Confrontations between basketball players and the crowd can turn ugly. The NBA needs to clamp down on such incidents for everyone’s benefit
When it comes to the case of Courtside Karen, LeBron James is obviously taking on Michele Obama’s philosophy: when they go low, we go high.
But first a quick recap. The Lakers star was confronted by a fan, Juliana Carlos, during his team’s victory over the Hawks in Atlanta on Monday night (some NBA teams are allowing spectators back into arenas in a limited capacity). Her husband had been heckling James and that ended with Carlos pulling down her facemask – during a pandemic, mind you – and verbally abusing James before being escorted out by security, along with three others in her party. She then took to social media to tell James that: “I will [expletive] you up”. There were many more words in the video, mainly beginning with F. She also appeared to think she was entitled to abuse James because she had “courtside seats that I … paid for”.
Twitter was on the side of James anyway (who himself tweeted that “Courtside Karen was MAD MAD!!” along with several laughing emojis). People joked that Carlos wouldn’t have had all that mouth if LeBron’s wife, Savannah, had been in the stands – and they’re probably right. But Mrs James shouldn’t be put in the position to have to defend her husband from fans making verbal threats. This is supposed to be a family environment, not Road House with Patrick Swayze (I know I’m dating myself with that reference).
Carlos has since apologized, James said that he did not think her party should have been ejected and the Hawks have decided not to ban her from the arena. But does that send the right message of what is tolerated in the NBA?
Certainly, it sometimes seems that teams are more concerned about appeasing fans than their own players.
Few players would argue with some good-natured heckling from the crowd – interaction with fans can be a fun part of the game. But it can also turn ugly and racist, particularly in a majority Black sport played in front of majority white crowds.
I remember when I was playing for the Washington Wizards in Utah, and the crowd was heckling my teammate Kwame Brown as we were walking out. They were saying vile things (as the Utah crowd often does) and I looked right in the face of an older white man, who called Kwame a “Black mothereffer” (although he used something else than “effer”). Michael Jordan was my Wizards teammate at the time, and I told his security guy, George, what had been said. George told me that I would be surprised if I knew some of the things people had said to Jordan over the years. That stuck with me because if people hurl racist epithets at someone as venerated as MJ, they will do it to anyone. And it shouldn’t be acceptable.
I asked two time NBA champion James Posey if he had experienced fans who crossed the line, and the consequences they faced.
“While I was coaching in Cleveland, it had to be 2015 or 2016-17, there was a guy who sat behind our bench who was a season ticket holder and we still had LeBron James, and his whole purpose was to berate the coaches and players, as his wife would sit next to him and just laugh and she would be so proud. They talk about us being professional, but fans feel that they can say whatever they want to because they have that right because they bought their ticket.
“One day, as an assistant coach, I couldn’t take it anymore. He was cussing out [then Cavaliers head coach] Tyronn Lue, cussing out LeBron, other players and I turned around and went off in front of everybody. So, the game ends, he complains to our front office, I was reprimanded for my reaction and they rewarded him by giving him a tour of our facility to make amends with him as a season ticket holder, and I thought to myself, what kind of message does this send?”
There are far more examples. There was the Malice at the Palace, the infamous 2004 brawl during a Pacers-Pistons game which ended with the suspension of nine players for a total of 146 games. Fans jumped the rail and threw beer at players, while squaring up to them. But the majority of blame was placed on Indiana’s Metta Sandiford-Artest (then known as Ron Artest).
The NBA has a responsibility to create a safe work environment for their employees, who earn the league billions of dollars every year. And the league has shown it can act effectively. In 2019, the Utah Jazz banned a fan for life for racially abusing Russell Westbrook, an action that sent out a strong message that such behavior will not be tolerated.
It’s not just players who would benefit either. All it takes is for the Juliana Carloses of the world to abuse the wrong person, someone who is more Metta Sandiford-Artest than Michelle Obama. Then the NBA will only have themselves to blame for failing to set the standard for what is acceptable.