AP Photo/Elise Amendola
Suffice to say the novelty of fans returning to the stands across the NBA has worn off.
In light of a fan throwing a water bottle at Kyrie Irving—the latest in a string of fan-related incidents during the 2021 playoffs—Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard offered a concerning prediction Sunday night:
The implication from Lillard is a player-fan physical altercation will come if nothing is done to address the fan behavior.
Four separate incidents of fans crossing the line have taken place in the first week of the NBA playoffs, which saw many arenas around the league allow thousands of more people into the stands amid the loosening of COVID-19 restrictions.
A Knicks fan spat on Hawks guard Trae Young during game action, a Sixers fan threw popcorn on Wizards guard Russell Westbrook, and three Jazz fans were banned from the arena for hurling racist insults to the family of Grizzlies guard Ja Morant.
Westbrook had to be physically restrained from going after the fan in Philadelphia. While there are regularly enough people to hold back players whose anger boils over with unruly fans, Lillard is correct in foreshadowing a time when tempers might flare to the point it can’t be stopped.
The NBA has avoided physical conflict between fans and players since the 2004 Malice at the Palace, one of the ugliest incidents in league history. Fans and players both seemed to learn valuable lessons in the aftermath of that; fans found out it’s not a particularly great idea to challenge a group of extremely tall, physically fit men, and players saw their careers could be threatened if they crossed the line.
More than a decade-and-a-half has passed since then, and it’s clear frustration among players is reaching a fever pitch.
Kevin Durant told reporters Sunday night:
“Fans gotta grow up at some point. 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. But when you come into these games, you gotta realize these men are human. We’re not animals; we’re not in a circus. You coming to the game is not all about you as a fan. 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 basketball players or spitting on players or tossing popcorn. Grow the f–k up and enjoy the game. It’s bigger than you.”
While the league has condemned the fans and acted swiftly to ban them from their respective arenas, greater action may need to be taken if these acts continue to escalate.