Russell Westbrook's exchange with Jazz fan a reminder of lack of human decency
I am not sure what Shane Keisel intended.
“Get down on your knees like you’re used to!”
When the Utah Jazz fan allegedly hollered those words at Russell Westbrook on Monday night, I don’t know whether Keisel meant it to be a racial insult. Or a sexual putdown. Or something else entirely.
But what I do know is that once the words left Keisel’s mouth, he left the interpretation up to Westbrook. The Thunder superstar got to decide how he felt about what had been said, and as everyone knows by now, Westbrook felt degraded. Debased. Dehumanized.
“I’ll (expletive) you up,” he snarled at Keisel.
Debate raged the day after the heated exchange. Would Westbrook be punished by the NBA? Would Keisel be admonished by the Jazz? By mid-afternoon, we had an answer for both questions.
The Jazz issued a statement saying Keisel had been permanently and immediately banned from games for “excessive and derogatory verbal abuse,” saying it had video evidence and eyewitnesses indicating the NBA Code of Conduct had been violated. Less than half an hour later, the NBA announced Westbrook had been fined $25,000 "for directing profanity and threatening language to a fan."
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Thing is, we didn’t need any investigations to know human decency is in critically short supply.
It’s been 15 years since the Malice at the Palace. Even though the memory of beer raining down on Ron Artest, then Artest and Stephen Jackson charging into the stands at Pistons fans remains a stain on the league, it feels like we’re hurtling headlong toward another altercation between players and fans.
I sure hope not. But in listening to players, both in Thunder blue and not, after this latest incident, maybe we’re just lucky the Palace Malice hasn’t repeated itself.
“Racism and hate speech hurts us all,” Jazz star Donovan Mitchell tweeted on Tuesday, “and this is not the first time something like this has happened in our arena. … I join other players in calling for all teams to take a stand. We should not be subject to hate speech or racist acts at any time and definitely not in our arenas.”
Thunder veteran Raymond Felton told reporters in Salt Lake City after the game Monday, “This ain’t the first game it’s happened. It happened in Portland. It happened in pretty much every arena we go to.”
(And Thunder fans, before you go feeling high and mighty, if your guys hear demeaning comments all around the league, there are undoubtedly players who endure similar things at The Peake.)
Banter between Westbrook and fans has become common. They rib. He reacts. But most of the time, there’s a glint in Westbrook’s eye. You can tell he’s enjoying the give and take.
But Monday, if Westbrook and several corroborating teammates are truth telling, Keisel pushed too far. He could’ve gotten under Westbrook’s skin by mentioning his free throws being terrible. Or his jump shot looking off.
Instead, Keisel demeaned Westbrook as a man, a human being.
Some believe Westbrook should’ve walked away. Don’t threaten a fan. Don’t escalate the situation. I get that. But has anyone stopped to think how many times Westbrook has taken the high road over the years? How often has he turned a blind eye or a deaf ear? How regularly are his buttons pushed without a reaction?
I’m going to guess that happens more than we know.
After the game Monday, Westbrook explained his reaction.
“To me, that’s just completely disrespectful,” he said. “To me, I think it’s racial.”
Which brings us back to intent. What Keisel intended isn’t all that important because once he spit the words out of his mouth, they were Westbrook’s to interpret. He believed they were racially charged, and he was offended.
And just because you aren’t offended doesn’t mean it wasn’t offensive.
Russell Westbrook is a multimillionaire, a superb basketball player and, I’m told, a fashion mogul. But that doesn’t make him a robot. He knows what it’s like to walk into a room and feel eyes looking, sense shoulders tensing.
Every black man in America has experienced that.
“At the end of the day, we’re human beings,” Felton said. “We have feelings. Just like they’ve got feelings, we’ve got feelings, too.”
Our world doesn’t consider other people near enough. That whole love-your-neighbor thing doesn’t have any exceptions. We don’t think about how others might process what we say to them. We don’t worry about how our actions might harm them.
I’ll say it again for the people in back — just because you aren’t offended doesn’t mean something wasn’t offensive.
You might say that’s political correctness.
I say it’s human decency.
We need more of it.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.