This summer, Spanish shooting guard Rudy Fernandez opted to return to his home country after four seasons in the NBA. While he showed flashes of brilliance and even set the NBA rookie record most three-pointers in a season, Fernandez never became the star many hoped he could be. At times, it looked like he never got entirely comfortable with the NBA.
It turns out that Europe isn't always a great environment, either. On Thursday, Fernandez's Real Madrid team traveled to Lithuania to face Zalgiris Kaunas for a Euroleague game. Real won 105-104 in overtime, but it's the aftermath that has grabbed headlines. On his way to the team bus, Fernandez was accosted by two fans. Here's a brief explanation from the Associated Press:
Madrid official Juan Sanchez says two fans hit Fernandez on the shoulder and neck and struck a security guard several times. The Euroleague says it has asked for reports from both teams and the local police.
"I am fine. Thank God things did not go further. I have to say thanks for the support of everyone that has contacted me through social networks and private messages. I am not enjoying this; people have to know that basketball cannot get dirty this way. Things like this don't have to happen again. I think that people should not think that all Lithuanian fans are like that just because of these two people. Not at all. In the game, as always in all games, there was some tension, but I was respected at all times, which is the most important thing. This happened because of these two and that's the image I keep. Something worse could have happened; I hope it never happens again. I hope [the media] respect me a bit because I am struggling, but I would like to thank those who have supported me and will carry on supporting me."
This attack did not happen in a vacuum — in fact, it is simply the most recent event in a developing feud between Fernandez and Zalgiris Kaunas. As helpfully noted by Ben Golliver at Blazersedge, Fernandez raised the ire of the Lithuanian team when he threw a ball off the head of Ksistof Lavrinovic and appeared to deliver some not entirely friendly words to Paulius Jankunas after the final buzzer.
UPDATE: According to Alexander Chernykh, a basketball writer for the Russian website Sports.ru, many fans believe that Fernandez spat on Jankunas, too, and are upset that there wasn't a substantive investigation into his actions.
On Thursday, the Zalgiris Kaunas fans welcomed Fernandez to the arena with signs and countless jeers (including obscenities):
So, while these two fans obviously decided to take things a bit too far, there was clearly an organized campaign (by the fans, not the team) to make things as uncomfortable as possible for Fernandez. That doesn't excuse these actions, but it does help explain how two people might have decided that attacking a player was an acceptable action.
In addition, this incident exemplifies how the extremes of European sports fandom typically go beyond those of American professional leagues. While American sports crowds are rarely sources of enlightenment, there are also no cases of organized racism. It's a reminder that, if the NBA does ever decide to add teams overseas, there will be challenges other than merely getting fans to buy tickets. The cultures are very different, as well.
It's unclear exactly what information and punishments the Euroleague investigation will bring, but the broader issue of protecting players and promoting better fan practices won't go away any time soon. Those issues — particularly the latter — require a lot of work.