In the closing minutes of a 2003 regular-season game between the New York Knicks and Toronto Raptors at Madison Square Garden, fashion designer Calvin Klein rose from his courtside seat and made an unannounced visit to the Knicks’ Latrell Sprewell, who was about to inbound the ball.
Klein grabbed Sprewell’s arm and mumbled something to him before Garden security escorted Klein back to his seat. Play resumed. No harm, no foul.
“I wasn’t nervous, I was surprised,” Sprewell told reporters after the game.
Klein’s fan interaction seems quaint compared to a recent rash of bad fan behavior during the NBA playoffs, where players have been spit upon or had objects thrown at them by fans, among other disturbing conduct. While fan vitriol, whether it’s booing, yelling taunts or holding up signs, has been a component of spectator sports for decades, the spate of troubling incidents this NBA postseason has drawn the ire of players and has caused the league and arenas to crack down on offenders.
On Sunday, as the Brooklyn Nets star point guard Kyrie Irving walked off the TD Garden court in Boston after his team’s 141-126 Game 4 victory over the Celtics in their first-round series, a plastic water bottle sailed past his head just as he was about to enter the tunnel leading to the visiting locker room. Irving, who played two seasons for the Celtics, was not struck, but a male fan wearing a Kevin Garnett Celtics jersey was arrested for throwing the bottle and is subject to a lifetime ban, according to a statement from a TD Garden spokesperson.
“I know that being in the house for a year and a half with the pandemic got a lot of people on edge, got a lot of people stressed out. We’re not animals,” Irving’s Nets teammate Kevin Durant said after the water bottle incident. “We’re not in a circus. You coming to the game is not all about you as a fan. So have some respect for the game, have some respect for these human beings, and have some respect for yourself. Your mother wouldn’t be proud of you throwing water bottles at players, or spitting at players or tossing popcorn, so grow the [expletive] up and enjoy the game.
“It’s bigger than you.”
Durant’s remarks referred to some of the other ugly incidents involving fans during this NBA playoffs, but he also noted the past 14-plus months, when the pandemic upended society and sports. Covid-induced health protocols were put in place when professional sporting events resumed last year, including fans being barred from attending games to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Now that fans are permitted back into arenas, however, the league and venues have had to respond to an unsettling amount of fan-related misbehavior: Wizards’ star Russell Westbrook had popcorn tossed at him as he left the court at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia on May 26 during Game 2 of that first-round series. The offending fan received an indefinite ban and lost season-ticket privileges; that same day, May 26, a Madison Square Garden fan spit on Atlanta Hawks’ Trae Young during a game between the Hawks and the Knicks, and in a separate incident, Knicks rookie Immanuel Quickley was doused with beer, according to a New York Post report. The Knicks announced the spitting fan was subsequently banned from the Garden indefinitely; during a May 31 game in Washington, D.C., between the 76ers and Wizards, a fan ran onto the court during play, only to be tackled by security near one of the baskets.
“You can tell those people have been in some sort of captivity for the last year, year and change, right?” Wizards center Robin Lopez said. “It’s kind of wild to see the liberties people are taking.”
During a May 26 game between the Memphis Grizzlies and Utah Jazz at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City, three fans made offensive remarks to the family of Grizzlies star Ja Morant. The three were banned as a result, and Jazz owner Ryan Smith tweeted an apology to Morant.
“Memphis Grizzlies and Morant family… we are embarrassed and sorry,” Smith tweeted. “The @UtahJazz have zero tolerance for offensive behavior. We are committed to creating a respectful, competitive environment.”
NBA security provides guidelines and standards to teams and arena personnel regarding safety measures, and the league has a fan “Code of Conduct,” which outlines what type of behavior is expected of attendees.
“Players and fans respect and appreciate each other,” and “Guests who engage in fighting, throwing objects or attempting to enter the court will be immediately ejected from the arena,” are two such NBA codes. Violations can result in “ejection without refund,” or “revocation of their season tickets, and/or prevention from attending future games.” The league encourages other fans to report unruly behavior to security or arena personnel, but teams and arena staff “are trained to intervene when necessary” to ensure a safe environment. If a fan is subject to a league-wide ban, the NBA’s legal counsel provides assistance in those matters.
Fans can also be subject to arrest and prosecution, if they violate certain ordinances, according to the NBA.
“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 in a May 27 press release. “An enhanced fan code of conduct will be vigorously enforced in order to ensure a safe and respectful environment for all involved.”
Still, even with league-wide measures in place, and security on alert, there is always the possibility of unwanted — and offensive — fan conduct.
“It’s very unacceptable what went on,” Morant said. “My family’s doing well. I mean, it’s just mind-blowing that, you know, that type of stuff still continues in the world today.”