• Erik Slater

Kyrie Irving and the Double Standard of NBA Fan Behavior

Reggie Miller at the Garden, Bill Laimbeer just about everywhere, LeBron James in his return to Cleveland, and now Kyrie Irving in Boston.

Villains have long fueled the theater that is the NBA.

Kyrie irving flashes middle fingers to the Boston crowd during Game 1.
Shawn Gill/Twitter

Irving gained nationwide attention when he flipped the bird to Celtics fans during game one of Brooklyn’s first-round series. Many were critical of his decision to respond to relentless heckling. My take:

This double standard has existed far too long and, as long as he backs it up on the court, Irving shouldn't be forced to hold back.

First, it’s great for the game. From the opening tip, Irving was vehemently booed each time he touched the ball. Fans screamed obscenities at him all game, adding to the storyline of one of the most anticipated first-round series in recent memory.

The Nets star gave it right back to the unruly Boston crowd and backed it up with his play. He scored 18 fourth-quarter points, nearly willing his team to a 15-point comeback in arguably the most hostile environment in the NBA.

That is everything you could hope for in a playoff game. High intensity, fans engaged on every play, and one of the best players in the game doing everything he can to silence them. It’s drama at its finest.

Game one between Brooklyn and Boston was the NBA's most-watched first-round game since 2016, attracting 6.9 million viewers according to the Nielsen company.

Next, far too many fans think they have a license to treat players however they want with no repercussions. Just in the last year, fans spat on Trae Young in New York, threw popcorn on Russell Westbrook in Philadelphia, heckled Jusuf Nurkic after his grandmother passed of Covid-19, and much more.

These fans act this way while cloaked in a sea of faces and protected in the controlled environment of the arena. How many would do something like that if they saw the player on the street? The answer is close to none.

“All is fair in competition,” Irving said. “If somebody’s gonna call me out by my name, I’m gonna look them straight in their eye and see if they’re really about it. Most of the time they’re not.”

In Irving’s case, he is not asking for protection from curse words and beratement by Celtics fans. He acknowledged it’s part of the playoffs. His stance is simple: Don’t dish it if you can’t take it.

“We’re the ones expected to be docile, and be humble, and take the humble approach,” he said. “Nah, f—k that, it’s the playoffs. This is what it is. I know what to expect in here, and that’s the same energy I’m giving back to them.”

The NBA fined Irving $50,000 for his obscene gestures. If that is the stance the league is going to take, where is the accountability on the fans’ end? Why should players endure verbal abuse while those just feet away have free rein to act however they please?

The league’s response would likely be along the lines of creating a family-friendly environment. But it is hypocritical and ineffective to punish players for comments or gestures that pale in comparison to the vulgarity children are hearing from nearby fans.

As long as players don’t engage fans physically and comments aren't lewd or sexual, there should be no issue here.

Irving’s problems with Boston fans are well-documented. In 2018, he said he planned on re-signing only to bolt for Brooklyn the following offseason. This after Irving struggled mightily in a gentleman's sweep by Milwaukee in the second round of the 2019 playoffs. He then stomped on the face of the Celtics logo following a Brooklyn playoff win last season.

No one is saying Boston fans shouldn’t go at Irving each time he steps foot in TD Garden. They absolutely should. But the fans, media, and NBA shouldn’t take issue when Irving, or any player, decides to respond.

Not only is it hypocritical, but it suppresses one of the best aspects of the product. The league should embrace the back and forth. It’s a big part of what makes sports great.

Boston fans will show the same hostility towards Irving in Game 2. Will he respond?

That remains to be seen, but one thing is certain:

Everyone will be watching.