When Russell Westbrook refused to sit down, refused to let the words hurled in his direction go unnoticed, he forced an entire organization and its devoted followers to take a lengthy look in the mirror. It has since sent shock waves throughout the NBA and the proud Utah Jazz fan base. By standing up for himself — an exchange that went viral and dominated sports headlines around the country this past week — the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar rekindled a conversation that remains necessary, not only in Utah but also nationwide.
The spotlight, however, has stayed focused on Utah, and for the wrong reasons. Long considered one of, if not the most intimidating environments in the league to enter as a visitor, what is now Vivint Smart Home Arena also carries with it a reputation, one that some current and former players have voiced that can be vile, degrading and, at times, racist. So when Shane Keisel began barking at Westbrook in the first half of the game between the Jazz and Thunder last week, it only perpetuated what many players have believed through the years.
“It’s no secret,” said former Jazz guard Ronnie Price, who starred at nearby Utah Valley State College, now Utah Valley University. “The fans here are passionate, they’re great, they love their team, but there’s always — at every arena and not just in Salt Lake — a couple of individuals that seem to take it a little bit too far.”
Price, also a one-time teammate of Westbrook, defended the former MVP, saying Westbrook’s expletive-laden reaction that earned a $25,000 fine from the NBA wouldn’t have happened if the clash wasn’t escalated by Keisel’s words.
"He’s one of my all-time favorite teammates I’ve ever had and probably the best guy I’ve ever played with,” Price said of Westbrook.
The Jazz organization, after its own investigation based on video and personal interviews in the wake of the confrontation, came to the conclusion that what Keisel said to Westbrook — telling the OKC star to “get down on [his] knees like [he] used to" — crossed the line.
Later, video surfaced of another fan shouting derogatory remarks, including the racist term “boy” at Westbrook before Game 4 of last year’s Jazz-Thunder playoff series. Then, Westbrook calmly reacted, saying “don’t call me boy,” before getting the attention of arena security.
The Jazz handed down a lifetime ban to Keisel and the unnamed fan from the second video this past week. The incidents struck a chord. Jazz star Donovan Mitchell put out a statement explaining how the reality of these situations in his adopted hometown hurt. Teammate Thabo Sefolosha took to Instagram to voice his support of Westbrook in not letting it slide, adding that fans like Keisel must be held accountable.
“You might love the Utah Jazz but … if we had a different jersey color, you would look at us in a different light?” he said. “That’s the only point.”
Minutes before the Jazz tipped off Thursday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves, owner Gail Miller addressed the crowd from center court, proclaiming that what happened between Westbrook and those fans, “should never happen. We are not a racist community.” She received a standing ovation when she walked to her seat on the floor.
“Right from the beginning, I thought, ‘This is something that reflects on me, my family, my company, it’s in my arena. I have to be there,’ " Miller said the day after. "People have to be there, and people have to know that I’m aware, and that I care.”
A tarnished reputation
The Utah Jazz fan stigma exists, and has for a while. Former NBA players Kenyon Martin, Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes are just some who have said their trips to Utah during their playing days featured racial epithets. Golden State star Kevin Durant has noticed how the at-times crazed atmosphere will cause Jazz fans to toss off any limits on what they direct toward the opposing team.
“I said it b4 @utahjazz have the most racist fans in the @NBA,” Barnes, a longtime Jazz nemesis tweeted.
Of course, not every Jazz fan falls into this category. “But make no mistake: This is the reputation the city has among the players around the league,” nine-year NBA veteran Etan Thomas wrote Friday in an op-ed column for The Guardian.
“Every away building is a hostile environment with passionate fans rooting for the home team and sometimes crossing the line,” Thomas wrote. “But in Utah, it’s different. There are abundantly clear racial undertones to the heckling that seem to hover in the arena.”
Other players, like Price, say that the issue is not specific to Utah, even though that doesn’t dull the severity of what transpired this past week. Former Jazz guard Raja Bell, who had two stints with Utah during his playing career, said he never heard or dealt with any fans going too far when he was in a Jazz uniform or when he was on the other side of the court. But Bell knows that some NBA friends and teammates have.
“You have people on both sides of the aisle that probably lack respect for the other side of the aisle, but that’s not unique to any one place in the country,” Bell said this past week. “You just had one idiot come out there and act like an a--. What are you going to do? He could’ve been an idiot anywhere.”
Why is it, then, that some players say some members of the Jazz fan base seem to move beyond that invisible line more than anywhere else? Some point to Vivint Arena’s configuration. Many NBA arenas are configured also for hockey, but Salt Lake City’s was designed for basketball and the seats have a much steeper pitch, which puts more fans closer to the court.
“In Utah, the fans are right on top of you, so their fans are... like sitting right next to you on the bench,” Boston’s Kyrie Irving said. “Let me come into your office and let me yell in your ear like that.”
The NBA has its fervent, unwavering following for a reason. The league prides itself on accessibility to players. It also plays a role in how a Westbrook-Keisel clash can arise. Fans are, at times, just a few feet away from the most popular athletes in the world.
And then there’s the fact that even Utah’s positive fans — the vast majority, to be sure — stick in the memories of opposing players, thanks to the sheer decibel levels produced. Is it fair to lump in those who go too far with those who show up to the arena wanting to scream their lungs out and cheer on the team they adore?
There are other questions that tend to lie below the surface. Utah has a predominantly white population with a predominantly white fan base. Some make this simple correlation with why Utah carries the reputation it has leaguewide.
In a recent interview with USA Today, Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey recounted the topic of race and basketball in his own life in a moving personal story. Lindsey didn’t mince words when addressing systemic racism in the United States and how it relates to the Westbrook exchange.
“It’s a story that’s long overdue, given our climate,” he said. “Let’s just talk about our national sin and how we made a race of people feel a certain way and just listen for a second."
And with that comes the understanding that — regardless whether Utah’s general racial homogeneity has played a role here — denying the problem locally doesn’t do any good.
“Nobody can get better if we don’t acknowledge where we’re weak. It’s human nature to be defensive. I think we’ve all gone through that emotion, where this week we’ve said ‘but other communities have this, too!’ And that’s true, and this isn’t unique to Salt Lake," Jazz President Steve Starks said. “However, we don’t want to be satisfied with, ‘Hey, this happens everywhere.’ We want to be better."
He added: “That starts with accepting the fact that there have been moments, too many occasions, where disrespectful and degrading comments have been made, and people have accepted that."
What’s being done about it
Beyond asking fans to temper the zeal as they enter the Vivint Arena, how do the Jazz — and other teams — fix this problem? It’s certainly not just with “Conduct Advisory” cards. It means taking action, as the Jazz did.
“What the devil is a warning card? Throw the fan out and you have solved the problem,” Thomas wrote. “And it will send a message to all of the other fans that certain behavior will not be tolerated.”
While the fans involved in both clashes weren’t immediately ejected, the permanent banning that followed does send a message.
“The Jazz organization has definitely sent a warning signal, to not only the fans that come and watch guys play, but also it’s a message to the rest of the NBA that there is a way to bring awareness to this problem that’s been happening on and off for certain years,” Price explained. “There’s certain things that need to be cleaned up, and I’m very happy to see that the Jazz organization did what they did by setting an example.”
Bell echoed Price.
“You pay too much money for those seats,” Bell said. "They don’t want to get kicked out. But there’s a line. It’s a real gray area, and it’s hard to police that, but I do think that if home teams made it be known that we’re not going to tolerate whatever their line is and we’re not going to tolerate you stepping over that line, then you’d have more people understand where that line is and not try to cross it.”
Thanks to the renovation at the arena, Jazz security staffers now have the ability to have clear video of every seat at all times at the arena’s command center. That, plus the uniformed security personnel and ushers throughout the arena, should give multiple viewpoints on every confrontation.
The Jazz know security isn’t always enough. When fans nearby didn’t speak up during either of the Westbrook incidents, Starks felt disappointed in the collective, not just the individual.
Jazz center Ekpe Udoh agreed, saying that those fans should take their share of the blame Monday. Udoh said he’d like to see fans be more outspoken when they see a fellow fan acting out of line, no matter where they’re seated.
“Nobody said anything, nobody said stop,” Udoh said. “You don’t know what kid might be [sitting] over there looking at it and thinking that this is maybe OK behavior.”
This week, the Jazz have made a larger effort to publicize the arena’s text line — 801-901-8111 — and make clear what behavior should be reported. They’ve done that with immediate pregame announcements from public address announcer Dan Roberts, multiple in-game videoboard messages, and, of course, Miller’s heartfelt speech Thursday.
“From time to time, individual fans exhibit poor behavior and forget their manners and disrespect players on other teams,” Miller said. “When that happens, I want you to jump up and shout ‘STOP.'"
Texting works, too.
Leading a conversation
But as much as Miller is concerned with what happens within the building she and her family own, she knows that true, lasting change in the community will have to occur outside of arena boundaries. To that end, the Larry H. Miller Group of Cos. isn’t exactly a small enterprise in Utah.
“We’re in a really unique position in the LHM Group. We’ve done studies that say our companies touch 98 percent of Utahns. We have a unique platform, and we can lead out in a way others may not be able to,” Miller said. “We’re willing to take that and see what we can do to bring others along.”
So the Jazz are working with other organizations throughout the state to begin spreading a message of the importance of diversity in the community, and how Utah can be more welcoming. The team also is working with Real Salt Lake, the University of Utah, Brigham Young University and other colleges on a campaign to that effect.
Multiple Utah tech companies have reached out to Miller and Starks to see how they can be a part of the conversation, too. They, after all, want to recruit talented and diverse out-of-state employees to Utah, just like the Jazz do in free agency. Improving the reputation and the reality of how Utah handles race only stands to benefit everyone.
“We’ve got to move the conversation forward. Because it’s institutional," Udoh said. “If the conversation can speak to that, that’s where real change can happen.”
Regular fans, though, have already started efforts of their own. On GoFundMe, Jazz fan Devin Deaton from Sandy started a fundraiser seeking to match Westbrook’s $25K fine for the incident, but with this money going to the Human Rights Campaign. So far, nearly 700 fans have donated, raising nearly $15,000. And the campaign made headlines around the country, sending the message that the banned fans are a part of the minority in Utah, not representative of what the majority wants.
“This can be a catalyst for good,” Miller said. “It’s something we can do to make a change, maybe across the country.”
Yes, the past week was difficult for the Jazz and their fans. But, as Starks said, the team can help push the conversation forward.
“You have to go through some unpleasant feelings to have progress. For us as a community, there were a lot of people who felt unpleasant that it was a topic [Thursday] night, that it had to be,” Starks said.
“Every family has hard conversations from time to time. Tonight, our community had one of those, and we will be better because of it.”
Barnes, the longtime Jazz rival and Utah fan critic, noticed.
“Respect to @utahjazz owner Gail Miller for additionally banning the two fans that called Westbrook ‘boy’ sending a message racism will not be tolerated!” he tweeted. “I’d never say all Jazz fans are racist, most of them are just loud & crazy giving the Jazz a great home court advantage.”