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3 Utah Jazz fans banned after heckling family of Ja Morant; prior fan lawsuit against Jazz, Russell Westbrook dismissed

NBA again seeing a rash of fan, player conflicts, with other incidents in Philadelphia and New York

Oklahoma City Thunder's Russell Westbrook gets into a heated verbal altercation with fans in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz, Monday, March 11, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

As one story of a Jazz fan getting in trouble for heckling an opposing player comes to a close, another opens.

Two Jazz fan incidents drew nationwide attention on Thursday — one stemming from a March 2019 incident, and one from an incident at Wednesday’s Game 2 first-round playoff matchup between the Jazz and the Memphis Grizzlies.

In the most recent incident, the family of Grizzlies guard Ja Morant was heckled as they watched their son scored 47 points in an eventual Jazz victory. Vivint Arena staff intervened and removed three fans responsible for the exchange.

Morant’s father told ESPN what he heard from fans at the game: one fan made a “sexually explicit” remark to his wife, Jamie. Another said, according to Morant, “I’ll put a nickel in your back and watch you dance, boy.” That remark caused nearby Jazz fans to alert security, according to ESPN. A third fan yelled two expletives at Jamie Morant.

“I know heckling,” Ja’s father Tee Morant told ESPN’s Tim MacMahon. “But that’s different than heckling. That’s straight up disrespectful.”

The Jazz released a statement about the matter on Thursday evening:

“The Utah Jazz have zero tolerance for offensive or disruptive behavior. An incident occurred last night involving a verbal altercation during Game 2. Arena security staff intervened, and the investigation resulted in the removal and banning of three Jazz fans indefinitely,” the statement read. “We apologize to all who were impacted by this unfortunate incident and condemn unacceptable fan behavior. The Utah Jazz are committed to ensuring a safe and respectful environment.”

Morant tweeted about the incident Thursday. “My family should be able (to)cheer for me and my teammates without getting inappropriate ---- said to them,” Morant said.

There were some good interactions, too: nearby Jazz fans reported buying beers with the Morant family. Morant complimented those fans, telling ESPN, “We were bantering back and forth with a group of fans around us all game,” said Tee Morant. “We had a good time.”

Tee Morant also said “he was pleased with the response to the incidents by arena security and the Jazz organization.”

Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell commented on the situation as well, tweeting “I’m glad those fans were banned and they should never be allowed back.... this is ridiculous!!! The fact that these words are being thrown around to players and there families is ridiculous! Enough is enough smh!”

Jazz owner Ryan Smith apologized.

“Memphis Grizzlies and Morant family... we are embarrassed and sorry. The (Utah Jazz) have zero tolerance for offensive behavior. We are committed to creating a respectful, competitive environment.”

But overall, the incident will only serve to strengthen a reputation of Jazz fans as being a hostile bunch to opponents; sometimes stepping over the lines of acceptable conduct.

That was a reputation also reinforced after an incident in March 2019, when Jazz fan Shane Keisel traded barbs with then-Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook. Keisel heckled Westbrook by saying, Westbrook asserted, that the star Oklahoma City guard should “get down on your knees like you used to.” Westbrook took offense to Keisel’s comments, threatening Keisel and his girlfriend, Jennifer Huff.

After the incident spread widely on social media, Westbrook decried Keisel’s heckle as racial in nature, and the Jazz banned Keisel from the arena. Westbrook was fined $25,000.

Then, Keisel and Huff sued the Jazz and Westbrook for a total of $100 million in damages for defamation and infliction of emotional distress. Keisel cited losing his job and friendships as supporting evidence for his claim.

On Thursday, Utah Fourth District judge Derek Pullan dismissed Keisel and Huff’s case; the judge didn’t buy the argument of Keisel, Huff and their lawyers. In the end, Pullan ruled that the Jazz’s statement was capable of defamation, but ultimately protected by the Jazz’s right to speak their opinion publicly.

Pullan also ruled that Westbrook’s statement after the game, in which he called Keisel’s heckle racist in nature, did not explicitly reference the two by name, and was also protected by Westbrook’s first-amendment rights.

Jazz fans are not alone in drawing headlines for incidents between fans and players; in fact, two other incidents also occurred, one in each of the Wednesday night’s playoff games. One Philadelphia fan dumped popcorn on Westbrook as he left the floor due to an ankle injury; the fan was suspended indefinitely from attending team events. Another fan in New York was seen spitting on Hawks guard Trae Young; he was also banned indefinitely from Knicks games.

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