After Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart shoved a fan in Lubbock, Texas, on Saturday, interaction between fans and players became a key topic for Southeastern Conference coaches.
“You don’t entertain it. You don’t look. You don’t say anything back. ... At some point, they will either go away or continue and realize they are not affecting you in any way. Good teams are able to do that and not respond.” JOHNNY JONES, LSU coach
Heading up the tunnel at United Spirit Arena, LSU didn’t leave its December victory over Texas Tech with any lasting impression of the Red Raiders’ fans.
“About average,” senior guard Andre Stringer said Monday.
On Saturday night, the events behind a baseline and Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart shoving a middle-age fan certainly stood out as a contrast.
Over the past three days, the incident, which netted the Cowboys guard a three-game suspension, kick-started a discussion about fan decorum and how players should react when faced with heckling.
No other topic proved as popular Monday with Southeastern Conference coaches.
And it’s a nightmare scenario for highly paid men in suits on the sideline.
“Our sport is very unique in that our fans are very, very close to the participants,” Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said.
“We play in emotionally charged atmospheres every night, and you certainly want to make sure your kids are keeping their focus between the lines.”
At LSU, second-year coach Johnny Jones keeps his directions relatively straight-forward.
“You don’t entertain it,” Jones said. “You don’t look. You don’t say anything back. You don’t entertain it. At some point, they will either go away or continue and realize they are not affecting you in any way. Good teams are able to do that and not respond.”
In Lubbock, Texas, Smart stumbled out of bounds after a failed attempt to block a shot and exchanged words with a Red Raiders fan, Jeff Orr, that the guard reportedly said contained a racial epithet.
Orr, for his part, has said he only called the preseason All-American a “piece of crap.”
And Kentucky coach John Calipari said, in that context, it seemed as if the guard “just kind of lost his mind for a minute or something.”
“I feel bad for him,” Calipari said. “I know him as a great kid, too. It’s just hard a deal.”
LSU guard Anthony Hickey, who has been known to hurdle scorer’s tables and throw his body around, can understand how Smart got to that place.
Oklahoma State has lost five of its past six games. Smart passed up millions as a NBA lottery pick to come back and has faced outside pressure by nitpicking of commentators and fans. And in the heat of the moment, he simply lost composure.
“It was just all about frustration,” Hickey said. “It’s a part of it when you’re losing.”
Taunting is nothing new in an arena, but Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said increasingly it seems fans are under the impression that purchasing a ticket gives them license to verbally assault players with impunity.
“Fans, more and more, are of the opinion they can say whatever they want without regard or without ramification,” Stallings said. “At times, you can do so anonymously — whether it’s talk radio or (on) the Internet — and then all of a sudden you get into a public setting, and maybe there’s some carryover.”
The SEC tried to curtail the interaction of fans and players in 2005 when the conference instituted a policy of escalating fines — $5,000 for a first offense and $50,000 for a third — for schools whose supporters rushed the floor.
For his part, Calipari has taken steps before a game ends when his teams at Memphis or Massachusetts were about to be upset.
He’d send players on the bench to the locker room early, while he and his staff would fetch players on the floor before there were caught up in a sea revelers.
“I didn’t even shake the coaches’ hand,” Calipari said. “I was just like, ‘Let’s get out of here and be safe.’”
There’s also a simple reality.
Teams still have to go to another team’s building. Fans there will be unkind. The remedy remains unchanged.
“That’s part of playing on the road,” Jones said. “You just try and block it out again.”