It is a golden rule of sports fandom that no one touch the competitors in anger, or in any other way. They’re allowed to hit each other. If we loosened it any further than that, you’re no longer paying to attend a game. You’ve instead walked into the middle of an incipient riot.
The Golden State Warriors – an NBA franchise that had built up its “good guys doing good things in a good community” vibe over years of trying – tossed that rule on Wednesday.
Now, an NBA Finals that had been an interesting basketball series moves up the dial to “blood feud.” Really, this whole thing could not be going much better.
We have Warriors’ minority owner Mark Stevens, and his shove of Raptors all-star Kyle Lowry during the playoff game in Oakland, to thank for that.
Mr. Stevens is a vastly wealthy venture capitalist, a tech pioneer, a guy who has donated tens of millions of dollars to his alma mater (in return for putting his name on a bunch of things, which isn’t charity so much as personal branding).
I’m sure Mr. Stevens’s friends think he’s an impressive guy. From now on, everyone else will think of him as “The dummy who pushed Kyle Lowry.”
In the fourth quarter of Wednesday’s Raptors’ win, Mr. Lowry chased a ball out of bounds at high speed. He catapulted himself into the courtside seats, nearly landing in the second row.
One gentleman in yellow grabbed Mr. Lowry protectively, preventing him from coming down on his head. That’s what you’re supposed to do. It’s the kind thing.
If you’re going to sit in the really expensive seats at an NBA game (which I wouldn’t do if you gave me a couple grand), there is the expectation that you may be bulldozed by an enormously large man coming at you like an out-of-control cruise missile. That risk is baked into the experience.
Mr. Stevens was sitting two seats over from the fan Mr. Lowry landed on. Mr. Stevens hadn’t been touched. But he still felt the need to reach over, put his hand on Mr. Lowry’s shoulder and give him what was very plainly an unfriendly shove.
Mr. Lowry popped up, angry. Words were exchanged. Mr. Lowry said afterward they were “vulgar” words, which is also not cool.
Heckling an opponent is one thing. Cursing them is another. Soon thereafter, security ejected Mr. Stevens from the game.
Even Harold Ballard didn’t jump out onto the ice and start checking guys. Mr. Ballard, a former owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, may be the most unhinged owner in the history of North American sport, but he understood there are some things you don’t do. Mainly because the players will hit back and they can do a lot more damage than you can.
On Thursday morning, the Warriors announced Mr. Stevens was banned from the Finals. This is a bit like coming home to find out the Neighbourhood Watch has decided you can no longer attend your own house.
On Thursday afternoon, the NBA suspended Mr. Stevens for one year from all NBA games and all Warriors’ team activities and fined him US$500,000.
Before he knew who had pushed him and was still describing Mr. Stevens as “the fan,” Mr. Lowry was low-key annoyed at the whole thing.
“The fans have a place. We love our fans,” he told ESPN after the game. “But fans like that they shouldn’t be allowed to be in there because it’s not right. I can’t do nothing to protect myself.”
By Thursday, Mr. Lowry’s postgame simmer had become a boil. He demanded Mr. Stevens be tossed from the Warriors’ organization. He described what Mr. Stevens said to him, an epithet that was indeed very vulgar.
“A guy like that … shouldn’t be part of our league,” Mr. Lowry said.
That hits the right tone. This isn’t a Defcon 1-level emergency. But it’s a profoundly embarrassing situation for the NBA. Mr. Lowry is effectively turning the screw.
A few days ago, the league was tsk-tsk-ing Raptors super-fan Drake for touching his own side’s coach during the game. It was a gesture of friendliness. It was still treated as a shocking breach of etiquette, which it is.
Because any iteration of the act – no matter how well intentioned – sends you down a slippery slope. Basketball players are uniquely vulnerable in this regard because there are no barriers to the field of play.
During the regular season, a young boy sitting courtside at an Oklahoma City game stood up, reached out and slapped Thunder star Russell Westbrook on the shoulder.
Mr. Westbrook didn’t react initially. Once he realized it was a spectator, Mr. Westbrook froze in place and gave the kid a stare so hard it pushed him back into his seat.
Later, he came over and delivered a gentle tongue lashing followed by a reassuring pat. It was a gentlemanly way to handle it.
I imagine that if an adult man had done the same thing, Mr. Westbrook would’ve knocked him unconscious with a flung ball.
But a lesson was reinforced – nobody lays hands on the performers. Not kids. Not friendlies. Not no one. Players touch players, end of story.
That’s the very clear, very red line Mr. Stevens just stepped over. It’s the demarcation that separates entertainment from a free-for-all.
More than just a reputational stain, Mr. Stevens’s shove plays into the larger context of the series itself. The Warriors are on their heels, but have done a good job of keeping it cool in front of the microphones.
Mr. Stevens’s momentary meltdown suggests another narrative. This was the clearest sign yet the Warriors feel they are in real trouble.
Whether they want to think of it like this or not, Mr. Stevens is a team member by virtue of his part ownership. He’s just put the team in a terrible spot at exactly the wrong time. Regardless of the suspension, it’s hard to see how he can continue as an investor after this.
For the rest of us, this adds a new layer of drama to an increasingly captivating series. Everyone expected a Golden State walkover. That’s off the table. The Raptors, who lead the best-of-seven Finals 2-1, look more and more like a team finding its perfect form at the most opportune moment. The hours between now and Friday evening’s Game 4 in Oakland would have been filled with a bunch of bumpf about who’s fit to play and for how long.
Instead, one silly gesture has ratcheted this up to a genuine grudge match between two teams who no longer seem to like each other very much.