The return of fans and the increased capacity of NBA arenas has unfortunately included some ugly incidents involving patrons in the crowd harrassing players during recent playoff games. A fan in Philadelphia threw popcorn on Russell Westbrook on Wednesday as he was leaving the court, a fan in New York spit on Trae Young, and three Utah Jazz fans made vulgar and racist remarks to Ja Morant's family.
The NBA released an official statement on the recent trend, promising stricter enforcement of their conduct policy. NBA commissioner Adam Silver also joined NBC Sports Washington for this weekend's Wizards Pregame Live to discuss the matter.
Speaking with NBC Sports Washington's Chris Miller, Silver said he was watching the Wizards-Sixers game when the Westbrook incident happened.
"In the case of Russ, I’m in many ways like a fan, I’m watching the games at night from my home. So, we saw that one happen in real-time," Silver said.
The league's security department gets in touch with the arena and the team. Video footage either from the closed-circuit cameras in the arena or other available footage is used to identify the fan and make sure they won't have access to tickets in the future.
Silver said he also heard from the NBA's Players Association's executive director Michele Roberts after the incident with Westbrook. Westbrook is the Wizards' alternate rep to the NBPA.
"Their leadership team was working with us to make sure we do everything we can to prevent incidents like that from happening going forward," Silver said.
Silver cited a few ways he believes what happened to Westbrook can be prevented in the future. The main way is by making examples out of cases like this to make fans aware of the consequences.
"Zero tolerance," Silver said. "No one is going to get away with an act like that. You're going to be caught. You're going to be banned from an arena. In some cases there may be criminal prosecution depending if the conduct rises to that level of an assault or something that the police are going to take note of."
Silver said in many instances the public humiliation involved can be an added deterrent.
With Westbrook, there was also the matter of a fan throwing popcorn through an opening in the top of the tunnel at the Wells Fargo Center.
"In the case with [Russ], even with the tarps that cover the [tunnels] where people are leaving. There was literally a gap between the tarp and the railing. There’s a reason those tarps are there because there had been incidents where things were thrown on players, drinks spilled or other things. We can tighten that up. It’s been a while since we've had large crowds in our arenas. And maybe people let their guards down a bit," Silver said.
Silver also mentioned looking at the placement of security to see where they could be the most effective.
Westbrook has been involved in series of fan-related confrontations over the years. It wasn't even his first incident in Philly: In 2016 a fan sitting near courtside was kicked out for flipping Westbrook off with both hands.
After Wednesday's popcorn episode, the league's commissioner reiterated that the NBA is determined to protect players - and other fans - from fans behaving inappropriately.
"It’s critically important because, while of course we’re thrilled that fans are able to be back in our arenas, to get out of their homes to share this experience with others, we’ve gotta demonstrate that there is zero tolerance for that sort of behavior. I recognize it’s a minuscule percentage of fans, but they also can destroy the atmosphere for everyone who’s there," Silver said.
"Then, of course, it’s our job to protect the players and the coaches and the officials. We want to make sure everyone knows it is zero tolerance. If you engage in that type of behavior, you will be caught particularly because even if it’s not recognized at first, there are so many cameras in all of our arenas now that no one is going to get away with that kind of behavior."