A spate of incidents across the league has emphasized another dynamic. In Philadelphia, a fan emptied a bucket of popcorn onto the head of Russell Westbrook as he headed to the locker room to tend to an injured ankle. In New York, someone sitting courtside spit on the Atlanta Hawks’ Trae Young as he got ready to inbound the ball. That same night, in Salt Lake City, the father of the Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant reported that Utah Jazz supporters directed sexist and racist remarks at him and his wife. If the empty arenas of the past 15 months yielded insights into the imaginative magic of sports, they also sidestepped a problem that athletes know all too well: the communal passion of fans tipping into venom and vitriol. “When you come to these games you’ve got to realize—these men are human,” said an exhausted-sounding Kevin Durant, Irving’s teammate and himself a seasoned recipient of scorn from former fan bases. “We’re not animals. We’re not in the circus.”
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The scenes are not without precedent. Bill Russell has detailed the abuse he used to receive from even his own team’s fans, who rained epithets on the player who would become the most decorated in Celtics history. Vernon Maxwell, a shooting guard with the 1990s Houston Rockets, says spectators would heckle him about his stillborn daughter; he once charged into the stands and swung at one after allegedly hearing a comment. The infamous 2004 “Malice at the Palace”—a sideline-spanning brawl involving both players and fans of the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons—began in earnest when one fan hurled a drink over rows of seats at Ron Artest (now Metta Sandiford-Artest).
The current run of fan ugliness is difficult to ascribe to one factor. “I think some of this is reflective of the pandemic, and people for the first time being in public places—the crowds, the conformity, the emotions, and alcohol mixed in,” Tatishe Nteta, an associate political-science professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (and Celtics diehard) who has studied fan-athlete relationships, told me. “I also think it’s a reflection of widespread lack of civility and respect that pervades our society.” Nteta noted that the general atmosphere of aggression makes the role of race difficult to isolate—except in cases like the one in Utah—but impossible to ignore. “I don’t want to use these incidents to make a broad generalization about the salience of race,” he said of the pattern of white fans confronting Black players and their families. “But it’s an underlying factor, an underlying theme.”
Spectator sports rely heavily on the playacting of hatred, drawing power from performed animosity. Players can take on the roles of visiting villain or departing traitor, and fans provide an eager, energizing chorus. (Mid-pandemic ads pining for the return of the crowd, set to Willie Nelson’s rendition of “I’ll Be Seeing You,” neglected to include hoisted middle fingers or streams of spittle-spraying expletives.) In the days before the Nets traveled to Boston, Irving tried to draw a distinction between culturally accepted—indeed, requisite—trash talk and genuine harm. “Hopefully we can just keep it strictly basketball,” he said. “There’s no belligerence or any racism going on, subtle racism.” His stomping of the Celtics’ mid-court logo just after the Game 4 buzzer fell into the established traditions of sports theater, a nod to his sour split with the franchise. The postgame projectile, though, was not a prop.