Marcus Smart (black) pushed Jeff Orr (white). Smart is a top college basketball player, but is he now a thug? No.

First, this happened:

Then stuff like this happened:

Then the Internet dug deeper on the fan in question, and this happened:

There’s more info here on Jeff Orr (the fan).

Then reaction poured in, so this happened.

Then, inevitably, the racial slur we all knew probably precipitated it reached the media.

The whole thing felt pretty similar to the Richard Sherman reaction about a month ago.

To summarize: black athlete, pegged as top-10 pick (maybe) in 2014 NBA Draft, shoves white fan. Coach of black athlete’s team (Travis Ford) doesn’t get him off the bench, doesn’t make him available to the media, and storylines grow. Part of the narrative is thug, part is n*gger, and part is the actions were justified. Ultimately, this is what it comes down to: on the one hand, if Marcus Smart wants to be the face of an NBA franchise (as he could potentially be), he needs to realize he shouldn’t get into it with fans, even if the fans are ridiculous and crass. There’s a level of professional decorum we expect from athletes, even when we shout stuff at them about their loved ones, their race, their sexual orientation, etc. That’s one aspect of it. NBA GMs will look at this incident and say, “Well, I don’t know if I want the potential media headaches…” That’s one wholly legitimate side of the discussion.

The more important aspect is that Marcus Smart isn’t a thug or a n*gger; he’s actually something much simpler than that — a top-tier black athlete. To be that, you basically have to be perfect. You can’t have slip-ups, because the first thing outside the acceptable painted lines of society, and you’re suddenly a thug. White people do dumb shit all the time, especially white athletes. With the possible exception of a few hockey players being called “goons,” the narrative never shifts as drastically on them.

Read this story if you want to understand the real Marcus Smart:

When fans see Marcus play college basketball now, racing up and down the court with an intensity few can rival, there is little evidence of that anger. Some players in the sport are more talented than Marcus, but few possess such a unique skill set, and even fewer are as reluctant to boast about it. To Marcus, his statistics are an afterthought; his teammates’ statistics matter more. He deflects attention in an age when most crave it.

“It’s his character,” says Marcus’ best friend and roommate Phil Forte, a friend of Marcus since they were in third grade. “He plays with a chip on his shoulder, not like a prima donna.”

Fran Fraschilla, the ESPN analyst and Dallas resident who has watched Marcus play since the ninth grade, says, “It is very rare you see a young player with the countenance and knowledge of a 10-year NBA player … If you’re going into an alley fight, and you have the Incredible Hulk on your side, you feel pretty good. That’s what you have with him.”

Interesting thing about the narrative, even in a piece designed to praise Smart, is that a lot of it comes back to issues like “anger” and “Hulking Out” and stuff like that. Check Fraschilla after the incident:

Should be noted Fraschilla went on to tweet some better things with more reflection on incident, like this:

… but the broader point here is that if you’re a star black athlete, the line you need to walk is literally a perfect one, at least in terms of on-field/court decorum. Michael Jordan had a lot of issues off-court with gambling and his wife, but the only thing that ultimately tainted his legacy was his time with the Wizards — because even though he would pump and celebrate in front of others, he never crossed the “acceptable” line.

Now, if a white guy did what Smart did last night, how would the story be different? He’d still be vilified, to be sure — social media can vilify anyone — but I think the context of the conversation would change more to what happened with the fan. Partially based on onlookers / nearby fans not stepping up in the media, you haven’t seen that here. Instead, you’ve seen “Well, maybe the fan said something / was a bigot” and “Lubbock is a tough place to play” and “Smart’s immature and a thug.” Those wouldn’t be the three conversations if Smart was white.

I hope there’s a punishment — no one should push a fan — and I hope Smart’s coaches and professors work with him on knowing when not to do that, and I hope he becomes a top-eight pick and has a glorious career in the NBA. By all accounts, he seems to deserve it.

Ted Bauer