A man who received a lifetime ban from the Vivint Smart Home Arena in March is suing the Utah Jazz and the Houston Rockets’ Russell Westbrook, claiming he was wrongly accused of shouting racist and derogatory remarks at the professional basketball player.
In a lawsuit filed Monday in 4th District Court, attorneys for Shane Keisel argue that Keisel engaged only in typical crowd behavior when he and his girlfriend Jennifer Huff were subjected to a “tirade” from an “irate” Westbrook, who was then playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“Mr. Keisel’s heckling was of the same kind and caliber as that of the other audience members in the section,” the lawsuit states.
Keisel was banned from all Vivint Smart Home Arena events in March following a game between the Jazz and Thunder. A video of Westbrook shouting at Keisel and Huff was widely circulated on social media, but Westbrook later said he was provoked by Keisel telling him to “get down on your knees like you used to.”
But in the lawsuit, attorneys for Keisel argue that Westbrook misheard or mischaracterized Keisel’s comments, and that Keisel had told Westbrook to wrap his knees to be better able to play later on in the game.
Keisel participated in an interview with KSL after the game, during which he said that he believed his back-and-forth with Westbrook to be in jest until Westbrook began shouting profanity at and threatening Keisel and Huff.
“The crowd was shocked by the ferocity of Mr. Westbrook’s outburst when he had only been told to take care of his knees,” the lawsuit states, “albeit in a mocking manner that implied he would need to use them extensively to ensure his team’s victory.”
The lawsuit goes on to describe an escalating controversy in which Westbrook described Keisel’s comments as racist, Westbrook’s fans campaigned for Keisel to be fired from his job — which he ultimately was — and the Jazz took punitive action against Keisel based exclusively on Westbrook’s version of events.
But in a prepared statement, Frank Zang, senior vice president of communications for Larry H. Miller Sports and Entertainment, said there is no legal or factual basis for the lawsuit’s claims against the Jazz.
“The organization investigated the underlying incident and acted in an appropriate and responsible manner,” Zang said. “We intend to vigorously defend [against] the lawsuit.”
The lawsuit states that because of the claims against him, Keisel and members of his family were harassed, and that he had to alter his driving routes, stop using his first name and install new locks and security cameras at his home.
“In public, people have stopped, point out, and taken photographs of Mr. Keisel and his family," the lawsuit states, “causing Mr. Keisel to avoid going out in public except when necessary.”
Keisel and Huff want a public apology and significant financial damages, according to the suit. The attorneys are seeking $68 million in damages for Keisel and $32 million for Huff on claims of defamation and infliction of emotional distress.
In the suit, Keisel is described as an Army veteran and formal law enforcement officer, who once worked on the security detail for a Utah governor. He lost his jobs at Brent Brown Toyota and Skywest Airlines after the incident with Westbrook became major news.
Attorneys for Keisel and Huff could not be reached for comment Monday. The suit portrays Westbrook as a player with a history of negative interactions with fans.
Attempts to reach Westbrook or his representatives on Monday were not immediately successful.
Immediately after the incident, Westbrook told reporters that he felt that Keisel’s comments had racial connotations. "To me, that’s just completely disrespectful, to me, I think it’s racial, and I think it’s inappropriate,” Westbrook said then.
“I just think that there’s gotta be something done, there’s gotta be some consequences for those type of people that come to the game just to say and do whatever they want to say. I don’t think it’s fair to the players, not just to me but I don’t think it’s fair to the players,” Westbrook said.
Jazz players all supported Westbrook. After the game, Donovan Mitchell issued a comment, saying in part, "I am personally hurt by the incident at the game on March 11. 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 hit close to home. Racism and hate speech hurts us all, and this is not the first time that something like this has happened in our arena. The Utah that I have come to love is welcoming and inclusive and last night’s incident is not indicative of our fanbase.”
The team came together and had lengthy conversations about the incident. One discussion included NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.
“I spoke directly to the players on that team, as a team... I wanted to make sure they were satisfied with the way it was handled,” Silver said in an NBA Finals news conference. “They seemed to be satisfied, as well."
"I told them that I appreciated the way that they had handled it and that it was not going to be tolerated in the NBA, and that we also appreciated the way they had come together with management and ownership of that team,” Silver said. “I felt their response was spot on.”
One part of that response was Jazz owner Gail Miller’s pregame address to fans that week. “This should never happen. We are not a racist community,” she said. “We believe in treating people with courtesy and respect as human beings.”
Silver lauded Miller’s address. "I thought by her taking the court prior to the following game, speaking directly to the people in that community and saying, ‘This does not represent our community,’ I think that was much more powerful than me issuing a statement from all the way across country in the New York.”
Jazz fans also took action. One Jazz fan from Sandy, Devin Deaton, started a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign that collected more than $15,000 to the Human Rights Coalition.
"It is time to change the narrative on citizens of Utah, fans of the Jazz and those that call Utah 'home,’” Deaton said then. “We are not a bunch of redneck, racist, bigots. Most of us are dads, moms, friends, hard-workers, kind-hearted, do right by each other, help our fellow man, good neighbors and welcoming to all.”
Local and national media outlets covered the campaign, which Deaton said meant the campaign was a success. “Mission accomplished,” he wrote. “We have let the world know that those of us that call Utah home are good people.”
To try to prevent further interactions like Keisel’s, the Jazz created the “Lead Together” campaign, with support from nearly every major sporting organization in the state of Utah. That video, played at sporting events across the state and in television commercials, tells fans “don’t stand for hate of any kind.”
NBA Commissioner Silver thought that the situation has improved in his time in charge. "Over my tenure in the league, things have gotten much, much better in arena than they were in the old days, but there’s always room for improvement,” Silver said.
And thanks to arena renovations and high-definition security cameras, fans are less likely to get away with bad behavior than ever before.
"There aren’t many incidents now when a player points something out and says somebody did something, where we’re not going to be able to get tape and see exactly what happened and ban that fan from the arena, if necessary,” Silver said.