After months of basketballs echoing in nearly empty venues because of the coronavirus pandemic, Barclays Center is rocking, Madison Square Garden is electric and fans packing into N.B.A. arenas across the country are adding a dimension of excitement to playoff games that was sorely lacking in last postseason’s bubble.
But the easing of restrictions, which has allowed fans to return in droves, has brought to the forefront another dimension that the pandemic had covered: the sometimes ugly behavior of unruly fans in proximity to players and players’ families.
On Wednesday night alone: A fan in Philadelphia poured popcorn on the head of Washington Wizards guard Russell Westbrook as he departed the court at Wells Fargo Center with an ankle injury. In New York, a fan spat on Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young at Madison Square Garden. In Utah, three fans were ejected from Vivint Arena. The fans had directed comments at the family of Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant, according to a person with knowledge of the details who was not authorized to publicly discuss them.
Morant later responded to a tweet about the Jazz ejecting and indefinitely barring the fans, saying, “as they should.” His family, he added, should be able to cheer for him and his team without being verbally abused.
“There are certain things that cross the line,” Westbrook told reporters after his game in Philadelphia. “In these arenas, you got to start protecting the players. We’ll see what the N.B.A. does.”
The fans from Wednesday’s incidents have all been barred indefinitely from those arenas, and the 76ers announced that the popcorn-throwing fan, who was ejected, would have his season tickets revoked. But the punishments and subsequent apologies from teams will likely do little to alleviate growing concern among the players that fan behavior has grown unseemly, with players having little option but to take the abuse.
“We apologize to Trae and the entire Atlanta Hawks organization for this fan’s behavior,” the Knicks said in a statement. “This was completely unacceptable and will not be tolerated in our venue. We have turned the information over to the appropriate authorities.”
Young has quickly drawn the scorn of Knicks fans at the Garden during the first two games of their first-round series. Fans raucously cursed at him during Game 1 on Sunday, which the Hawks won largely because of Young. He put a finger over his mouth afterward to signal his silencing of a Garden crowd that had waited since 2013 to see the Knicks play N.B.A. playoff basketball.
Throughout Wednesday’s game, fans again serenaded him with an expletive and mocked his hair. Young tweeted a video of the spitting incident on Thursday, asking the rapper 50 Cent, who sat on the sideline between Young and the fan, if he was OK.
“We saw video of that, and unfortunately, I think we’re just living in a society where really people just don’t have respect anymore,” Hawks Coach Nate McMillan said. “In no way should that be allowed or should that happen at a sporting event or really any event where you are coming to watch a game and you do something like that.”
Players across the league voiced frustration over the incidents. “By the way WE AS THE PLAYERS wanna see who threw that popcorn on Russ while he was leaving the game tonight with a injury!!” Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James tweeted. “There’s cameras all over arenas so there’s no excuse!”
The players’ union released a statement on Thursday, putting the first word, “true,” in bold and in italics for emphasis: “True fans of this game honor and respect the dignity of our players. No true fan would seek to harm them or violate their personal space. Those who do have no place in our arenas.”
The union added that bad fan behavior would be “appropriately evaluated by law enforcement just as if it occurred on a public street.”
In February, security ejected fans from their courtside seats after they argued with James in Atlanta, when the Hawks were one of only nine N.B.A. franchises allowing fans in attendance.
“I’m happy fans are back in the building,” James told reporters after the incident. “I missed that interaction. I need that interaction. We as players need that interaction. I don’t feel like it was warranted to be kicked out.”
He added, “They could’ve probably kept it going and the game wouldn’t have been about the game anymore, so the referees did what they had to do.”
The unruly fan behavior is not limited to the N.B.A. Baseball stadiums have hosted a number of fights between fans since beginning its season this spring.
Samuel R. Sommers, an associate professor of psychology at Tufts University and an expert on the psychology of fans, said that sports bring people together in both unifying and combative ways.
“Take your pick, whether we’re talking a return to normalcy or whether we’re talking about people getting the pent-up energy out of their system,” Sommers said. “Things like this happen when you get groups of people like this together and when you add the excitement, the adrenaline, the energy of sports.”
This week’s episodes resurfaced a trend of troubling fan interactions at N.B.A. arenas that the pandemic had paused. In 2019, the N.B.A. toughened its fan conduct code after lobbying from players amid high-profile incidents, including the Toronto Raptors’ Kyle Lowry being shoved by Mark Stevens, a Golden State Warriors minority owner, during a finals game.
Players like Westbrook and Young have largely showed restraint when receiving vitriol from fans.
“Obviously I’m doing something right if you hate me that much,” said Young, who cursed back at fans after his playoff debut against the Knicks. “At the end of the day, we’ll get the last laugh if we do that.”
Westbrook said that he had learned to look the other way during most cases but that the situation was worsening. Three years ago, the Jazz barred a fan in Utah for, the team said, “excessive and derogatory verbal abuse directed at a player.” Westbrook, who is Black, said that fan, who appeared to be white, made “disrespectful” and “racial” comments.
The Jazz on Thursday said they had also indefinitely barred the fans from Wednesday’s incident involving Morant’s family. “The Utah Jazz have zero tolerance for offensive or disruptive behavior,” the team said in a statement, adding, “We apologize to all who were impacted by this unfortunate incident and condemn unacceptable fan behavior.”
Morant’s father, Tee, who is Black, told ESPN that one of the fans made a “sexually explicit remark to his wife.” Another, he said, told him, “I’ll put a nickel in your back and watch you dance, boy.”
This week, Nets guard Kyrie Irving, in comments to reporters, appeared to be trying to pre-empt any personal or racial attacks before playing against his former team, the Boston Celtics, in Game 3 of their series at TD Garden on Friday.
Black athletes from different sports have long described being taunted with racial attacks in Boston. Torii Hunter, a former M.L.B. outfielder, told ESPN that he had a no-trade clause to the Red Sox written into his contract because of the racial slurs he heard when he played in Boston.
“I am just looking forward to competing with my teammates,” Irving said, “and hopefully, we can just keep it strictly basketball; there’s no belligerence or racism going on — subtle racism.”
On Thursday, Celtics guard Marcus Smart told reporters that he’d heard the types of comments in Boston that Irving was referring to.
“I’ve heard a couple of them,” he said. “It’s kind of sad and sickening, because even though it’s an opposing team, we have guys on your home team that you’re saying these racial slurs and you expect us to go out here and play for you. It’s tough.”
The N.B.A., in a statement on Thursday, said that its fan code of conduct would be “vigorously enforced.”
“The return of more N.B.A. 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 N.B.A. said.
Marc Stein contributed to this report.