The NBA playoffs are in full swing — and some of the excitement has spilled over into ugly fan incidents directed at players. Several fans have been ejected and, in some cases, arrested.



NBA fans have been flooding back into arenas during the playoffs. The presence of ticket- and merchandise-buying humans missing for more than a year during the pandemic has been a welcome sight for the cash-strapped league. And players have loved feeding off the excitement of live audiences. But recently, the excitement has spilled over into bad behavior. NPR's Tom Goldman reports on a rash of ugly fan incidents directed at players and what might be causing it.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Last night actually provided a moment of unity between NBA players and fans. In a playoff game between Portland and Denver, Portland's star guard, Damian Lillard, was transcendent. He scored 55 points and hit a record 12 three-point shots, including one to put the game into overtime and another to force double overtime.


UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #1: (Unintelligible) Backfires (ph), makes it in again.

GOLDMAN: His performance in a Portland loss brought amazed fans and players together on social media. Brooklyn Nets superstar Kevin Durant captured the mood, tweeting, I'm at a loss for words. Ironically, it was Lillard, the amazer and unifier, who spoke ominously a couple of days before about what's been dividing the league - fans lashing out at players. Something's going to happen to the wrong person, Lillard said, and it's not going to be good.

In recent rapid succession, players have been spit on, had popcorn dumped on them, a spectator rushed onto a court and a fan threw a water bottle at Brooklyn's Kyrie Irving.


UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #2: There are cameras everywhere, so you're going to see the toss right there. It just misses Kyrie. This is...

GOLDMAN: This time, Irving's teammate Durant was not at a loss for words.


KEVIN DURANT: We not animals. We not in a circus. You coming to the game is not all about you as a fan. Your mother wouldn't be proud of you throwing water bottles at basketball players or spitting on players or tossing popcorn. So grow the [expletive] up, and enjoy the game.

GOLDMAN: The overwhelming majority of fans do and don't cause trouble. But what gives with the few who act it out?

SAM SOMMERS: I do have two competing hypotheses for us to consider.

GOLDMAN: Sam Sommers chairs the psychology department at Tufts University and co-wrote the book "This Is Your Brain On Sports."

SOMMERS: One hypothesis is, honestly, it's just a return to normalcy.

GOLDMAN: After 15 months away from sporting events, he says, we're being reminded of what can happen and has happened over the years when you mix the arousal and fervor brought on by competition, fueled sometimes by alcohol. Sommers says another possible reason why is specific to the abnormal period of pandemic isolation from which fans are emerging.

SOMMERS: You know (laughter), you think about someone who grows up in a restrictive environment with a lot of rules and regulations. And they get out of that household, and they just sort of go crazy and sow their wild oats. And maybe we're seeing some of that, too.

GOLDMAN: Race also could be part of the mix, especially in the NBA, where most players are black, and many fans are white. The league has a long history of African American players enduring racist taunts. It happened in one of the recent incidents involving several fans at a Utah jazz playoff game and the African American parents of Ja Morant, a star player on the opposing Memphis Grizzlies. Another inescapable fact, Sommers says, all this is happening against the backdrop of a fractured, angry country.

SOMMERS: We're talking about sports here, but we're not that far removed from some pretty violent and angry and aggressive interactions outside and inside of our U.S. Capitol building. And the discourse at that level is one that's very charged.

GOLDMAN: In a statement, the NBA said an enhanced fan code of conduct will be vigorously enforced. That includes extra security measures. The fans involved in the recent incidents have been punished. All were banned from the arenas. The bottle thrower also was arrested. In Utah, Jazz owner Ryan Smith is providing free tickets and lodging to Ja Morant's family and a few friends for tonight's game. Smith already has publicly apologized, tweeting, we are embarrassed and sorry.

Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tags: fans  coronavirus  NBA