Trae Young of the Atlanta Hawks against the New York Knicks...

Trae Young of the Atlanta Hawks against the New York Knicks during Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals at Madison Square Garden on May 26, 2021. Credit: Getty Images/Elsa

When did it become OK for NBA fans to act like bigots and hooligans?

Did everyone spend the pandemic watching videos of Chelsea soccer fans throwing coins or Philadelphia Eagles fans throwing beer bottles? Is everyone so crazed after being cooped up for 14 months that it suddenly seems all right to express yourself and support your team by assaulting a professional basketball player or his family?

Incidents across the NBA during the past few days really have to make you wonder just how much freedom fans should be given in a game in which there is

little physical separation between them and the players.

In Philadelphia, Russell Westbrook had popcorn dumped on him as he left the game because of an injury. In Utah, Ja Morant’s parents had lewd and racist slurs directed toward them. And at Madison Square Garden, Trae Young was spat on, which at the tail end of a pandemic should be considered an act of assault.

Add to that, heading into Friday night’s Nets-Boston playoff game, Kyrie Irving voiced some concerns that he would be greeted by racist jeers in his first playoff game as a Net at TD Garden. Irving was backed by teammate Bruce Brown on Friday morning. Brown, who grew up in Boston, loves coming back to play there, but he did say he was the target of racial slurs when he was younger.

All three of the perpetrators in New York, Utah and Philadelphia have been banned from the arenas. The Knicks, Jazz and 76ers also apologized and the NBA released a statement pledging to "vigorously" enforce its code of conduct for fans.

In an interview with ESPN before Friday night’s Game 3 in Atlanta, Young said he doesn’t mind when Knicks fans use his name in an obscene chant, but he added, "Spitting and things like that are uncalled for."

Said Young, "It’s disgusting."

Obviously, not all fans are bad apples, but the plethora of incidents in the first week of the playoffs is really disconcerting. After pining for live sports for more than a year, this is what happens when fans finally are allowed back into arenas?

Maybe it’s because in our country, it has become OK to go almost nuclear to destroy your opponent. Maybe it’s because our country is so polarized that it’s easy not to see that someone who thinks differently from you — someone who plays for a different team or votes for a different candidate — deserves at least a baseline level of respect as a human being.

"There’s no place for that," Knicks All-Star Julius Randle said before the game. "We’ve got to protect the players. That’s disrespectful. Yeah, it’s our fans, but you see a guy on the street, you wouldn’t spit on him. You wouldn’t disrespect somebody like that."

There was a clear lack of respect for Young in Games 1 and 2. Sure, you may not like his foul-drawing chicanery and the way he baits defenders into shooting fouls. Sure, it may feel good to join in the profane chant involving Young.

But I am starting to wonder if that chant, especially when screamed by thousands of fans who are out partying en masse for the first time in more than a year, doesn’t lead some into stepping over the line.

The intimacy of basketball is one of the things that makes attending NBA games so great. Players don’t wear helmets. We can see their emotions close up. When Young holds his finger to his mouth in a mocking "Shhh," we can feel as if he was talking to us.

The NBA, more than any other sport except soccer, is a game of stars and personalities. There are good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains.

All of them are people. Their parents don’t deserve to be harassed. They don’t deserve to have popcorn dropped on their heads. No human should ever spit on another.

Said Hawks coach Nate McMillan: "We’re just living in a society where people don’t have respect anymore."

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