David J. Neal

David J. Neal: Marcus Smart was wrong to act against fan, but action should not surprise us

You’re not shocked. You might not have expected it right then, might not have anticipated the player, might not have anticipated how. But societal trends placed this as an inevitability. Even those who hoped for a reversal, who prayed it would never happen, saw the coming storm.

Oh, I’m not referring to Michael Sam coming out. This is about Marcus Smart laying angry hands on an obnoxious fan.

One thing shocked me about the story of Sam, Southeastern Conference Co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2013: he told his teammates before the season and he still got to come out when and how he wanted. He handed a mini-bombshell to between 85 and 100 college kids with access to all kinds of media, and none put him on blast.

That amazes me far more than hearing Oklahoma State star Smart, upon being called a racial slur (Smart’s version) or “a piece of crap” (Texas Tech fan Jeff Orr’s version), stepped forward to shove Orr on Saturday. Smart had been sprawled at the edge of the stands after an unsuccessful attempt to block a late-game dunk.

This has been coming as we both coddle the best athlete-students while also treating them like something they’re not — yet.

Marcus Smart is a star teenager in an era when high school careers get observed as almost as widely as — and often last longer than — college careers. He was a McDonald’s All-American, an ESPN High School First Team All-American and was given the Wayman Tisdale Award by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association last season as the nation’s top freshman.

Smart decided to go back to Stillwater, Okla., instead of going to the NBA. You can be sure coaches give him more latitude than there is in South America when it comes to doing what he wants.

That’s not what any kid needs.

Yes, I wrote “kid.” We call high school teams by “boys” and “girls.” We use the gender modifiers “men’s” and “women’s” for college teams in acknowledgment the females can own property and the males can lose life or limb for our country. But, really, how much different is a 19-year-old college sophomore from a 17-year-old high school senior? It depends on the kid, of course. But that’s the point.

In the big picture, all but a few of these athlete-students remain kids with all that implies: insecure, imaginative, impulsive, self-centered, goodhearted, hardheaded, sometimes knuckle-headed.

Fans forget this. Fans also forget that there’s a big difference between a kid — a kid treated like an adult in many ways, but a kid nonetheless — doing an extracurricular activity and a full-grown man for whom NBA basketball pays the bills.

I have longtime friends who are seven years younger. But when I was 23 or 24 and they were 16 and 17, I identified more with their parents, 15 years my senior, than with them. The parents and I groaned about responsibilities, orated on supervisors who demonstrated The Peter Principle, pondered real estate, laughed at Bill Cosby’s routines on kids.

Meanwhile, the teenagers made fun of us fogies between complaints about three-page history reports, loud arguments over who wore then didn’t wash what clothes, laughter over Def Comedy Jam comedians getting a little nasty.

Marcus Smart is early in that transition surrounded by chronological peers. He’s not Kobe Bryant, LeBron James or Kevin Garnett quickly wizened into full professionalism by teammates 10 years older.

Look at some of the abominable language directed toward recruits on message boards and social media by Internet Anderson Silvas after they change their minds on schools. Look at what parents of star players have to put up with from these shoe-bottoms (who only seem to show themselves in public if in a pack) during a road game in many major conferences.

Good old-fashioned trash talking is fine. Be inventive, I’ll buy your next round. Coarse personal insults are something else.

You who would invoke the cool of past sporting pioneers in the face of vile crowd comments miss a key difference. Those men and women spent their entire lives in some level of emotional restraint. Otherwise, their psyche would have exploded at the continuous bombs lobbed at them in daily life as a person of color or unconventional female. Internalization and redirection of anger counted as a survival skill, to the detriment of the long-term health of some.

That’s not Marcus Smart’s world. Nor should it be.

So you have a spoiled emotional teenager late in a highly charged game and a boorish fan who feels entitled to heap a little verbal abuse on that teenager for being a good player.

Smart was wrong. But, also, what took so long?