“They called me everything but Mississippi,” said Haywood, a Hall of Famer who grew up in Silver City, Miss. “They hit me, and I couldn’t do anything.”
Haywood was the enemy then because he was a 21-year-old challenging an NBA rule that players couldn’t join the league before they had been out of high school for four years.
Paul was the enemy last week because some rascal in Dallas really wanted the Mavericks to win Game 4.
That’s how it seemed, at least. But there are too many recent high-profile cases of inappropriate fan behavior to dismiss what’s happening as heckling gone wild. Beyond the anecdotal extremes, you can’t turn on games without noticing the abundance of chippy player-crowd interactions. And the tension extends to all forms of entertainment, most notably (and worrisome) Dave Chappelle being attacked onstage at the Hollywood Bowl.
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It has been a little more than a year since sports and live events began reopening their doors to normal-sized crowds. At this time last year, perhaps some of the nasty behavior — Trae Young being spit on At Madison Square Garden, an injured Russell Westbrook having popcorn dumped on him as he walked to the locker room in Philadelphia, Kyrie Irving likening the treatment of players to a “human zoo” — could be attributed to the effect of limited social interactions during the first phase of the pandemic. However, it seemed like an insufficient excuse then. And now it’s facile to suggest we’re all just adjusting emotionally, still.
It’s a combination of the emergence from silos, the reaction to an athlete qualification era in which more players are vocal and demanding and a social culture war hemorrhaging civility. Put all of those issues in a sports venue, and the notion of a hostile environment takes on new meaning.
“Man, we’re living in a demonic time,” Haywood said.
Haywood is 73. He was born into indentured servitude in Mississippi, the son and brother of sharecroppers. He went from the cotton fields to the basketball court. When he was trying to play in the NBA, his mother was still making $2 a day picking cotton. Haywood and Seattle SuperSonics owner Sam Schulman fought the case to the Supreme Court, won a temporary injunction in 1971 and later settled the dispute out of court, paving the way for precocious talent to enter the NBA sooner. But he suffered because of that fight, as well as the intense racism of his childhood, succumbing to drug addiction and feeling like an outcast.
Later in life, Haywood found perspective, strengthened his fame and gained the respect he felt he deserved. But he has lived through hell. So if this feels like a “demonic time” to him, it’s a sobering thought that shouldn’t be dismissed.
“For sports, the most important thing causing all this is the potential at a time when progress and equality is meeting resistance,” Haywood said. “Whenever athletes have raised their voices and fought systems, there’s always a pushback. What’s different about now is the craziness of the discourse. You can’t be watching and listening to all this evil and hate and denial — that’s a big thing — and then go to the game or concert and not expect some of that to be in there and manifest itself during the spectating experience.
“Think about it. We had people trying to overthrow the American government. I never even thought we would be living in that kind of society. And then they act like it didn’t even happen. What the hell is wrong with y’all? You’re going to believe your lying eyes?”
When he learned about the Paul family incident, Haywood was most bothered that it was a young fan that Paul identified as an instigator. “They got this stuff going all backwards, man, if that’s what our example is teaching young people how to act,” Haywood said.
Security for the Mavericks and American Airlines Center later released a statement saying “two unruly fans attempted to give unwanted hugs and have conversations” with Paul’s family. The security team ejected them and won’t allow them to return to a game until 2023.
The NBA has been proactive in trying to curb inappropriate behavior, delivering harsh punishments quickly. It also has become stricter about handing out fines to players for wearing and making obscene gestures toward the crowd.
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It’s not just an NBA issue, but in arenas with courtside seating and other design features that try to make large crowds seem intimate, the exchanges between the entertainers and spectators are unavoidable. The overwhelming majority are pleasant or in good fun. When they’re not, the onus is on the players to stay disciplined.
“You can’t react,” said Haywood, who was the subject of “The Spencer Haywood Rule” book written by Marc Spears and Gary Washburn and now hosts a podcast of the same name tackling mental health and other weighty subjects.
“You just can’t do it, especially now. It could get really nasty. You’ve got to remember that you’ve got 20,000 sitting there being entertained, and two or three in the stands can’t speak for all of them. So, brush your shoulders off and move on.
“This is one of the best times in sports, with the opportunity and the equality and the push for more. And the basketball is just beautiful. We’ve got to celebrate that and not let insecurities make you think that the tiny minority, even if they’ve got the devil in them, speaks for anything more than just random stupidity.”
During his toughest times, restraint helped Haywood survive. His mother used to always tell him, “It’s not bad people. The devil has their heart at this time.” When he was playing while fighting the NBA in the courts, he would walk into arenas on the road, and the public-address announcer would declare the game was under protest because an inclusive player was on the floor, and it would incite violence. But Haywood, who is 6-foot-8, never retaliated and kept seeking the best in people. Such poise is a lot to ask of athletes used to confrontation, but that’s the responsibility.
“The good, it’s still out there,” Haywood said. “The fools make a lot of noise, but it’s still out there.”