The New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers each banned a fan and issued apologies Thursday for actions directed at opposing players during playoff games, and the NBA said that rules surrounding fan behavior will be “vigorously enforced" going forward.
The Knicks said they banned a fan from Madison Square Garden for spitting on Atlanta guard Trae Young, and the 76ers banned a fan who threw popcorn on Washington guard Russell Westbrook. Both incidents occurred Wednesday night.
“We’re just living in a society where people don’t have respect anymore,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan said Thursday. “In no way should that be allowed, or should that happen, at a sporting event or really any event. ... I think New York did what it should have done in that situation. It’s uncalled for.”
The 76ers went even further than the Knicks could, because the fan involved in the Westbrook incident was a season-ticket holder. Those tickets have been revoked, and he was banned from all events at their arena.
Neither the Knicks nor the 76ers released the names of the fans who were involved. The Knicks said they forwarded information to authorities.
“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 said. “We apologize to Trae and the entire Atlanta Hawks organization for this fan’s behavior.”
Video showed that someone spit on Young while he was preparing to inbound the basketball in the fourth quarter of New York's win over Atlanta at Madison Square Garden. Young did not mention it in his postgame interviews and McMillan said he was unaware of the incident until Thursday morning.
Young was the subject of profane chants from some fans in that arena throughout the first two games of the series; the Hawks' guard taunted them right back after his shot with less than a second left gave Atlanta a win in Game 1. Even New York Mayor Bill di Blasio weighed in this week on Young's penchant for trying to draw fouls, both in a news conference and on his office's Twitter page.
“There’s obviously a line,” Brooklyn forward Blake Griffin said Thursday. “I think what happened to Russ is obviously far behind that line.”
Westbrook was leaving the Wizards’ game in Philadelphia with an ankle injury when someone sitting over the tunnel that leads from the floor threw the popcorn on him.
“We apologize to Russell Westbrook and the Washington Wizards for being subjected to this type of unacceptable and disrespectful behavior,” the 76ers said in a statement announcing the ban. “There is no place for it in our sport or arena.”
The National Basketball Players Association said “true fans ... honor and respect the dignity of our players. No true fan would seek to harm them or violate their personal space.” And the NBA said its rules on fan behavior will be “vigorously enforced in order to ensure a safe and respectful environment for all involved."
“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 Thursday.
NBA buildings are welcoming their largest crowds of the season for the playoffs, after a regular season where attendance was severely limited because of policies put in place to keep players and others safe during the pandemic.
It has not been without problems, and players are again airing concerns about behavior.
“I’m sick and tired of it, honestly,” Westbrook said.
He's not alone. Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James — who chimed in on Twitter shortly after the Westbrook incident Wednesday — has said in the past that fan behavior is an issue, and clearly still does.
Brooklyn guard Kyrie Irving — in advance of Game 3 of the Nets’ series at Boston — said he hoped the scene there on Friday night “is strictly basketball, there’s no belligerence or any racism going on, subtle racism, people yelling (expletive) from the crowd.”
“We go into a hostile environment and we welcome it, we enjoy it, we want the vitriol — as long as it's not over the line," Brooklyn coach Steve Nash said. “We want to face some adversity. That noise and that energy coming from the opposing fans is something that can spur your team on, a challenge to help you lock in and be more focused."
Westbrook has been part of high-profile incidents involving fans before, including one where a fan in Utah was alleged to have directed racial taunts his way. Westbrook was fined $25,000 for his reactions to that incident, one in which Utah guard Donovan Mitchell even came to his defense.
“These arenas, they’ve got to start protecting the players. We’ll see what the NBA does,” Westbrook said Wednesday night. “I’ve been in a lot of incidents where fans, they say whatever, and the consequences for me are a lot more detrimental to those people in the stands because they feel like they’re untouchable.”
After the Westbrook incident in Utah two years ago, the league changed and toughened its code of conduct for fans, including putting those in closest proximity to the players and the court on alert that anything over the line will lead to ejections and possibly more.
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