The Ugly Side of NBA Fandom Can No Longer Be Ignored

The post-pandemic return of spectators should be an opportunity to reset their antagonistic relationship with athletes.

A Brooklyn Nets basketball player surrounded by screaming mouths
Nathaniel S. Butler / NBAE / Getty / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

Late Sunday night, after the fourth game of a playoff series between the Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics, the most talked-about video was not a high-definition highlight but a few frames of zoomed-in graininess. As Kyrie Irving—once a Celtic, now a Net, fresh off scoring 39 points in a Brooklyn rout—exited the court in Boston, a 21-year-old fan named Cole Buckley allegedly hurled a plastic water bottle at Irving’s head. TV cameras, surveying the postgame scene in wide angle, caught the flight of the bottle as it just missed Irving. They then focused on the aftermath: Irving and his teammates huddling courtside and pointing Buckley out; Buckley, wearing a Kevin Garnett jersey, getting handcuffed and pulled away by security personnel. Kyrie trended on Twitter; TNT’s Inside the NBA, the postgame show of record, played it in slo-mo.

The start of the NBA playoffs has been heralded as the great reopening of American pro sports. Major League Baseball clubs have allowed in-person spectators since April’s Opening Day in gradually growing numbers, but NBA teams, whose venues lack the comparative safety of open-air stadiums, capped regular-season attendance well below capacity. With local restrictions lifted in recent weeks, fans have returned in droves to witness games loaded with the weight of both championship hopes and catharsis. After the Knicks’ first game in the freshly packed Madison Square Garden, one player joyfully reported that he “felt the floor shaking.”

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.”

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.

The renewed pattern of dehumanization arrives just when professional athletes’ humanity has been most clearly visible. NBA players spent the past year isolating from their families to finish a season in a bubble, organizing against police violence and systemic racism, and returning to the floor for a new season propped up by near-constant COVID-19 testing and exhaustive safety protocols. They profited off their play, of course, but incurred real risk to their physical and mental well-being. “If we’ve learned anything from this past year, it’s that it’s a privilege to be able to go and spectate,” says Victoria Jackson, a sports historian and professor at Arizona State University.

But if something in the post-pandemic emergence has brought out the worst in the worst type of fans, the reaction to the incidents points to the start of a more protective era. The response of the league and its teams has been unusually swift. All six fans involved in the past week’s incidents have received indefinite or lifetime bans from the arena; Buckley was arrested and faces an assault charge. Even more notable has been a shift in the tenor of media coverage. Much of the Detroit-melee coverage centered Artest as a “thug” unable to exercise the self-discipline required of his elite position; after Westbrook’s popcorn incident, fans flocked to social media to recast history. The unsavory reputations of certain fan bases long whispered about in NBA circles, such as those in Salt Lake City and Boston, have become public knowledge. The former guard Antonio Daniels told The Undefeated that he grew used to extreme verbal abuse as a condition of the job; now the fans who harassed Morant’s parents are a story unto themselves.

The pandemic, Nteta said, accelerated an existing trend toward more empathetic coverage of athletes: “In the past, you got a sort of top-down view of sports. Increasingly what we have now are athletes, ex-athletes, themselves providing their insights regarding these issues.” Social media has weakened the barrier between athlete and analyst, and major media outlets now stock their rosters with former players weighing in not only on game strategy but on the structures and dynamics off the court.

In this context, the reaction from both players and the media to the recent run of antagonism in NBA arenas reflects a new willingness to name the problem. How quickly, and how completely, the norms of sports fandom adapt remains to be seen. In the meantime, players are pursuing their own solutions. Alluding to the possibility that the Nets would win their next game and clinch the series, Durant said on Sunday, “Hopefully we don’t have to come back here this year.” They did indeed get the victory and, for a few restful days, got to stay home.