The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After spectator runs onto court, Wizards’ coach urges misbehaving NBA fans to ‘stay home’

Dwight Howard had a close-up view of the incident. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

The trend of NBA fans behaving badly continued Monday night when a spectator ran onto the court in what Washington Wizards Coach Scott Brooks called a “barbaric” display of behavior. In lengthy postgame comments, Brooks expressed the frustration and disbelief of players and coaches.

Over the past few days, a fan has thrown a water bottle toward Kyrie Irving, who had stepped on Boston’s center-court logo after the Nets beat the Celtics; a Knicks fan spat at Trae Young; Jazz fans berated the family of Ja Morant of the Grizzlies; and a 76ers fan dumped popcorn on the head of the Wizards’ Russell Westbrook in Philadelphia.

During Monday’s Game 4 of the Wizards-76ers series at Capital One Arena, a fan ran onto the court during the third quarter, getting no farther than a spot under the basket. Only the 76ers’ Dwight Howard was in the general vicinity, and the fan was quickly tackled by a security guard.

The incidents have not caused any injuries, but Brooks spoke emotionally for nearly five minutes about what happened in some of the first few games in which fans were back in arenas after coronavirus pandemic restrictions were loosened.

“It’s actually embarrassing for all those fans who do that. The NBA has great fans. I’ve played in Philadelphia. They have great fans. They have one knucklehead who decided to throw popcorn. Boston has great fans. They have one knucklehead who decided to throw a water bottle. New York has great fans. I played there. I played in Boston, but I got cut,” Brooks told reporters. ”… New York has great fans. One knucklehead decided to spit on somebody. We have great fans. One knucklehead tried to come into the arena, and it’s unacceptable. It’s not good.”

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Fans’ stunts over the past couple of weeks have brought a variety of repercussions, from the arrest of fan Cole Buckley in Boston to immediate ejection to the stripping of season tickets to being permanently banned from the arena.

“Banning them and this and that — what does that mean?” Brooks questioned. “Is there facial recognition that you can’t get a ticket on the secondary market and don’t shave for a week and wear a hat and still come in? I don’t know if there’s criminal charges, but they’ve got to get something on their record, and they’ve got to get exposed and they have to pay money out of their own pocket.”

Westbrook, the target of the popcorn-tossing fan, said he didn’t see the incident in Game 4. “This is our job,” he said. “This is not a game or some s--- you can just do whatever you want to do and run around, and do whatever. This is our job, and we take our job very seriously.”

Bradley Beal said there is “no place” for it. “Either you sit there and enjoy the game or just sit at home and watch it on TV. We’re fortunate nobody got hurt and the security did its job, did a hell of a job to get him down, get him out of there.”

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The larger worry is where this could lead, but Beal said he doesn’t “feel any less safe because I know no fan would try me individually.”

An action by an athlete against a fan would result in a lawsuit, Brooks pointed out, with the fan claiming he “can’t see, [he] broke his neck because the popcorn hit him. And all these athletes have to defend themselves and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and get their name tarnished.”

Part of the dynamic between players and fans involves heckling, and Brooks admitted he loves that aspect of the game. “I love it as a coach,” he said. “I love it. As a player, I loved it when they heckled me for my two minutes. Russell, he loves to be heckled, but there’s crossing the line.”

The National Basketball Players Association drew a distinction. “True fans of this game honor and respect the dignity of our players,” it said in a statement. “No true fan would seek to harm them or violate their personal space.”

Beal and Brooks urged fans who can’t control themselves to stay away.

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“Your thinking is barbaric,” Brooks said. “Stay home. We don’t need you. We don’t need your dollars. Just stay home. Get away from us. Let the fans that enjoy it, let them be with their families enjoying it and cheer us on, heckle us, scream at us, say we stink and you’re 0 for 6 — we love that.”

But there’s a line that fans have crossed. “These fans, I mean, think about it. It’s just been happening and they have no fear,” Brooks said. “They have no fear.”

Irving compared NBA arenas to “a human zoo.” “It’s been that way in history in terms of entertainment, performers and sports for a long period of time, just underlying racism and just treating people like they’re in a human zoo — throwing stuff at people and saying things,” he said. “We’re not at the theater. We’re not throwing tomatoes and other random stuff at the people performing.”

Morant’s father, Tee, told ESPN that fans subjected him and his family to racist and vulgar comments. “I know heckling,” Tee Morant said. “We were doing that the whole game. But that’s different than heckling. That’s straight up disrespectful. That was too far out of line. You don’t say nothing like that [in] heckling. That’s beyond heckling.”

Brooks agreed with Irving. “These players play so hard … and you love it when your players are so competitive and they’re on an edge. If your players aren’t on edge, you have no chance to win. But when you’re on an edge and somebody crosses the line, what do you think is going to happen? I mean, I give all of our players, all of them — there’s only been 5,000 NBA players in the history of the game and most of them can control themselves and I don’t know how. … Russell, I’ve been with him for eight years and what he has to listen to night in and night out [is] unacceptable. [The fans’] parents, they need to — I mean, my mom, I know my mom. I would’ve had the nearest branch ripped off and it would’ve been on my behind if I did something that stupid.”

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