restraint required of our parents and grandparents when they were trying to desegregate schools in Georgia or marching for voting rights in Selma during the civil rights movement. If Jackie Robinson could toe the line than why can’t Russell Westbrook?
This is 2019. Not the 1960s. NBA players, whatever their salaries, do not sign up to play before a bigoted mob. This isn’t even Westbrook’s first spectator altercation in Utah after last year’s playoffs, when a Jazz fan repeatedly called him “boy”, leaving little question as to what he meant. Plenty of NBA players came to Westbrook’s defense then just as they did after Monday’s incident. Because they know Utah!
Now of course not every Jazz fan falls into this category. But make no mistake: this is the reputation the city has earned among the players around the league. It didn’t come out of nowhere. And that such a poorly kept secret has been tolerated for decades is borderline reckless. Thankfully the Jazz, almost certainly in counsel with the progressive league commissioner Adam Silver, took swift action against Keisel, something Silver’s more conservative predecessor, David Stern, might have avoided.
NBA players should be held to high standards of professionalism, but there’s always been a bit of a double standard when it comes to spectator abuse. Remember the Malice at the Palace, the infamous 2004 brawl during a Pacers-Pistons game which ended with the suspension of nine players for a total of 146 games? Plenty of blame was immediately placed on Indiana’s Metta World Peace (then known as Ron Artest); far less so on the fan who threw a beer at him or the two others who jumped the rail and squared up toe to toe with him.
Other critics of Westbrook have asked why he didn’t simply inform arena security that a fan was crossing the line. Good idea. Problem is, the ushers and security personnel were all over the place as Monday’s incident unfolded, looking on like it was a movie.
Antonio Daniels, who played for seven different NBA teams in his career, said fans are not afraid to stoop to the lowest levels in an interview on my radio show The Collision on Thursday.
“As a player that played in the league for 13 years, I have had some fans say some egregious things to me,” Daniels said. “People have heckled me about the passing of my brother where, if there wasn’t a barrier between me and that fan, we would have had issues. I’m not excusing what he did, but yet I do understand it.”
The Jazz released a statement announcing they’d handed out “multiple warning cards” to different unruly fans fans on Monday (ahead of Tuesday’s harder lifetime ban). What the devil is a warning card? Throw the fan out and you have solved the problem – and it will send a message to all of the other fans that certain behavior will not be tolerated. Make announcements over the PA system: if you see something say something. Players understand the reality of the situation. Dealing with someone saying “You suck!” or “You’re not good enough!” is one thing. I get it. But when you start throwing in ethnicity, background, wife and children, you’re stepping over the line.
For those who have said Westbrook is entitled, I’ll just say this: sports fans have frequently had a difficult time separating the man from the athlete. I had the honor of interviewing Russ, who was my teammate with the Thunder for one season in 2009-10, for my book We Matter: Athletes and Activism. He spoke with so much compassion and caring for what the family of Terence Crutcher, the unarmed victim of a fatal police shooting, was going through. How seeing what happened personally affected him and pushed him to speak publicly about it at a post-game press conference. He didn’t do it to make headlines, but he did it because he genuinely cared, eventually inviting Crutcher’s family to a pre-season game in Tulsa – the city where he was killed. The compassion shown by Westbrook is a far cry from the entitled, spoiled, thinks-the-world-owes-him-something character spun by pundits like Jason Whitlock.
No one, no matter how well compensated, deserves to be subjected to the type of abuse that NBA players have become all too familiar with in Utah. There’s a way to cheer passionately for your team and there’s a way that crosses the line. Security is paid to police it. It shouldn’t come down to players fending for themselves.
- Etan Thomas played in the NBA from 2001 through 2011. He a published poet, activist and motivational speaker.