Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers guard, was fined $100,000 (Dh367,000) by the NBA for comments directed at a referee during a recent game that have been strongly criticised by leading gay rights groups.
Television cameras caught the 13-times All-Star shouting an anti-gay slur at the referee shortly after he was called for a technical foul during Tuesday's game against San Antonio.
The league said the comments by Bryant, one of the NBA's biggest names, were offensive and inexcusable. "While I'm fully aware that basketball is an emotional game, such a distasteful term should never be tolerated," the NBA Commissioner David Stern said in a statement.
"Kobe and everyone associated with the NBA know that insensitive or derogatory comments are not acceptable and have no place in our game or society."
The incident occurred during the third quarter of Tuesday's game after Bryant was given a technical foul that prompted him to storm to the Lakers bench, hit his seat and throw a towel.
"What I said last night should not be taken literally. My actions were out of frustration during the heat of the game, period," the 32-year-old five-times NBA champion said in a statement prior to receiving the fine.
"The words expressed do not reflect my feelings toward the gay and lesbian communities and were not meant to offend anyone."
But Bryant's actions were strongly criticised by Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a gay civil rights group, who described the outburst as "horribly offensive" and demanded a full apology.
"For better or worse, Kobe Bryant has created a teachable moment for the millions of fans - many of them young - who saw that outburst on the floor," said the HRC President Joe Solmonese.
"And the right thing to do now is to apologize and take responsibility for suggesting that the worst thing you can do to someone is to scream out a gay slur. This kind of homophobic outburst has dangerous consequences, even more so when it comes from a celebrity in the national spotlight."
Solmonese later praised the NBA for their swift punishment of Bryant and said he hoped the league's actions would send a strong message that such behaviour by athletes is inexcusable no matter what the context.
The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation said the Lakers have a responsibility to educate their fans about why Bryant's choice of word for his outburst is unacceptable.
"Discriminatory slurs have no place on or off the court," GLAAD President Jarrett Barrios said in a statement.
"Professional sports players need to set a better example for young people who use words like this on the playground and in our schools, creating a climate of intolerance and hostility."