This week in the NBA, two perennial All-Star players returned for the first time to the home arenas of the franchises that originally drafted them. On Monday, Dwight Howard paid his first visit as an opposing player to the Amway Center, where he spent the first eight seasons of his career playing for the Orlando Magic. Two days later, Carmelo Anthony suited up for the first time in the away locker room at the Pepsi Center, where he led the Denver Nuggets to the playoffs for seven years before leaving midway through his eighth. Needless to say, upon their respective returns to the buildings they once considered their home offices, neither player was treated warmly
Fan booing, like many aspects of fan-player relations, has gone far too unmediated for far too long. Fans boo everything. They boo opposing players they don’t like. They boo referees who make the wrong calls, or take too long to make the right calls, or who make the right calls in a timely fashion, but ones detrimental to their home team. Fans will even boo their own team for just about any reason — team not playing well enough, team not playing hard enough, team not playing entertainingly enough, team not making a concerted enough effort to win fans free tacos. It is, at times, extremely ridiculous.
I don’t mean to suggest that booing should be outlawed — freedom of individual and collective self-expression is one of the hallmarks of the sports spectator experience, and just about all of these types of boos have their place. (Well, maybe not the taco bit, but I already covered that elsewhere.) But we need rules about these things, spoken guidelines that let fans know when booing is and is not acceptable. Otherwise players and teams end up getting booed at inappropriate, inopportune times, souring player-fan relations and creating bad blood where there need not be.
Fan booing in its totality is far too wide a topic to be handled in one article, so I’d like to focus on the more topical aspect, that of the once-beloved home team hero coming back in some sort of disgrace. Was it OK for Magic and Nuggets fans to boo Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony? Or should the good times those players once shared with their respective franchises have outweighed the discord since created by their exits? Here’s how I see the scenarios breaking down, first the qualifying ones, then the disqualifying ones:
BOOING IS OK IF PLAYER MEETS ONE OF THE FOLLOWING QUALIFYING CONDITIONS (AND NONE OF THE DISQUALIFYING):
1. Player caused distraction by demanding a trade, for not entirely basketball-related reasons.
The most typical scenario for fan booing, and the one that Howard and Anthony both more or less found themselves in. Obviously, if a player wants out in order to play with superstar friends or gain greater exposure playing in a big market, as appeared to be a priority for both of those guys, that’s just about the biggest snub one can face as a home fan. Especially if it comes after an endless will-they-or-won’t-they saga, as happened with both the Melodrama and the Dwightmare. It’s textbook booing, and it’s hard to argue with.
2. Player forced trade with either purposefully or ignorantly destructive behavior.
If a player acts so poorly — either dogging it in games, skipping practices and refusing to play through minor and/or suspicious injury, or by doing something really stupid like calling a teammate a gay slur or picking a fight with an equipment manager — that the team has no other recourse but to get rid of the guy, that’s obviously fair game for booing upon the player’s return. (Kings fans are about two incidents away from broaching this one with DeMarcus Cousins, and you can’t imagine they’ll have much self-imposed decency when he makes his eventual comeback.)
3. Player left franchise in free agency, going to a lesser team for financial or market-based reasons.
This is a little bit of a greyer area, since of course if the player is one worth booing and he found a better offer elsewhere, chances are pretty good the home team low-balled the guy a little. This is more applicable for situations where a player says (with words or actions) something like “I’m sick of playing in Oklahoma City, and Dallas made me about as good an offer, so I’ll go there instead.” It’s not as destructive as demanding an in-season trade, but it can be just as hurtful.
4. Player left franchise in either trade or free agency, making pointedly disparaging remarks about city or fan base on way out.
This requires a greater offense than Chris Bosh complaining about Toronto cable, but if a player was to complain about how boring the city he was leaving was, or to call their fan base hicks or something, that’d be a great enough affront to make booing permissible. Complaining about the franchise itself is OK, as long as you don’t cross certain lines, most of which Charles Barkley probably crossed at some point or another after leaving Philadelphia and Phoenix.
5. Player left franchise in free agency, in a particularly public and humiliating manner.
May as well call this the LeBron James rule. Needs no explanation.
DOES NOT COUNT AS A QUALIFYING CONDITION:
1. Player merely failed to live up to expectation of talent or contract.
Basically just a “don’t boo for no good reason” rule. It drove me nuts when Sixer fans booed Andre Iguodala upon his return to Philly. He was basically a great player for the Sixers, despite the fact that his teams never won a ton, and aside from making some minorly insulting comments about Philly fans (which he probably didn’t mean to be insulting and arguably even meant as a compliment), he was generally a well-behaved teammate and good citizen. Basically, Iguodala was getting booed for getting paid a lot and not being as good as Sixer fans wanted him to be. That’s not cool.
2. Player left in free agency to go to a better team.
If winning is a player’s primary motivation for leaving in free agency, and they don’t do the leaving in a particularly douche-y manner, this can’t be reason enough to boo. If LeBron had quietly signed a contract with the Heat, after thanking the Cavs fans for their support but saying he felt he had a better chance to win in Miami, then he should have been able to return to Quicken Loans Arena without much animosity. It probably wouldn’t have worked out like that, but it would have been just for a player who put in a good amount of time in Cleveland and really didn’t owe them anything further.
3. Player failed to play due to injury before being traded or signing a fair contract elsewhere.
May as well call this the Andrew Bynum rule, and you can bet Sixer fans will thoroughly ignore it upon Bynum’s return if he signs elsewhere next summer.
BOOING IS NOT OK IF PLAYER MEETS ONE OF THE FOLLOWING DISQUALIFYING CONDITIONS:
1. Player won a championship with team before leaving.
Championships are so hallowed in the NBA — hell, only eight separate franchises have won one in the last 30 seasons — that being a key part in bringing a franchise one should, I believe, give you a lifetime pass from being booed in that home arena. Yeah, it might hurt Celtics fans that Ray Allen left to play with the team that represents their most hated in-conference rival, but if not for him, the C’s probably still wouldn’t have won a championship since 1986. Feel like that’s gotta mean something, dammit.
2. Player played 10 years or more with team before engineering exit.
This rule is to protect players like Kevin Garnett, who play for over a decade with a franchise that’s probably not going to get them the pieces needed to seriously contend for a championship while the player is still in something resembling their prime. It’s probably not fair for fans to expect them to want it stay in their small market forever when it’s just not gonna happen there, and the players probably don’t deserve to be so punished for coming to that conclusion. Once you’ve hit 10 years of service time — more than two full max contracts — your faithfulness to the franchise should be unquestioned.
3. Player was badly mistreated by management or ownership before engineering exit.
May as well call this the Donald Sterling rule.
So yeah, no titles, no decade of service, no ownership abuse (unless you count the Gilbert Arenas trade), so booing is still a go for Melo and Dwight in Denver and Orlando. A little sad, considering both players were easily among the five greatest players in the history of their respective franchises, but there probably have to be some consequences for such selfish behavior, and fan booing seems a small price to pay in the grand scheme of things.
Still, be judicious these next few seasons, Kevin Love.