In a Monday night matchup between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Utah Jazz, Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook got into an awfully heated yelling match with a heckler.
Fans yelling at players isn’t anything new—especially for a guy like Westbrook who plays with his heart on his sleeve. He has a kind of aggression and passion on the court that rubs fans of opposing teams the wrong way at times.
However, the line separating normal heckling and downright disrespect was allegedly crossed when a fan, who has since been banned by the NBA, yelled, “get on your knees like you’re used to,” which was repeated by the man’s wife. Westbrook didn’t take kindly to the words, and had some profane-laced words for both of them.
Westbrook spoke to reporters after the game about the incident and expressed how he felt that the comments were disrespectful and racist.
“The realization of how it started was a young man and his wife in the stands told me to, ‘Get down on my knees like you’re used to.’ For me, that’s just completely disrespectful,” said Westbrook.
“To me, I think it’s racial. I think it’s just inappropriate in a sense that there is no protection for the players. I think there are a lot of great fans around the world that like to come to the games and enjoy the games [but] there are people that come to the game to say mean, disrespectful things about me [and] my family.”
What those fans said to Westbrook were corroborated by some of his teammates who were on the bench at the time. Patrick Patterson talked about accountability on Twitter after the game, and Raymond Felton spoke at length about what transpired.
“At the end of the day, we’re human beings. We have feelings; just like they have feelings, we have feelings, too. That was absurd what they said to Russ. That’s not fair, it’s not right, it’s not the first game that this has happened. It happened in Portland — it happens in pretty much every arena that we go to. They’re always picking on Russ.
“It’s not fair to tell a man, ‘get on your knees, that’s what you’re used to doing.’ And then turn around his wife reiterates it and says it right back to him again. It’s not right, everyone wants to make a big deal out of what he said, but let’s talk about what they said to him first.”
Westbrook and the city of Utah have a history of negativity — and things picked up right where they left off from the tip-off as Westbrook was booed nearly every time he touched the ball. During Game 6 of their 1st round playoff matchup last year, Westbrook got into it with fans on two separate occasions as he was walking to the locker room.
As a sign of solidarity among players, Utah’s Donovan Mitchell said that there’s no room for racism and hate speech at the games in a statement.
While it’s great that the NBA banned the fan who started everything with Westbrook, at some point, the league is going to have to do more to ensure the safety of the players physical and emotional well being when it comes to interaction with fans during the games.