The surprising and unhappy news Monday was that New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas walked in the aftermath of the brawl Saturday at Madison Square Garden.
Almost as surprising and puzzling to this column was the idea in the commentariat that while Thomas got off cheap, so did Denver Nuggets coach George Karl. My colleagues seem to actually buy Thomas’ argument that Karl was at fault for, get this, having his best players in the game.
Thomas was neither fined nor suspended by NBA commissioner David Stern Monday despite fairly strong circumstantial evidence that he set in motion the series of events that led to the all-men-in rumble late in Saturday’s game against the Nuggets.
Stern suspended Denver forward Carmelo Anthony, the league’s leading scorer, 15 games for sucker-punching New York rookie Mardy Collins. Collins’ hard foul on Denver guard J.R. Smith — which it’s likely Thomas ordered — led to the brawl. New York’s Nate Robinson, who escalated things initially by stepping in as a third man and challenging Smith, got 10 games, as did Smith, whose wrestling match with Robinson landed them in the laps of paying customers.
Collins got six games, Jared Jeffries of the Knicks got four for trying to get to the backpedaling Anthony after the sucker punch, and Jerome James of the Knicks and Nene of the Nuggets got one game each for leaving the bench. Each franchise was fined $500,000.
Thomas got nothing, despite Anthony saying the Knicks coach had warned him to stay out of the paint late in the game with the Nuggets up by 19 and the regulars still in the game. That’s a pretty clear warning, in hoops-speak, that a hard foul was coming.
Thomas’ statements after the game and on Sunday, in which he said the Nuggets were at fault for embarrassing his team by running up the score with the regulars after the Knicks had “surrendered,” that Karl had “put his players in a bad situation,” lent credence to the idea that Thomas had ordered the hit.
Even if Thomas hadn’t ordered Collins to pull a goon job — and if you believe he didn’t there’s a bridge not far from the Garden I’d like to sell you — Stern should have slapped him for his comments afterward. Anything short of condemning the violent actions of his players — even if that condemnation is USDA Prime bull — should have showed Stern that Thomas just doesn’t get what Stern is trying to do in his efforts to clean up the league’s thuggish image.
A suspension might get the message across, although even Thomas might consider a few days away from the Knicks a blessing.
But what about Karl? He did leave four starters in with a 19-point lead and under a minute and a half to go. Karl is a University of North Carolina man, and so is his mentor, Larry Brown, who was run out of town by Thomas last spring after one season as the Knicks coach. You follow? Karl wanted to exact some revenge on his mentor’s tormentors, the thinking goes, and the thinking is probably right.
Let me just say this about that: So what.
Well, here’s what, according to some fellow typists:
Carol Slezak of the Chicago Sun-Times calls Karl a co-instigator and wonders why he and Thomas got off so easy.
Jim Armstrong of the Denver Post says it wasn’t Karl’s finest hour. “Next time the Nuggets have four starters on the court with 1:15 to play and a 19-point lead, I’ll buy Karl’s contention that it wasn’t personal,” he writes.
Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports really lets Karl have it, writing that Karl “takes most of the blame” for instigating the fight by leaving his starters in, that Karl should be begging for forgiveness and to keep his job after blowing up the Nuggets’ season.
Let’s be clear. Karl’s denial that he was trying to run up the score — he said he was concerned about his team’s history of blowing big leads — is about as believable as Thomas’ denial that he ordered the hard foul. That is, not very. But so what.
Every profession has its standards and practices, and in pro sports one of those is that you don’t run up the score. You put the scrubs in, let the last few minutes play out as garbage time. I get that.
What I don’t get is why people in my profession have to do anything about that standard other than scoff at it. On a practical level, Karl should have known that he was leaving his starters open to physical attack and either injury or, more likely, suspension for fighting back. That might be a bad coaching decision, but it’s ridiculous to say that playing your best players at any point in a league game is unprofessional.
Let’s say all of us but George Karl agree that you shouldn’t leave four starters in with a 19-point lead with 1:15 to go. OK, how about three starters with a 13-point lead and 1:37? How about five starters and an 11-point lead with 1:54? Are these OK? Where’s the line?
Whatever the sport, when the losing team is whining about the other guys piling it on, nobody ever seems able to answer this question: At what point is the leading team required to stop trying?
Whether it’s a football team throwing with a big lead in the second half, a baseball team stealing bases up by seven or a basketball team leaving the first string in late in a blowout, where’s the line? Is it OK to steal a base up by five? OK to keep throwing if you’re up by three touchdowns in the third quarter? What if it’s 49-28 at that point?
Here’s why we in the commentariat should ignore this professional standard: It isn’t running up the score or leaving the starters in that leads to fights. It’s the childish whining attitude on the part of losers that they’re being embarrassed, shown up, pushed around.
These are professional athletes, not toddlers, and they’re mewling that big brother’s picking on them.
Until enough of us reject arguments like Thomas’, that winning by too much is deserving of punishment, these kinds of altercations are going to keep happening, and guys like Thomas are not going to be condemned for their hot air about professionalism. As if sending goons out to commit hard fouls, or throwing fastballs at opposing batters’ heads, were some badge of professionalism.
If you’re getting pushed around, eat your Wheaties and do better next time. Don’t come whining to us about it.
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What’s right and wrong with baseball [PERMALINK]
The Business of Baseball Web site asked 31 people who work in or cover baseball to comment on the state of the game. The group consists mostly of writers, including me but also some people who really know about baseball, like Jonah Keri, Alex Belth, Rob Neyer, Dave Studenmund and the site’s proprietor, Maury Brown.
The list also includes former executives Buzzie Bavasi and Fred Claire, economists Andrew Zimbalist and Roger Noll and sports marketing professor Paul Swangard.
Each was asked, simply, “What is right and wrong with MLB today.”
The resulting “31 Voices on the State of the Game” is a long, fascinating read, then my comment, then a long, fascinating read again.
The consensus is that baseball’s doing pretty well at the moment, but don’t worry. The 31 of us find plenty to complain about in what one of the participants, Will Carroll of Baseball Prospectus, calls “an exercise in hubris and futility.”
He almost says it like those are bad things. Without hubris and futility, this column is nothing but recipes.
Previous column: Brawling and spitting
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