Where we sit no one yells at the players. Up here they don’t throw beer, ice or folding chairs on professional athletes. We sit in the very last row at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia where you’d have to have a voice like Whitney Houston or an arm like Donovan McNabb to have anything reach the court.
So when we witnessed the debacle between fans and players during the waning seconds of Friday’s [Nov. 19] Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons game in Detroit, those of us who sit in the last row had trouble understanding why fans in the front rows would behave in such a deplorable manner. But after witnessing the chaos replayed all over television I think I am beginning to understand the root of the problem. People who pay hundreds of dollars for a seat at a National Basketball Association game have paid for the right to treat players like objects and engage with them any way they deem appropriate. By sitting in the last row we have paid for nothing more than the right to watch a good game.
With less than a minute remaining in the game that aired nationally on ESPN, Ben Wallace of the Detroit Pistons was fouled by Pacers’ forward Ron Artest. Artest was initially calm and went to the side of the court to lie on the scorer’s table. A Pistons fan then threw a cup at Artest.
Artest ran into the crowd like a bull in a china shop. Pacers teammates Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O’Neal followed Artest, and the result is a well-documented riot ending with the Pacers being escorted to the locker room under a storm of beer and popcorn. The NBA responded by suspending Artest for the remainder of the season, O’Neal for 25 games, Jackson for 30 and Wallace for six.
While the event sent shock waves through the sports world I can’t say that I’m all that surprised at the actions of Artest and the other players. NBA players play 82 regular-season games.
Half those games are played in hostile territory, where a player’s personal life, mother, past and air balls are all fair game for the loud, obnoxious fan who sits close to the court. There is only so much a player can take before the gasket breaks and retaliation becomes a necessary, uncontrollable emotion.
Once we decided to splurge and get good seats for the Sixers versus Nets game. I assumed that it would be more civilized down in the good seats. It wasn’t. It was the first time I’d been to a game where I had to tell a neighboring fan to be quiet because he was being offensive, and I’m not easily offended. Next season we decided to remain in the nosebleeds. We came to the conclusion that the closer you get to the court the more obnoxious the fan becomes.
The behavior of the fans down there reminds me of the drivers of expensive sport-utility vehicles who believe they have bought the right to push you and your Geo Metro out of the way. Being close to the basketball court is the only time these fans get to insult someone who is twice their size and 10 times as tough. They yell insults that in any other context would result in the insulter going to the hospital with two broken legs and a missing larynx.
If it isn’t acceptable on the street, then why has it been acceptable for years at NBA games? My guess is that if you want somebody to pay that kind of money for a seat you have to let them act as obnoxious as they want.
This is a problem the league should have addressed years ago.
Even though courtside fans like Jimmy Buffet have been booted from arenas for unruly behavior, it still hasn’t stopped the sometimes racial, homophobic and sexist comments from reaching players’ ears.
Sure these players make millions to play a sport they are good at and should exercise self-control. But the thing that makes them good is their passion, and their passion goes beyond their game. It goes to their personal life, family and sense of respect. When you disrespect a person who has worked his whole life to achieve a dream of greatness and during that moment of greatness you pour a beer on him, you should expect a passionate response.
We ask our players to perform inhuman feats on the basketball court, but that doesn’t give us the right to treat them as if they aren’t human beings, no matter how much we pay for a ticket.
Nate House lives in Philadelphia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune and is reprinted by permission of the author.