Russell Westbrook found himself in a heated verbal argument with a fan during Monday night’s game against the Jazz in Utah.
The raw and honest emotion inside Utah Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey came out Thursday morning after a sleepless night as he dealt with the fallout from the incident involving a Jazz fan and Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook.
Lindsey said he apologized to Thunder general manager Sam Presti and the organization. He said Jazz players and ownership “are going to do something that’s heartfelt” following the fan’s permanent ban from Utah’s Vivint Smart Home Arena.
“Our players are smart and socially conscious and want to use this as a forum,” Lindsey told USA TODAY. “Thabo (Sefolosha) talked about his time in Italy, and everybody black and white has a story, but our country, like Pop (San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich) said, we have to talk about our national sin.
“People may say, ‘Hey, whatever, what the fan said was a small thing.’ Well, it’s not. What it does is make everyone feel small, and every Caucasian should take a look at themselves and look at their heart.”
The incident occurred during Monday night’s game between the Thunder and Jazz. Westbrook was captured on video delivering a profane tirade at the fan — later identified as Shane Keisel — and his wife, and afterwards told reporters that Keisel had said, “Get down on your knees like you used to.”
Speaking to USA TODAY over the phone, Lindsey had a profound personal story he wanted to share about the intersection of his life and the incident.
Lindsey at one point or another has told the stories separately: how he grew up the son of parents who supervised group homes for disadvantaged youth and how he lived in those homes; his lifelong friendship with Atlanta Hawks assistant coach Melvin Hunt, an African-American; and the death of his mother due to a drunk driver when he was in college at Baylor.
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But sharing those stories at once – ones crucial to who Lindsey is as a person – forced him to take emotional pauses.
“Some of this I’ve spoke to and some of this will be the first time I’ve spoke about in public,” Lindsey said. “I grew up a little bit different.”
Three times, he lived with those disadvantaged kids in the home – once as an infant, once from second to fourth grade and once from the middle of his sophomore year of high school through his senior year.
“White, black, Hispanic, Asian, you name the race, I literally was in a house with 10-12 disadvantaged kids,” Lindsey said. “The thing I would say to this matter when you live with someone in closer quarters, you realize there’s one race — the human race. That’s what we need to be talking about. That’s our national discussion and we just need to admit where it’s at and where our hearts are. A lot of it is fear and ignorance.”
By high school, Lindsey emerged as a talented basketball player, as did Hunt.
“We were recruited together, and guess what? We are on the same recruiting visit, and guess what? We liked each other, and guess what? We roomed together,” Lindsey said.
During Lindsey’s sophomore year, his parents came to visit him and watch a game. They had dinner at IHOP, and as his parents were on their way home, a drunk driver crossed the center line, hitting the Lindseys’ car and killing his mom.
“This is the part that’s poignant to the conversation. Excuse me, give me one second,” Lindsey said.
Twenty seconds later, he continued: “So my aunt gets Melvin’s number and asks him to be the person who tells me,” he said.
Fifteen seconds later: “So, everybody needs to know …”
Ten seconds later: “It wasn’t a black man from Tallulah, Louisiana, telling a Caucasian man from Clute, Texas, that his mom had just passed. It was just two people hugging, embracing, crying, and I’ve thanked him a thousand times privately.”
On how Hunt’s friendship and his mom’s death always will be intertwined, Lindsey said, “The coupling of the two is the most important thing that sits with me today. I can usually speak about the incident and not get emotional and speak to diversity and not get emotional, but this one is so raw and it hits home.
“Literally, I somehow have to get the courage to speak to both because everybody will understand. It’s not male or female or people of different colors. When times get thick, you pull together. While it was a tragic situation, it brought out the best in two different people from two difference places.
“It’s a story that’s long overdue given our climate. Let’s just talk about our national sin and how we made a race of people feel a certain way and just listen for a second.”
Emotional, thoughtful, angry and inspired, Lindsey doesn’t want to waste the moment.
Lindsey’s final text of his sleepless night was sent to Jazz coach Quin Snyder at 4:53 a.m. ET. Lindsey didn’t fall asleep until 6. He was up a few hours later, communicating with Jazz president Steve Starks and vice president of player personnel Walt Perrin. He had ACC Tournament games to scout later in the day.
“I’m very confident in our community,” Lindsey said. “Our community has a good heart. I’m very confident in our organization. And we hope to lead from the front moving forward.
“It’s a talent to divide people. It’s a special person or special organization that can unite people and say, ‘We’re not standing for this hurtful speech.’ It’s offensive to me personally. Our people are hurting, in particular our players.
“I’ll take the blowback from the nonsense that’s out there. Let it come my way. I’m actually looking forward to that.”
Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt