SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz and their boisterous fans were the talk of the sports world Tuesday following an altercation between one of the NBA's biggest stars and a fan seated near courtside.
But both team officials and players moved quickly to act following the profanity-filled player-fan altercation Monday night that threatened to paint a negative picture not just of the fan base, but of Utah in general.
The Oklahoma City Thunder's Russell Westbrook, who was the subject of fan verbal lashings during last season’s playoff series, was involved in another heated incident with a Jazz fan during Monday's game that led to the franchise issuing a permanent ban of Utah County resident Shane Keisel, who was involved in the altercation.
Just hours after several key Jazz players came to Westbrook’s defense, the team announced Tuesday that the ban is effective immediately and includes all arena events after conducting an investigation.
It was determined that Keisel violated the NBA Code of Conduct through excessive and derogatory verbal abuse toward Westbrook and the franchise stated “there is no place in our game for personal attacks or disrespect.”
Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said this incident can be a teachable moment for not just Jazz fans, but for teams around the league as well.
“It’s terrible and I hate seeing this kind of stuff,” Cox said over the phone, following budget negotiations on Tuesday evening during the final week of the legislative session. “I do think, though, there’s an opportunity here for us to elevate the conversation, to let fans know that we need to be better and we need to hold each other accountable, that we need to try harder to improve the reputation.
“Look, I’m a passionate fan and I’m one that likes to get loud and I love that we’re known for having the loudest fans in the country and we should celebrate that. But at the same time we can be loud without crossing lines and without denigrating players,” he said. “We need to treat each other with respect and I think we could do that, I really do.”
Four other Jazz fans received “warning cards” on Monday indicating that their comments, gestures and/or behaviors directed at players were in violation of the NBA Fan Code of Conduct, but were able to return to their seats after their altercation with the former MVP.
“Everyone deserves the opportunity to enjoy and play the game in a safe, positive and inclusive environment,” Jazz president Steve Starks said 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."
The NBA fined Westbrook $25,000 for "directing profanity and threatening language to a fan," league executive vice president Kiki VanDeWeghe said.
Westbrook never approached the fan, but his expletives were directed at the fan and his wife.
Here's the censored version of Russell Westbrook's verbal altercation with Utah Jazz fans. pic.twitter.com/VIE5vNJy95— Deseret News Sports (@desnewssports) March 12, 2019
By late morning and early afternoon Tuesday, Jazz players Donovan Mitchell and Thabo Sefolosha both publicly came to Westbrook’s defense, with Mitchell noting his love for Utah and its fans along the way. Jazz swingman Royce O’Neale also told the Deseret News that he “agreed with the decision made and felt it was appropriate to do that.”
“I am personally hurt by the incident at the game on March 11th,” Mitchell said in a statement to the Deseret News. “As a black man living in a community I love, and playing on a team that gives me the opportunity to live out my dreams, this incident hits close to home.
“Racism and hate speech hurts us all, and this is not the first time something like this has happened in our arena,” he continued. “The Utah that I have come to love is welcoming and inclusive and last night’s incident is not indicative of our fan base. We don’t want to create a negative reputation for athletes who potentially may want to come to Utah.”
Mitchell even pledged to use his platform and nationwide influence to spark a change, specifically through his newly launched SpidaCares foundation, which was founded on March 7 — before International Women’s Day.
“I want to thank my team and the NBA for quickly responding to this hateful incident and for helping to make our arena a place where all fans and players are welcome,” Mitchell said. “I join other players in calling for all teams to take a stand. We should not be subject to hate speech or racist acts at any time, and definitely not in our arenas.
“Over the coming months I will work with the team, my teammates and the league to help make our arenas and our communities more inclusive and welcoming,” he.said. “That includes bans on hate speech and racism.
“I don’t have all the answers, but this off-season I will work through my foundation, SpidaCares, to take a closer look at race issues across this country to see what I can do to help combat against racial inequality. I am asking all of you to join me in this process because when we all stand up and speak up, change happens.”
It wasn’t the first time Westbrook has been the subject of aggressive fan behavior as another video surfaced Tuesday of an altercation with a fan.
Ahead of Game 4 of Oklahoma City’s first-round playoff matchup against the Utah Jazz last year, a fan called him “boy” on April 23, 2018.
“Don’t call me boy,” Westbrook warned the fan before he said it again a couple seconds later, then Westbrook flagged down security to handle the matter.
To Russell Westbrook’s defense, here is even further proof of his previous interactions with Utah Jazz fans. In this video, @russwest44 is called a “boy” by a Jazz fan ahead of Game 4 of OKC’s first-round playoff series against Utah on April 23, 2018 at Vivint Arena. pic.twitter.com/lc6slA7fTo— Eric Woodyard (@E_Woodyard) March 13, 2019
That’s why during the first half of the latest Jazz-Thunder game, the situation didn’t go down that smoothly as Westbrook threatened Keisel, after reportedly being told “to get down on your knees like you’re used to.”
Keisel disputed that account in an interview with KSL-TV's Jeremiah Jensen, but through the organization’s investigation through video review and eyewitness accounts, it was determined that there was inappropriate fan behavior inside Vivint Arena.
Even with all the recent controversy, Utah’s fanbase remains one of the most loyal in the league. In fact, the recent Jazz-Thunder game with 18,306 fans marked Utah’s 64th consecutive home sellout at Vivint Arena, which is the second-longest sellout streak in franchise history and longest in 26 years behind 229 games from 1988-93.
The local passion is heightened as the Jazz remain the premier major sports franchise in a state that also includes Major League Soccer's Real Salt Lake.
Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry admitted ahead of the Jazz game on Dec. 19 that “it can get a little overwhelming” to play inside Vivint Arena with the loud fans — especially when the team goes on runs, but now the franchise will work to keep that energy in a positive manner.
“Utah, we do have great fans but it’s sad when one or two ruin it for everyone,” Cox said. “I think it’s important that fans know this actually hurts the team. I know we think we’re helping by getting into the other players heads or whatever, but long-term, and I’m glad Donovan talked about that, it hurts our reputation and we want to make this a place where other players want to come and play, where we’re loud and where we’re respected and I think we can do that.”