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Steve Aschburner

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Joakim Noah's slur to a fan reflect the perils of being a professional in the Internet age.
Mike Ehrmann/NBAE/Getty Images

Noah's slur is just one side of the story


Posted May 23 2011 6:53PM - Updated May 24 2011 6:50AM

MIAMI -- The makeshift sign in the stands at Tuscaloosa's Coleman Coliseum, known 30 years ago simply as Memorial Coliseum, appeared almost out of nowhere. The game between the visiting Kentucky Wildcats and Alabama's Crimson Tide was underway when some mouth-breather held up his work of art, with its message for UK center Sam Bowie:

"Hey Bowie!" it read. "Get Some Pigment!"

As far as anyone knew, Bowie -- the Wildcats' light-complected African-American, and All-American, center -- didn't even see it. He showed no reaction. Maybe he did see it and chose the high road. No one rushed over to grab the sign away from the jerk brandishing it and, aside from a few rubes who yucked it up, the rude statement on poster board didn't get much of a rise out of anyone.

That, of course, was before cell-phone video. And YouTube. And the 24/7 media cycle. And camera technology that can count the hairs in a player's nose before he even clears the tunnel to the court.

That's the arena experience in which players, coaches, referees and fans mingle now, with millions of eyes everywhere and a "gotcha!" moment for any of them just around the next corner. Working in a fishbowl, they used to call it. Only now that fishbowl is sitting in Macy's window on Black Friday, with spotlights burning for video streamed straight to your and your closest 100 million neighbors' smartphones.

That's the pile into which Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah stepped Sunday in Game 3 against the Miami Heat when he directed a gay slur at an AmericanAirlines Arena heckler.

In the first quarter of the Heat's 96-85 victory, Noah returned to the Bulls bench after exiting the game with his second personal foul. He already was frustrated, then caught an earful of abuse from a heckler seated nearby. Noah allegedly responded in kind and, caught on video, appeared to drop a profanity and homophobic insult on the loudmouth.

Gotcha. And the NBA followed up Monday with a $50,000 fine for his "derogatory and offensive term."

"I just want to apologize," Noah said Monday following a Bulls video session at their downtown Miami hotel. "I had picked up my second foul. I was frustrated. He said something that was disrespectful toward me and I lost my cool. ... People who know me know I'm an open-minded guy. I'm not here to hurt anybody's feelings. I'm just here to help win a basketball game."

Some observers said the fan appeared to be intoxicated. Others claimed he said something derogatory about Noah's mother. Earlier this season, Miami's LeBron James paused in a game to glare at and give a stern rebuke to a fan who made insulting comments about James' mother, Gloria.

But this had more in common with another frazzled NBA superstar: In April, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant was seen on camera making a similar anti-gay comment to an NBA referee. That cost Bryant a $100,000 fine and a Stern, as in NBA commissioner David, reprimand.

Noah, who said he talked with league officials Monday and knew the fine was coming, didn't try to wriggle out of his responsibility.

Don't forget, he traveled the SEC circuit too with the two-time NCAA championship-winning Florida Gators. He saw and heard all sorts of nasty stuff, including a foul-mouthed Grandma at Rupp Arena in Lexington who demonstrated that blue wasn't only the Kentucky school color. He has experienced plenty since, and in essence should have known better.

"It's not about what the fan said," said Noah, making his second apology in 12 hours. "I've been dealing with that for a long time. Sometimes fans say things that are a little overboard. But still, it's on us not to react. If we react, they win. And I did.

"So it was a bad decision on my part. I'm going to face some pretty severe consequences."

Noah's Chicago teammates, who shared the same bench in the same vicinity of the same heckler, saw their guy's side of things.

"It [the fan's harangue] was really over the line," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. "It was going on for the entire time Joakim walked back to our bench until he sat down. ... I know the crowd looked at the guy, too, like, 'Come on,' leave him alone, it's over.'

"He was really loud. He was a big guy, too. He was intoxicated. When I saw him, I was just surprised, because he kept going and going."

Bulls forward Luol Deng said: "What Jo said is something out of frustration -- he has to do a better job of controlling his emotion. But that fan should have been out of the game. ... Honestly I [felt] like jumping in the crowd and hitting him. We're humans. And the camera is not on that fan at all."

Rare are the moments when the camera isn't on the principals. James said after Miami's practice Monday that the treatment they get is fair, part of the bargain they all make for the visibility, celebrity and riches it brings.

But James is the same guy who took grief for muttering the word "retarded" at a news conference in the Boston-Miami series, his opinion of a question about Dwyane Wade's takedown of Rajon Rondo.

"I don't think it was right what [Noah] said," James said. "But [things] do get said, throughout the course of the game, where you get emotional. We know there's going to be microphones, we know there's going to be cameras around us, so you have to be cautious about what you say."

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau swatted away the suggestion that Noah's verbal joust and aftermath might be a distraction to their team. He knows what it's like near the visitors' bench because, unlike the players, he's anchored there, with no chance to run on the court.

Thibodeau gets so locked into games, he said, he rarely hears what gets said from the stands. What's the opposite of rabbit ears? But the Bulls coach knows the atmosphere can get charged.

"The fans are on top of you," Thibodeau said. "I think it takes discipline. Sometimes it's the heat of the moment. We all get caught up in things that sometimes we shouldn't. But it's important to have that discipline, particularly on the road. You already know what that environment is going to be like going in, so you want to have your plan in place for how you're going to respond to things."

Not so long ago, the NBA almost embraced a heckler in Washington named Robin Ficker, who harassed Bullets' opponents with wit, repetition, volume and barbs aimed at certain guys' soft spots. Legend has it that Charles Barkley even flew Ficker to Phoenix for a 1993 Finals game and bought him a ticket near the Chicago bench to antagonize the Bulls (Suns security removed him early in the game).

But some of what gets blasted at players now obliterates any lines. The days of "You stink!" are long gone. So is responding without hitting the airwaves and Internet almost immediately.

"No question. It's becoming more and more like that," Noah said. "But hey, it's still a pretty good job, y'know. I wouldn't trade it for anything."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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