Nevius: Courtside NBA hecklers getting too close and personal

The NBA is up close and personal.

Maybe too close. Too personal.

Other sports have a barrier between the screaming fans and the players. Baseball parks have a wall around the field, which can rise to 10 feet or more in the outfield. Fans in football stadiums are seated above the action and the sideline space extends 20-30 feet.

In professional basketball, the fans basically sit on the court. Seats are sold that are literally at the end of a team’s bench. To find a place to stand while inbounding the ball, a player may have to nudge back someone’s shoes. And how about hitting a 3 from the corner with some beer-breath bozo yelling in your ear?

So it is no surprise that there have been incidents. This year Russell Westbrook complained about vile racial slurs. And the Warriors’ Draymond Green agreed, saying fans feel empowered to yell vulgarities they would never say outside the arena.

After a loss in Denver this year, Westbrook was confronted by a burly bro with a backwards ballcap who walked on the court and yelled in his face. Westbrook gave the guy a shove and security arrived, but the takeaway is clear - a drunken fan can take two steps and accost some of the most famous athletes in the world. Who’s to say some moron won’t throw a punch?

Luckily, team owners recognize the problem. In fact, they have just announced they will move the seats back 3 feet in the interest of safety and security.

Just kidding.

Of course they aren’t moving the seats back. Do you know what those front-row spots cost? If the owners could think of a way to put folding chairs at half court, they’d do it.

Which isn’t to say it is not a problem.

Last week Houston guard James Harden slapped a cell phone that an obnoxious heckler was using to record the player’s reaction to his up-close insults. There is more than one video of the jerk leaning over a railing and yelling in Harden’s face as he walked off the court.

Now, you’re going to say that players like Harden, Westbrook and Green are INCITING these reactions. Harden is a notorious and unrepentant flopper and Westbrook and Green posture and shout during games.

Green, in particular, has been described as a “heel,” the professional wrestling term for the guy the other team’s fans love to hate. Green has had beefs with fans at Utah, Cleveland and now New Orleans.

It’s no accident. Green knows he’s going to get booed. He encourages it and is always ready to double down. When the Jazz fans got on him, Green said they “weren’t very smart. Shut up.”

So if Green yells at opposing players, or starts a confrontation, the paying customers seem to think they should be allowed to do it, too. If Green gets in a player’s face, they should be able to yell anything they want, no matter how offensive.

Worse, they seem to think that these insults and slurs are having an effect on the outcome. Did you see the internet video from Game 2 of the series with the Pelicans? Before handing the ball to Green for a free throw, Rajon Rondo rubs it on his face, coating it in sweat. (Green made the shot.)

But isn’t that the kind of get-in-their-heads move that wins ballgames? Over-amped fans seem to think they are doing the same thing.

OK, here’s the difference. See those very tall, powerful men in shorts and sneakers? They are in the game.

You, the guy with the plate of nachos in your lap? You are NOT in the game.

And granted, it isn’t as if there are a lot of good role models out there. If anything, recognizable celebrities have been some of the worst offenders.

At last year’s NBA Finals in Oakland, nine-time Grammy winner and LeBron James fan Rihanna sat courtside and heckled Kevin Durant. She yelled “brick” as he shot free throws and mocked his 3-pointers.

It turned out to be a bad night to hassle KD. He went for 38, including a 3 he launched right in front of Rihanna’s seat. When it splashed down, he turned and gave her a long, significant glare.

Although it wasn’t very sportsmanlike of Rihanna, at least it was handled with a minimum of drama.

Unlike last week in Toronto during the Raptors-Cavaliers playoff game, when another Grammy-grabber, Drake, got into a nasty exchange with Cavs player Kendrick Perkins. According to reports, Drake was so worked up that Perkins had to be pulled away before it got physical. (Which, since Perkins is 6-10 and 270 pounds, was a lucky break for Drake.)

But the point is that we seem to be getting closer and closer to real violence. And with that in mind, it doesn’t help to hear TV talking head Charles Barkley say of Green, “I just want someone to punch him in the face.”

Later, Barkley apologized and said he wouldn’t punch Green.

But someone may. And then the NBA has a real problem.

Contact C.W. Nevius at Twitter: @cwnevius.

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