It’s been nearly a week since a Philadelphia 76ers fan dumped a bunch of popcorn on Russell Westbrook’s head, kicking off yet another national conversation about the bad fan behavior in NBA arenas. That conversation has been further fueled by a Knicks fan who spat on Trae Young, a group of Jazz fans who said awful racist shit to Ja Morant’s family, and now by a Celtics fan who chucked a water bottle at Kyrie Irving.
As Irving was leaving the court following last night’s Game 4 win over the Celtics, a water bottle went zooming past his head.
Security guards stepped in and were able to identify the guy who apparently threw the bottle, and a short time later that fan was arrested by Boston police. (Yes, the guy who got arrested is a little white man who was wearing a Kevin Garnett jersey.)
It is surely no comfort to Irving that he saw this coming. Before Game 3 in Boston, Irving told reporters that he hoped there would be no “belligerence or racism going on” during his return to his former home arena. After last night’s incident, Irving again spoke about the undercurrent of racism that defines so many interactions between NBA players and angry fans:
What Irving is highlighting here is an inherent tension in the NBA’s business model that the league office, TV networks, and owners would like to pretend doesn’t exist: That the league makes money by selling an entertainment product created by a largely black workforce to a largely white audience, and that for a not-insignificant portion of that white audience, a big motivator for tuning in or buying a ticket is the opportunity to lord over members of that black workforce. To, as Irving put it, “treat people like they’re in a human zoo.”
That Irving and other players are speaking so frankly about this issue is good and enlightening, but it’s also hard not to dread the possibility that some fans will take such comments as a challenge. Barring the possibility that the fan who threw a water bottle at Irving has not been on the internet or watched TV since last week, it’s safe to assume that he was aware of Irving’s comments preceding Game 3 and of the larger conversation about shitty fans that’s been ongoing, It’s certainly possible that Irving’s harasser was just a drunk guy who got caught up in the moment and failed to smother a momentary spasm of anger, but it seems just as likely that he was a guy lashing out in an attempt to reaffirm his privileged position in the athlete-fan relationship. He won’t be the last to do so.