This past month, Portland center Jusuf Nurkic was fined $40,000 for tossing a fan’s phone into the stands. The courtside attendee recorded the exchange as Nurkic approached him, and the fan was later revealed to have yelled that his “grandma’s a b—h.”
Nurkic’s grandmother passed away in 2020 due to complications with Covid-19, but the NBA fined him anyway. NBA players are simply held to higher standards by the league when it comes to unruly fans, they ruled, no matter what they may yell at you.
“Even though the things the fan reportedly said were reprehensible, Nurkic had other avenues to deal with the fan,” CBS Sports reporter Michael Kaskey-Blomain wrote in response to the incident. “He could have alerted arena security, as other players have done in the past. Instead, he let his emotions get the best of him, and now he’ll have to pay for it, literally.”
But what happens when it isn’t one fan, but a whole stadium booing, yelling obscenities, and even throwing water bottles in your direction? Well, the fines just get larger if you respond.
Though the Wizards’ Kyle Kuzma was fined $15,000 for flipping the middle finger to a fan earlier this season, Kyrie Irving was hit with a $50,000 fine after he did the same to the crowd on Sunday.
Boston Celtics fans, angry that Irving left their team on free agency after two season to go and play for the Brooklyn Nets, made their ire known that night. When he came out onto the court, boo’s shook the venue.
“I don’t want to attack every fan—every Boston fan—but when people start yelling, ‘p—y, b—h and f–k you’ and all this stuff, there’s [only] so much you can take as a competitor,” Kyrie Irving told reporters after the game. “We’re the ones expected to be docile and be humble and take a humble approach. Nah, f–k that, it’s the playoffs. This is what it is. I know what to expect here and it’s the same energy I’m giving back to them.”
It’s hard not to empathize with Irving here, even if there are *wink wink Covid-19 vaccine* way greater things to be angry at the star point guard for than leaving Boston three years ago. Pro athletes are people too, and it’s a point he’s been trying to make heavily since last Summer.
When Tennis star Naomi Osaka was fined last May after refusing to do press conferences at the 2021 French Open, she stated that “I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health.”
Kyrie Irving, who was being fined for refusing to post-game press around the same time, responded by saying: “I pray we utilize the ‘fine money’ for the marginalized communities in need, especially seeing where our world is presently… stop distracting me and my team, and appreciate the Art.”
It turns out that it’s a lot to ask the fans for respect, however, especially when it comes to sports like basketball that put fans closer to the athletes than seemingly any other. You can actually sit courtside in the NBA–so close that players often trip over fans accidentally in their attempts to save a ball from going out-of-bounds.
Of course, the clear response to fans is “respect the players,” “don’t you love basketball?” etc., but for fans that put their entire heart and soul into a team, it’s not so easy for them to take the player’s side. All their hopes and dreams were placed into Boston winning the championship, and Kyrie Irving leaving felt like a betrayal.
“It’s rooted in love,” Kyrie Irving’s teammate Kevin Durant said on Tuesday. “They once loved you. They once cheered for you and bought your merchandise and had life-altering experiences coming to games watching you play. So, when that kind of gets ripped from them… it feels like a piece of them is gone too.”
“It’s an emotional attachment that they have to professional sports, and that’s a gift and curse of having a team in your city where you grew up,” Durant continued. “But it shows that people care and people have emotions and people really accept and admire who we are as individuals. Sometimes, it gets a little dark and deep. But that’s just how the human brain works.”
Of course, It’s no excuse to call players a “p—y b—h” and throw water bottles at him as he heads into the locker room, but it seems there’s little we can do about angry fans other than just ask for more respect. For the NBA, it’s that or we watch basketball in silence like tennis.
“We understand all of that, and the fans understand where we’re coming from now at this point, too, because we all have our own platforms and speak on stuff like this,” Kevin Durant told reporters. “So, it’s healthy once everybody understands both sides.”
There are some consequences to actin’ a fool at NBA games, such as being ejected by security or losing your season tickets (if you had them), but acting in bad fashion reflects poorly on the city as well. If Boston fans keep up their vitriol as we head into Game 2 tonight, which is only likely to escalate, will players think twice about wanting to play for the Celtics?
Players have refused to play for the Raptors before, even after being traded to the Canadian NBA team–though each have cited that they simply just didn’t want to live up north in cold Toronto, another country away from their families. Could players start refusing to play for a city like Boston because they don’t want to represent unruly fans?
“I think it’s a bad look for the players to be wilding on the fans like this,” The Ringer‘s Wosney Lambre wrote on Twitter. “Fair or not, the players are held to a higher standard of decorum than the loser fans. It is what it is.”
Many NBA legends have even excelled in the careers despite awful fanbases. Bill Russell, a former Celtic who won eight straight Championships from 1959-1966, told Slam Magazine in 2020 that “The Boston Celtics proved to be an organization of good people—from [owners, coaches] to most of my teammates.”
“I cannot say the same about the fans or the city,” he continued. “During games people yelled hateful, indecent things: ‘Go back to Africa,’ ‘Baboon,’ ‘C–n,’ ‘N—-r.’ I used their unkindness as energy to fuel me, to work myself into a rage, a rage I used to win.”
After his retirement, Russell even went on to coach the Celtics from 1966-1969 and win two more Championships. He did it all despite constant racial slurs from “fans” of the sport being flung his way every night, and he’s now known as one of the most decorated player-coaches in basketball history.
Russell’s right in believing that being a role model in the face of adversity much like Jackie Robinson, Jack Johnson, and Jesse Owens before him helped make him the legend that he is today, but it doesn’t change the lack of shame from unruly fans.
The NBA lining their pockets and coming after athletes with fines is also another matter entirely, but they’re not wrong in hoping that their stars take the high road. Yell all you want, but don’t complain when players don’t want your city as their fanbase anymore.
When the New York Knicks booed their own team this past January for falling behind by over 25 points in the second quarter (to the Celtics, to boot), Knicks forward Julius Randle gave the crowd a “thumbs down” gesture, expressing his dissatisfaction with the fans who were supposed to be on his side.
“I really don’t give a f–k what anybody has to say, to be honest,” he later said about the negativity. “I’m out there playing. Nobody knows the game out there better than I do… So I really don’t give a s–t. I just go out there and play.”
The NBA fined him $25,000 for “egregious use of profane language” in media interviews, and he was later forced to apologize.
“I love NYC and being a part of this team and this franchise,” Julius Randle wrote in his message to fans. “And like most Knicks fans, I am really passionate about us being successful.”
“I understand that my actions also represent the league, this organization, and the city, and that I should have handled things last night differently and expressed myself with more professionalism and more appropriate language in the heat of the moment,” Randle continued. “My comment was an example of how sometimes you say things you regret to people you love, even if it came from a place of passion and deep love.”
For now, that’s the best we can hope for. Like Kevin Durant said, even the hate is rooted in love–for your city, your team, and the game of basketball.
“There’s only two things you can do as a fan,” NBA on TNT host Kenny Smith said, “cheer or boo.”