In football, the closest players get to the fans is jumping in the crowd after a touchdown, or slapping some hands in celebration. In baseball, a dive into the stands or a flip of a ball defines almost all fan interactions. Hockey? There’s literally a barrier around the court separating athletes and rabid supporters.
But basketball is different, and Saturday night’s Shove Heard ‘Round the World is the perhaps the latest reminder of just how close fans are to the court. Ever since the infamous Pacers-Pistons brawl in 2004, the NBA has taken a lot of action to clean up its image and prevent something like that from happening ever again. The NCAA, on the other hand, has never had an incident such as the Malice in the Palace ever happen on one of its courts, which is surprising because of the ferocity with which some fans will heckle and taunt opposing players.
I’m all for fans participating in the game indirectly by yelling at the road team and voicing their loyalty for their squad; it creates an electric atmosphere surrounding games which can sometimes translate on television to viewers at home. Of course, what is being said shouldn’t cross certain lines. When Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart ran into and fell amongst Texas Tech fans after a play, then subsequently pushed Tech alum Jeff Orr, who allegedly called Smart a “piece of crap,” it was absolutely justified.
You see, in this case, Orr thought he was completely and utterly exempt from any consequences because he is a paying fan. He doled out cash for his seat, so he should be able to say anything he wants, right? Wrong. Not when what he’s saying is being said directly to another person’s face. At that point, Smart has the right to react and if some want to blow a shove (which didn’t even put Orr on the floor!) out of proportion, that’s their problem.
Now, the three game suspension handed down by the Big 12 yesterday was expected. Even though in this case the situation didn’t escalate much after the physical contact, it was probably necessary for the higher-ups to make an example out of Smart in order to ensure that nothing resembling the Malice at the Palace happens in a college basketball game. Their reaction is completely understandable and reasonable; the NCAA has to take steps to defend its product.
This incident may have important implications for Smart. Last year, he was projected to be a Top 3 pick in the NBA draft. Instead, he chose to come back to OK State in an attempt to go deep in the NCAA tournament. But this season has been filled with ups and downs for the Cowboys. After starting the season 16-3, OK State has dropped four games in a row and has three tough match-ups coming up against Texas, Oklahoma, and Baylor. Smart himself has had a good season (17.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg, and 4.3 apg) but he is projected to go about three or four spots lower in this year’s draft, and that was before Saturday night. Teams were already questioning his maturity after some rumblings earlier this season, but now those concerns will be intensified. This could come back to bite Smart.
But I still contend that he was justified in his actions. Orr wasn’t just heckling Smart, he said it to his face! At a certain point, players have a right to defend themselves. They are people too, after all.