Westbrook fine, fan ban brings focus to rules and relationships
It was Orlando in the dying days of January and Russell Westbrook was talking to a fan. It was civil, a far cry from the events of this week, and the 18-hour battle of "his word against mine" which waged from Salt Lake City to Oklahoma City.
On Jan. 29, as he’s accustomed to doing, Westbrook was standing at the end of the Thunder bench, knees wrapped in ice. A woman sitting a few rows behind the bench yelled. "Sit down Westbrook so I can see the game."
Said Westbrook: "This ain’t no show. Just watch the game."
The chatter between fans and Westbrook typically produces laughter, but all of that ceased Monday night in Salt Lake City. The Utah Jazz announced Tuesday afternoon that it has placed a permanent ban on the fan who was involved in a verbal altercation with Westbrook on Monday during the Thunder’s 98-89 win against the Jazz.
A statement from the Jazz on Tuesday said that "the organization conducted an investigation through video review and eyewitness accounts," of the incident. Monday night after the game, Westbrook and Thunder teammates Patrick Patterson and Raymond Felton alleged that Jazz fan Shane Keisel told Westbrook to "get on your knees like you’re used to," while Westbrook was on the bench. In postgame, Westbrook said he felt the comments were racial.
On Tuesday afternoon, the NBA fined Westbrook $25,000 for "directing profanity and threatening language to a fan." Westbrook was caught on video threatening to "f*** up" the fan and his wife.
"I think it’s just inappropriate in the sense of, there’s no protection for the players," Westbrook said. "I think there are a lot of great fans around the world that like to come to the game and enjoy the game. And there are people that come to the game to say mean, disrespectful things about me, my family."
Interactions between Westbrook and fans on the road are prevalent. They typically play out like the one in Orlando: A few back-and-forths before Westbrook refocuses on the game and fans return to their popcorn.
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Never has Westbrook reacted the way he did on Monday, even though the incidents between fans and players isn't uncommon. Westbrook was not fined for making contact with a fan in the playoffs in Utah, but in the last three seasons, the NBA has seen player fines in incidents involving fans increase from four in 2016-17 to seven last season to seven this season.
Those incidents range from inappropriate language to getures into the crowd to throwing mouthpieces, but not unprovoked.
"It happens in pretty much any area we go to, they’re always picking on Russ," Felton said after Monday’s game. "It’s not fair to tell a man to get on his knees, that’s what you’re used to doing,’ then to turn around and his wife re-iterates it, says it right back to him again. He’s not coming out and talking to the fans and just saying stuff, blurting out words. They’re coming at him first."
Since the incident, multiple NBA players have condemned the fan’s actions on social media and sided with Westbrook, including Jazz players Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Thabo Selfolosha.
The Jazz’s statement said the ban is "based on excessive and derogatory verbal abuse directed at a player during the game that violated the NBA’s Code of Conduct." The NBA’s Fan Code of Conduct states that "players will respect and appreciated each and every fan," and where guests "will enjoy the basketball experience free from disruptive behavior, including foul or abusive language or obscene gestures."
Keisel told KSL TV in Salt Lake City on Tuesday he was filing a lawsuit against Westbrook and was advised to shut down his social media. In a Twitter post from 2018, Keisel said "Westbrook is a piece of classless (expletive). Somebody needs to kick his (expletive)."
The ban against Keisel includes all arena events at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City.
While Vivint Smart Home Arena security handed out warning cards to numerous fans at Monday’s game who violated the league’s code of conduct, it did not eject Keisel or his wife. In postgame, Westbrook, Patterson and Felton were adamant about the NBA doing more to protect its players from fan abuse, yet the league office professes that player safety is taken seriously.
Westbrook typically isn’t so serious about the jabs from fans. That changes in Salt Lake City.
"Everyone deserves the opportunity to enjoy and play the game in a safe, positive and inclusive environment," said Steven Starks, president of the Utah Jazz in a statement. "Offensive and abusive behavior does not reflect the values of the Miller family, our organization, and the community. We all have a responsibility to respect the game of basketball and, more importantly, each other as human beings. This has always been a hallmark of our incredible fan base and should forever be our standard moving forward."