First, common decency tells us that both Russell Westbrook and his alleged verbal assailant, Utah Jazz fan Shane Keisel, certainly should have handled themselves better on Monday night in Salt Lake City.
We can all agree that Westbrook shouldn’t have told Keisel that he would “f— you up. You and your wife” in an ugly exchange during the second quarter of the Thunder’s 98-89 win over the Jazz. Profanely threatening to beat up a fan and his wife was out of line for anyone, but especially for the face of a multimillion-dollar franchise, a celebrity athlete and a noted hothead (and, as such, an easy target for lowbrow mouth-breathers like Keisel).
And we can all certainly agree that Keisel isn’t the kind of fan the NBA really wants sitting courtside.
Or is he?
He’s affluent enough (or his car dealership is) to sit in the front row of an NBA arena for a tough ticket like OKC.
Deep pockets — is that all that’s required by the NBA for its fans to sit courtside? No civility? No respect? No modicum of acceptable behavior?
This is on Keisel for acting like an idiot — an entitled idiot, perhaps mob-driven, possibly motivated by the lure of 15 minutes of fame on social media, his sudden courage maybe fueled by ego and whatever adrenaline pushes one to heckle a star athlete to the breaking point.
He’s a car salesman now, but he used to be a Utah Highway Patrolman. Who knows what he’s seen or lived that makes him think such abhorrent behavior is OK? Whatever the case, it isn’t. Someone from the law enforcement community probably should know how to comport himself. Looks like Keisel does not.
And it’s also on Westbrook, if only a little, for not recognizing that the best course of action in this scenario was not to threaten yet another Jazz fan who pushed his easily accessible buttons, but was instead to turn around and tell the arena security team to remove the cad immediately. Westbrook’s lack of judgment in that moment was clearly defined by the NBA and its $25,000 fine on Tuesday afternoon.
But that’s hardly where the blame for this ugly episode should end.
Had Westbrook taken the high road, would anyone on that security team actually done anything — beside hand out “warning cards,” that is, for whatever good that did?
According to the viral video shot courtside by Eric Woodyard of the Deseret News, as Westbrook stood up and confronted his tormentor, at least four members of the Vivint Smart Home Arena security detail stood behind him. Two were smiling at the exchange, apparently finding great humor in the whole thing. As Westbrook took a step closer and gestured toward Keisel, one security guard actually moved in toward Westbrook.
Keisel was off camera. It’s unknown if security ever approached Keisel or his wife, though five fans were reportedly issued cards warning them against behavior counter to the NBA’s fan code of conduct (but were allowed to remain in the arena). Keisel declared after the game that he did nothing wrong.
Simple solution: those security guards, ushers, escorts or whatever you want to call them should have acted immediately and thrown Keisel out on his keister. You want to heckle the players, fine. You want to boo, fine. You want to sit behind the basket and wave balloons during free throws, fine.
But if we hear you berating a player personally, if we hear you talk about his family or his race or his personal life, your ticket is hereby revoked.
(The Jazz released a statement this afternoon saying the team had banned Keisel for life. Read more about that here.)
Problem solved. Fans who spend $1,700 on a courtside seat (or represent their employer, who spent $1,700 on a courtside seat) might behave a little better if they know they can lose that seat at the team’s discretion.
It’s not like those seats will go unsold. Ugly fans are a dime a dozen. They can be easily replaced with fans who might actually appreciate being courtside.
You can’t avoid the idiots. But you can legislate them out of their seats.
Here’s the truth: The NBA is a player-driven league. The NBA is its players. For the association — or one of its teams, or that team’s arena staff — to sit idly by while those very players are verbally abused, dehumanized, disrespected or relentlessly taunted is an affront to the NBA’s mission of showcasing the most incredible athletes in the world.
Let’s hope the NBA Players Association steps up in the next collective bargaining agreement and takes two important steps: 1, educate its players, thoroughly, about the proper way to handle these entitled courtside idiots; and 2, demand a no-tolerance policy from the teams and their arena staffs for ejecting these clowns and immediately and permanently revoking their tickets.
The NBA has an opportunity to use this as a teaching moment for its fans (yes, even the ones with deep pockets) as well as its players.
Hopefully that opportunity is not squandered.
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.