All-Star point guard Chris Paul knows what to expect from the crowd of 18,000-plus fans when the Houston Rockets arrive Friday at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
“It’s going to be loud, rowdy,” he predicted.
That’s the reputation the home of the Utah Jazz — considered to be one of the NBA’s most raucous venues — has earned over the years. But after Oklahoma City star Russell Westbrook’s run-ins with fans last week in Utah and his pointed remarks during a post-game news conference, the passionate Jazz fanbase has come under fire, with at least one former player saying he was subjected to racist taunts during games in Salt Lake City.
As the Jazz’s second-round series against the Houston Rockets moves to Utah for Games 3 and 4, Jazz officials plan to address their fans with a new pregame video announcement. But team executives do not believe there is a “pattern of bad behavior” among fans or a need to heighten security at the arena.
“We don’t think we have great fans, we think we have world-class fans,” team president Steve Starks said Thursday. “… There’s no room for inappropriate behavior that crosses the line. We have guest-service staff, we have cameras. If we find out somebody has crossed the line, we’ll warn them and in some cases remove them from their seats. But that’s such a small percentage of our fanbase or of any fanbase.”
Westbrook, the league’s reigning MVP, accused Jazz fans of saying “disrespectful, vulgar things” and making personal attacks. Westbrook was involved in confrontations with fans twice during Game 6 of the Jazz’s first-round series.
“I didn’t confront the fans. The fans confronted me,” he said after the Jazz had eliminated his Thunder team from the playoffs. “Here in Utah, a lot of disrespectful, vulgar things are said to the players here with these fans. They are truly disrespectful, talking about your families, your kids. It is a disrespect to the game, and I think it is something that needs to be brought up.
“I’m tired of just going out and playing and letting the fans just say what the hell they want to say. I am not with that. Because if I was on the street, they wouldn’t come up and say anything. I don’t play that s—-. So I just think they are disrespectful and they can do whatever they want to do … especially here in Utah.”
NBA officials have not been in touch with the Jazz regarding Westbrook’s remarks. The Jazz, however, plan to bolster their message regarding appropriate fan behavior ahead of Friday’s game in Salt Lake. The team plays a video announcement regarding fan behavior before each game. After Westbrook’s remarks, team officials decided to update that video to include remarks from coach Quin Snyder and some of the team’s players.
“It’s not anything that’s dramatically different,” Starks said. “It’s just reminding people that you don’t have to tear anybody down to pump up our team.”
Westbrook’s remarks, meanwhile, have caught the attention of national pundits. On ESPN’s “First Take” this week, host Stephen A. Smith said there is a “history there with some players” and Jazz fans.
“It’s not the first time we’ve heard that about some of those fans in Utah,” he said. “You talk about the Mormon state and all of this other stuff and you hear a lot of things from a religious perspective. …
“It comes across as a very wholesome environment and then you go inside that arena and some of them — not most, not all, but some of them — unfortunately stain the rest of the fanbase. It’s something the NBA may need to address.”
Meanwhile, on Fox Sports’ “Undisputed”, 14-year NBA veteran Stephen Jackson said he experienced racist taunts when he played in Salt Lake City.
“Utah is probably the worst city I’ve played in my career dealing with that,” he said. “It’s definitely not a place for the brothers.”
Starks said: “It would be terribly disappointing if we have even one fan that makes racist or degrading comments. There is absolutely no place for that behavior in our community that prides its self on being inclusive, welcoming, and respectful.”
Jackson recalled one fan during a 2007 playoff series had a life-sized cutout of him dressed in a jail uniform. Jackson said he later signed the cutout for the man.
“He was actually a good fan,” Jackson said. “He was just trolling.”
The exchanges between Westbrook and Jazz fans also highlight a unique problem for the NBA. The league puts its fans closer to its players than perhaps any other professional sports league in the world. In January, then-Jazz guard Rodney Hood was fined $35,000 after he slapped the phone out of a fan’s hand as he exited the court in Washington. A Jazz fan in Houston for Wednesday’s Game 2 posted a video of Rockets guard James Harden hitting the fan’s cellphone after the fan called him “the worst flopper in the NBA”.
Because of its design, Vivint Smart Home Arena allows fans to be closer than most any other venue in the NBA. Westbrook exchanged words with one fan as he walked off the court at halftime, and the superstar guard swiped at another fan’s cellphone as the man leaned over the railing near the tunnel to the visiting locker room at the end of the game.
Jazz fans “are loyal, loud, passionate and full of enthusiasm for their team,” team owner Gail Miller said in a prepared statement. “Unfortunately there is an occasional incident by an overly exuberant fan during a hotly contested game that is inappropriate and does not represent the majority of fans in our arena. From the beginning, our family has expected our Jazz fans to cheer loudly for our team while respecting our opponent.”
The Jazz do not plan to add any additional security measures to prevent player-fan interaction in the wake of Westbrook’s experiences.
“We just ask fans to respect players’ personal spaces,” Starks said. “I saw the video and it was a heated moment. He may have gotten too close. But we have a lot of security there already. You saw the moment [Westbrook] motioned toward the fan. We had multiple people on the scene. We feel like we’re properly staffed and that we can de-escalate any situation that might arise.”
The Jazz provide a text line for fans at Vivint Smart Home Arena and ask anyone who sees or hears something inappropriate to alert arena staff.