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Knicks, 76ers, Jazz ban fans after spate of playoff game incidents, NBA insists fan behaviour rules to be 'vigorously enforced'

The Knicks said they banned a fan from Madison Square Garden for spitting on Atlanta guard Trae Young; 76ers banned fan who threw popcorn on Washington guard Russell Westbrook; Jazz said three of their fans were banned indefinitely following verbal altercation during game with Memphis

Washington Wizards' Russell Westbrook (4) is helped to the locker room after an injury during the second half of Game 2 in a first-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Philadelphia 76ers, Wednesday, May 26, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Image: Washington Wizards' Russell Westbrook is helped to the locker room after an injury during the second half of Game 2 against the 76ers

The New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz banned a total of five fans from their respective arenas and issued apologies for incidents during playoff games, and the NBA said that rules surrounding fan behaviour will be "vigorously enforced" going forward.

All three incidents took place during playoff games on Wednesday. The Knicks said they banned a fan from Madison Square Garden for spitting on Atlanta guard Trae Young, the 76ers banned a fan who threw popcorn on Washington guard Russell Westbrook, and the Jazz said three of their fans were banned indefinitely following a verbal altercation during their game with Memphis.

The Jazz did not reveal specifics of the incident, but Grizzlies guard Ja Morant - who had family at the game - said the three people who were banned "just went too far."

"We're just living in a society where people don't have respect anymore," Hawks coach Nate McMillan said on Thursday. "In no way should that be allowed, or should that happen, at a sporting event or really any event. I think New York did what it should have done in that situation. It's uncalled for."

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The 76ers went even further than the Knicks could, because the fan involved in the Westbrook incident was a season-ticket holder. Those tickets have been revoked, and he was banned from all events at their arena.

None of the three teams released the names of the fans who were involved. The Knicks said they forwarded information to authorities.

"We investigated the matter and determined that this patron, who is not a season-ticket holder, did indeed spit on Trae Young, and for that reason, he is now banned from The Garden indefinitely," the Knicks said. "We apologise to Trae and the entire Atlanta Hawks organisation for this fan's behaviour."

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Video showed that someone spit on Young while he was preparing to inbound the basketball in the fourth quarter of New York's win over Atlanta at Madison Square Garden. Young did not mention it in his postgame interviews and McMillan said he was unaware of the incident until Thursday morning.

Young was the subject of profane chants from some fans in that arena throughout the first two games of the series; the Hawks' guard taunted them right back after his shot with less than a second left gave Atlanta a win in Game 1. Even New York Mayor Bill di Blasio weighed in this week on Young's penchant for trying to draw fouls, both in a news conference and on his office's Twitter page.

"There's obviously a line," Brooklyn forward Blake Griffin said Thursday. "I think what happened to Russ is obviously far behind that line."

Westbrook was leaving the Wizards' game in Philadelphia with an ankle injury when someone sitting over the tunnel that leads from the floor threw the popcorn on him.

"We apologise to Russell Westbrook and the Washington Wizards for being subjected to this type of unacceptable and disrespectful behaviour," the 76ers said in a statement announcing the ban. "There is no place for it in our sport or arena."

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Washington Wizards guard Russell Westbrook has called for more protection for players from fans after a spectator threw popcorn at him as he left the court during Wednesday's loss to Philadelphia 76ers

At Salt Lake City on Wednesday, security was involved in a matter involving at least one fan in seats relatively close to the the Memphis bench during Game 2, but it was not known if that was the incident in question.

Morant tweeted out the hashtag "protectourplayers" not long after that game. And on Thursday, Morant tweeted again, saying that his family members at the game "felt the love" from many Jazz fans around them at Game 2 but added that "those 3 just went too far."

"The Utah Jazz have zero tolerance for offensive or disruptive behaviour," the team said Thursday. "An incident occurred last night involving a verbal altercation during Game 2. Arena security staff intervened, and the investigation resulted in the removal and banning of three Jazz fans indefinitely. We apologise to all who were impacted by this unfortunate incident and condemn unacceptable fan behaviour."

The National Basketball Players Association said "true fans ... honour and respect the dignity of our players. No true fan would seek to harm them or violate their personal space." And the NBA said its rules on fan behaviour will be "vigorously enforced in order to ensure a safe and respectful environment for all involved."

"The return of more NBA fans to our arenas has brought great excitement and energy to the start of the playoffs, but it is critical that we all show respect for players, officials and our fellow fans," the NBA said Thursday.

NBA buildings are welcoming their largest crowds of the season for the playoffs, after a regular season where attendance was severely limited because of policies put in place to keep players and others safe during the pandemic.

It has not been without problems, and players are again airing concerns about behaviour.

"I'm sick and tired of it, honestly," Westbrook said.

He's not alone. Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James - who chimed in on Twitter shortly after the Westbrook incident Wednesday - has said in the past that fan behaviour is an issue, and clearly still does.

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Brooklyn guard Kyrie Irving - in advance of Game 3 of the Nets' series at Boston - said he hoped the scene there on Friday night "is strictly basketball, there's no belligerence or any racism going on, subtle racism, people yelling (expletive) from the crowd."

"We go into a hostile environment and we welcome it, we enjoy it, we want the vitriol - as long as it's not over the line," Brooklyn coach Steve Nash said. "We want to face some adversity. That noise and that energy coming from the opposing fans is something that can spur your team on, a challenge to help you lock in and be more focused."

Westbrook has been part of high-profile incidents involving fans before, including one where a fan in Utah was alleged to have directed racial taunts his way. The fan was banned by the Jazz and Westbrook was fined $25,000 for his reactions to that incident, one in which Utah guard Donovan Mitchell even came to his defence.

"These arenas, they've got to start protecting the players. We'll see what the NBA does," Westbrook said on Wednesday night. "I've been in a lot of incidents where fans, they say whatever, and the consequences for me are a lot more detrimental to those people in the stands because they feel like they're untouchable."

After the Westbrook incident in Utah two years ago, the league changed and toughened its code of conduct for fans, including putting those in closest proximity to the players and the court on alert that anything over the line will lead to ejections and possibly more.

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Meanwhile, a lawsuit against the Utah Jazz by that same fan who was banned for life from the team's arena over what were called racial taunts directed at point guard Russell Westbrook was dismissed by a judge, according to court documents filed Thursday.

Shane Keisel has said there was nothing racial about his heckling during the 2019 game and that the high-profile incident cost him his job and exposed him to online threats. The Jazz, however, said the team investigated the episode that ignited a national conversation about race and fan behaviour and stood by the decision to bar him from the arena.

Jazz attorney Jeff Hunt said the team was "pleased with the court's ruling" and will continue to enforce its fan code of conduct.

Scott Hoyt, Keisel's attorney, said his client intends to appeal the trial court's decision.

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