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Crowd Control: Are There Any Solutions to the Westbrook-Utah Affair?

A heated moment at a recent Jazz game resulted in a fine for a former MVP, the banishment of a fan, and a lot of hard questions. But what can the league do to prevent fans from going too far?

Russell Westbrook Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A complicated thing happened in Utah on Monday night. Here, first, are the details:

A video surfaced showing Russell Westbrook promising to inflict violence on some people off camera near the Oklahoma City Thunder bench at the Utah Jazz’s home arena, later identified as Shane Keisel and his partner. Keisel, a former Utah Highway Patrol officer turned car salesman, claimed innocence in the interaction, but the Jazz permanently barred him from their building.

Speaking to reporters after Monday’s game, Westbrook said his F-bomb-accented outburst came in response to Keisel’s telling him to “get down on your knees like you’re used to,” a comment the former MVP said he believed to be “racial” in nature and “completely disrespectful.” Keisel told a local television station that he’d told the “classless” Westbrook to “sit down and ice your knees, bro,” and told ESPN that Westbrook needed “to be exposed” for threatening a woman. Two of Westbrook’s Thunder teammates, Patrick Patterson and Raymond Felton, corroborated Westbrook’s account, and, evidently, so did the team’s digging. According to the Jazz, “an investigation through video review and eyewitness accounts” of Keisel’s interaction with the Oklahoma City superstar merited a ban for “excessive and derogatory verbal abuse directed at a player … that violated the NBA Code of Conduct.”

“The Utah Jazz will not tolerate fans who act inappropriately,” the team said in a statement. “There is no place in our game for personal attacks or disrespect.”

So Shane Keisel isn’t allowed to go to Jazz games anymore—or any events at Vivint Smart Home Arena, for that matter—and Russell Westbrook has to pay a $25,000 fine for telling fans he’d fuck them up, all of which sounds generally right. (Keisel apparently plans to sue Westbrook, which, well, good luck with that.)

That’s what happened. The question now is whether any of this will mean anything after the news cycle dies down.

It’s inarguably good that, in this instance, actions had consequences: Yell demeaning, racist stuff, and, at a minimum, you don’t get to watch Donovan Mitchell play up close anymore. Yet the ban happened only after the fact; in the moment, security handed Keisel and a few other fans “warning cards” informing them that their conduct had crossed a line, but they were allowed to return to their seats, and nobody got ejected. And it happened in large part because our man Keisel was all too eager to proclaim his blamelessness with the bulletproof confidence of the “What are you gonna do, stab me?” guy.

A common theme has emerged in the aftermath of the incident, one specifically raised by Westbrook, Patterson, and Felton, and echoed by Jazz players like Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, and Thabo Sefolosha: that the NBA needs to do more to protect players from overzealous fans who overstep their bounds, whether physically or verbally. But how much can the league do to protect players in the moment when hundreds of fans are within shouting distance of the court?

What makes it hard to believe that anything’s going to change here is that, despite the Jazz’s welcome rejoinder that personal attacks and disrespect have no place in our game, we know that’s not true. This wasn’t an isolated incident; this stuff happens.

As Felton and others were careful to make clear after Monday’s game, it doesn’t happen only in Utah. (And as Marc J. Spears wrote in a great 2017 feature for The Undefeated, a lot of black players over the years have moved past the culture shock of arriving in predominantly white Salt Lake City to fall in love with life in Utah.) From Westbrook’s perspective, though, it seems to happen “especially here in Utah.”

“I don’t confront fans,” Westbrook said in April after the Jazz eliminated the Thunder from the playoffs. “Fans confront me. Here in Utah, man, a lot of disrespectful, vulgar things are said to the players here. And with these fans, man, it’s truly disrespectful. Talk about your families, your kids, and it’s just disrespect to the game. I think it’s something that needs to be brought up.”

Other players have brought up similar issues. Former Warriors stars Stephen Jackson and Jason Richardson both said Jazz fans hurled racial slurs in their direction during their 2007 playoff series. There was the Derek Fisher incident, when a Jazz fan angry that the guard had signed with the Lakers after asking for his release from Utah—a request Fisher says he made so that he could be closer to a major medical center where his daughter could receive treatment for a rare type of eye cancer—covered his eye as he shouted at Fisher during a 2008 playoff game. (Some Jazz fans, as you might expect, have long had a different view of the Fisher situation.)

Several Jazz fans got involved in an on-court fight during a 1987 playoff game against the Warriors. (Another apparently wanted to “intervene” in a squabble between Jazz forward Derrick Favors and Nuggets center Mason Plumlee a couple of months back.) Some chucked garbage at the Spurs and the referees after a 2007 playoff loss. One giddily called out DeMarcus Cousins for being “soft” during his time with the Pelicans, prompting an invitation from the big man to “sit your fat ass down.” One got banned for a year for trying to distract James Harden with a laser pointer during a free throw in 2016; others got up close and personal with the Rockets star during Utah’s 2018 playoff series with Houston.

Interactions with players that cross the line happen elsewhere, too: Cleveland’s had a problem with fans rushing the court over the years; fans have gotten too familiar with Westbrook in Denver a couple of times; etc. And maybe the volume’s ratcheted up a notch in Utah, where the Jazz have been the primary major professional sports franchise and object of fan affection for ages, and where the environment is widely considered one of the most intense in the NBA, with fans teeming with energy seemingly on top of the court like a college arena. The lack of distance and barriers between players and fans is one factor that can make the NBA such a thrilling, immediate, and tactile spectacle. But it also poses problems.

”Sometimes it almost feels like a zoo,” Gobert told ESPN this week. “People pay money to watch us and feel like they can touch us or do whatever they want. Because we make millions, we’re just expected to shut up and take it. But they can’t do whatever they want.”

Whatever the root cause of the issue, though, and wherever it’s most centrally located, it’s one that players are growing increasingly unwilling to accept, which might make it one that the league has to address—a tricky matter in its own right.

In the wake of Monday’s incident, Michele Roberts, the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, has called for a leaguewide zero-tolerance policy for fans who engage in misconduct toward players—moving beyond forcefully worded warnings and toward an immediate heave-ho for reported wrongdoing. Mandating ejections based on hearsay in the moment, though, doesn’t seem like something the league would want to do. But how do you show players you’ve got their backs in the face of the repugnant stuff they hear while keeping in place the weak punishment system that allows fans to keep spewing it, knowing that they’ll get a chance to foul back a pitch or two before striking out?

It’s a question I’d imagine NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s been pondering for the past couple of days. Beyond the hope that “increased awareness” and “ongoing dialogue” about repugnant behavior toward players will eventually steer generations of people away from the attitudes that lead them to objectionable invective, though, I don’t know that anybody’s got a satisfactory answer.