Utah found an unlikely hero this week, and his name is Russell Westbrook.
On the morning after the NBA all star unleashed on a Utah Jazz fan who was harassing him with racist taunts, Utah woke up to an international glare. In the aftermath of the game’s ugliness, the focus wasn’t on a famous athlete’s expletive-filled threats. It was on the atmosphere inside Vivint Smart Home Arena that brought him to that point.
Westbrook surfaced a dirty secret: The Jazz’s legendarily tough home crowd has been tolerating, even encouraging, some despicable hate speech from heckling fans.
“Throughout the whole game, since I’ve been here, especially here in Utah, there’s a lot of disrespectful things that’s said,” Westbrook told reporters after the game. “I’m not going to continue to take the disrespect to my family. There’s gotta be something done. There’s got to be some consequences for those types of people.”
If this was the opinion of just one player, the story may have barely lasted one news cycle. But Westbrook was speaking what other NBA players have reiterated quietly: Vivint is one of the worst for this sort of indefensible behavior.
It was a watershed moment. Before the week was out, two Jazz fans, including the one taunting Westbrook, were told to never return to Vivint Arena. The other banned fan was a man who repeatedly called Westbrook “boy” during last year’s playoffs.
Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller has seen enough, and her actions are a strong indicator that the future can be different. She took to the Vivint floor on the next home game to challenge Jazz fans to be better. “This should never happen. We are not a racist community.”
The NBA is a crucible of attention, and Utah has gained mightily from that. The greatest basketball players in the world come from all races and nations, and NBA teams are a powerful symbol of how the demand for excellence cannot abide prejudice. Utahns had never known how much a black man and a white man could accomplish together until we saw two decades of Karl Malone and John Stockton.
It may be no coincidence that the day after Monday’s game, the Utah Legislature finally passed a meaningful hate crimes law. Instead of succumbing once again to bickering over who might be more deserving of hate crimes protection, legislators finally saw the bigger motivation: sending the message that hate is a debilitating societal problem that only festers when ignored.
The painful reality of this moment is that there are Jazz fans who have quietly tolerated these comments for years, fans who paid hundreds of dollars per game for their seats. This includes community leaders who were perhaps more interested in winning a game than presenting a winning community.
If we don’t want to defined by the worst among us, we need the courage to speak up as Russell Westbrook did and to act as Gail Miller has. Let this be a turning point.