The Toronto Raptors have been on vacation for more than a week now, but they’re still making an impact on the NBA playoffs.
Witness Friday night’s Game 3 of the second-round series between Philadelphia and Miami. It marked the first time Joel Embiid had made an appearance in the best-of-seven set, after experiencing the effects of a concussion and broken orbital bone suffered in Philadelphia’s Game 6 elimination of the Raptors in Toronto on April 28. And since Embiid hadn’t spoken to the media since he took a Pascal Siakam elbow to the face moments after he airplaned back on defence at Scotiabank Arena — inexplicably still in the game, with the Sixers up 29 points and about four minutes left — it was also the forum for his first public comments about the goings-on in Toronto.
Embiid, even in the glow of a crucial Philly win that whittled Miami’s series lead to 2-1, still sounded bothered by his latest run-in with Canada’s only NBA team. It wasn’t Siakam who irked him, mind you. Days after Siakam apologized to Embiid, saying he felt “awful” about the play, Embiid’s beef was with the folks in the stands.
“I’ve always thought they have great fans, but I kind of changed my mind about the fans up there (in Toronto),” Embiid told reporters in Philadelphia.
He’s got his reasons, some better than others.
There were those in the crowd who cheered loudly after Siakam’s elbow — ruled an offensive foul that didn’t meet the video-review criteria of a flagrant foul — put Embiid out of action, which called to mind the moment in the 2019 NBA Finals when some cheered after Kevin Durant was felled by what turned out to be a torn Achilles tendon.
Still, the Philly star and Raptors fans had their share of back-and-forth throughout the series. Not only did the crowd boo Embiid most every time he touched the ball in all three games in Toronto, this after Embiid and his teammates were cast by Toronto coach Nick Nurse as reckless menaces whose indiscriminate physical assaults on various Raptors weren’t being properly policed by the referees. Embiid counselled Nurse to quit complaining about the officiating — the height of hypocrisy in a league in which almost everyone is guilty of chronically complaining about the officiating.
So maybe it wasn’t a surprise that when Toronto’s Chris Boucher took issue with Embiid stepping over him, as Boucher lay prone on the floor with Game 6 slipping away, the fans at Scotiabank Arena joined in a lamentable trend that’s become common in North American sports: They showered Embiid with a profane chant. When Embiid cupped his hands to his ears, the vulgarity only got more voluminous.
“It’s been going on in a few arenas these days where the fans, they just feel like it’s OK to just say ‘F— somebody,’” Embiid said. “There’s a bunch of kids in the arena. I don’t think that should be OK, even if there wasn’t kids. But … if you respond to it, it’s almost like in the Draymond (Green) situation, the league fines you.”
Embiid has a point: The group cussing isn’t a good look. It’s certainly not a good example for the youngsters in any crowd. And as much as the spewing of vulgar language is supposed to be enough to get a fan kicked out of an arena — at least according to the NBA’s fan code of conduct — it’s not exactly clear how arena security is supposed to proceed when thousands of fans are bent on driving the in-arena discourse into the gutter.
Still, Embiid is being more than a little disingenuous here. If objectionable utterance is his point of contention, he’s conveniently leaving out the part of the story where he set the profane tone. Long before the fans targeted him in four-letter unison in Game 6, you didn’t need to be a professional lip reader to see Embiid spewing a sneering “F— you!” to the Toronto crowd.
“If you give it, you’ve also got to be able to take it,” Embiid said Friday. “And I’ve said it about our fans, too, when they boo. If the players are gonna (fire) back, (the fans have) got to be able to take it, too.”
Maybe that would be the case if the player-fan relationship was a peer-to-peer situation. Clearly, it’s not. The fans are the customers who’ve paid their freight. The players are under contract to represent a franchise and, by extension, a league.
Don’t get it wrong: That doesn’t mean players should be expected to happily bathe in all the garbage a fan base sees fit to spew. It’s impossible to know exactly the kind of abuse that’s hurled in any player’s direction. We’re all human beings. Everyone’s got their limits. And the fact the fans have paid their admission doesn’t give them carte blanche to do as they please when players displease them.
But stock hostility is a time-honoured tradition that road-tripping pros ought to be expected to weather without reacting like bratty children. And fans can’t be sitting ducks, either. Last month, Charlotte’s Miles Bridges threw a mouthpiece in the direction of a fan who was heckling him as he left the floor in Atlanta. Bridges’s aim was off and the spit-filled projectile hit a 16-year-old girl instead. That Bridges wasn’t suspended — he was fined $50,000 (U.S.), an NBA pittance — tells you the league isn’t taking the problem particularly seriously. It’s not a surprise some players are of the belief that in-game exchanges between players and fans ought to be tit for tat.
Never mind that the fans’ collective passion, though occasionally irrational, is the money-printing lifeblood of the NBA’s growth into a multibillion-dollar empire.
Last month, Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets was fined $50,000 for flipping the bird and hurling some unprintables at fans in Boston, where he used to play.
“It’s the same energy they had for me, and I’m going to have the same energy for them,” Irving said.
Ditto Green, the Golden State Warriors forward who scoffed at the $25,000 fine he received for flipping off fans who booed him in Memphis, as he headed to the locker room after being elbowed in the head this past week.
“If they’re gonna be that nasty, I can be nasty, too,” Green said.
You’d think world-class contrarians such as Embiid and Green and Irving might want to take the high road. It’d be the ultimate counter-culture move in our age of incivility.