NBA speaks volumes in its silencing of heckler

November 02, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

The most important development of the first week of the NBA season very likely slipped under everybody's radar, what with a legendary league figure dying, players getting the law laid down to them over gunplay, and debates raging over the new high-tech, fancy-schmancy game ball.

In a two-paragraph statement issued the day before the regular-season opener, the sport most routinely maligned by the public took a rock-solid stand in favor of those very same cynical fans.

It announced that a spectator at a preseason game in Orlando, Fla., a week ago tonight had his Magic season tickets revoked and was banned from attending games anywhere in the NBA this season, for "direct[ing] a racial slur" at the Houston Rockets' Dikembe Mutombo.

"Directing a racial slur" is putting it mildly. The fan, sitting near the court and well within sight and earshot of fans, players and game and team officials, called Mutombo a "monkey" and made monkey-like gestures. Mutombo, who was born in the Congo, had to be restrained from going after him, and said he was willing to pay the fine for doing so. That apparently put the fear of God into the fan, who quickly (although seemingly less-than-sincerely) wrote him to apologize.

Too late, the Magic said, and the NBA backed the team up - thus backing up every offended and sickened fan and player nearby, standing in for the millions who have rebelled against the increasingly ugly, foul-mouthed behavior in the stands in recent years by staying home.

In NBA arenas every night, security has to contain or restrain fans who either buy seats near courtside or rush toward the scorer's table, the benches or the areas behind the baskets and over the tunnels to the locker rooms. Also they can shower players and coaches with curses, taunts and personal insults, going out of their way to be seen and heard, disregarding the age or sensibilities of who else sees and hears them. And all in the belief that they are part of the game and integral to its outcome.

It's an unprecedented act, for the whole sport to enforce what is usually handled by the individual teams. It's a shame that such an extreme had to be taken - not unlike the extreme taken with an All-Star who led teammates into the stands to throw punches.

But David Stern, the best commissioner in sports, made it clear that the responsibility to act with civility, decency and respect at the games goes both ways.

After the brawl in Auburn Hills, Mich., two years ago, Stern called out both players and customers, drew up a code of conduct ("Fans have a right to expect an environment where ... guests will enjoy the basketball experience free from disruptive behavior, including foul or abusive language or obscene gestures"), and promised that fans who didn't comply would face severe repercussions.

Getting the boot from an entire league pretty much fits that description.

Some think that's too harsh. One of the NBA's Hall of Fame hecklers, longtime Capital Centre harasser Robin Ficker, thinks so. He wonders why Stern doesn't go the whole route and draw up a list of banned words. "I think he owes that to the fans," said Ficker, now 63 and again running for political office in Montgomery County.

"If he doesn't want to, put up glass like at the hockey games, or set up a ring around the court like boxing," Ficker said, "and if he wants to sell a ticket for $3,000 so someone can sit right on the court with the players, then he owes it to the fans to make up a list - Stern's Verboten Word List."

Yet, woven in between every other sentence in a half-hour conversation, is Ficker's disclaimer: "I would never have said what [that fan] said."

It was completely against his style to be profane or racially insulting. Working clean, plus his high-decibel, nails-on-a-blackboard voice, is what made him so effective.

Nobody is that clever anymore. Quite possibly the last fans in America to heckle without going off-color - a pair who anointed their seats across from the Golden State Warriors' bench in Oakland "The Brothers Corner" - gave up their tickets last year.

More and more every day, the stands are being surrendered to the jerks. Speaking of which, the Ravens have an official policy against them. It's displayed on the M&T Bank Stadium scoreboard before kickoff and sung along to cheerily by the crowd: "Don't Be a Jerk."

"We're not going to detail what a `jerk' is," said Ravens spokesman Kevin Byrne, who helped draw up the plan when the team first arrived. "But if you mess up the experience of the people around you, we're going to throw you out. If you continue, we're going to take your ticket, and then we'll revoke your [permanent seat license]."

The "jerk" statute includes verbal abuse, Byrne said, adding that four tickets were pulled last season for, basically, excessive jerk-ism.

The result: Ravens fans are loud, but far down the NFL stadium obnoxious scale.

At games these days, few things are more reassuring than knowing the home franchise will stick up for its fans if trouble starts. The NBA took it a sadly necessary step further, saying the entire league has their backs.

As much as fans love to find reasons to pick at the NBA, it's not clear yet whether they appreciate the gesture. After all, they're not being protected from just those rogue players, but from their own rogue selves.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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