King Kaufman’s Sports Daily

The NBA torpedoes the great Spurs-Suns series with asinine suspensions of Stoudemire and Diaw.

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Asinine.

There isn’t a better word to describe the NBA‘s decision to suspend Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw of the Phoenix Suns from Game 5 of Phoenix’s playoff series against the San Antonio Spurs.

But here are a few more: Mind-boggling. Tin-eared. Shortsighted. Unfair. Idiotic. Ludicrous.

Diaw and Stoudemire were both sentenced to one game on the sidelines Tuesday for leaving the bench area following Robert Horry’s hard foul on Steve Nash at the end of Game 4, which the Suns won to even the series 2-2. Horry was suspended for two games, one for sending Nash flying and another for throwing a sort of punch at Raja Bell of the Suns, who got up in Horry’s face after the foul.

Bell, who actually helped escalate the situation, which is what the NBA’s rules are designed to prevent, wasn’t punished.

The suspensions put the Suns at a huge disadvantage for the pivotal Game 5. The single greatest determining factor in the outcome of the most exciting series of the NBA playoff system, between the two best surviving teams, may end up being a decision made in the league office, one that easily could have and should have gone another way.

That is asinine. It’s no way to run a sport.

Diaw and Stoudemire took several steps toward Horry after he knocked Nash into the padded front of the scorer’s table Monday, but they were herded back to the bench by Suns coaches before they got anywhere near him. The NBA’s rule against players leaving the bench area during a fight was created to prevent bench-clearing brawls, and the Suns followed the spirit of the rule by keeping their players away from the action.

There was no brawl, just some pushing, mostly between Horry and Bell, with Horry shoving a forearm toward Bell’s face at one point.

No reasonable person — even one who roots for the Spurs — could look at what took place and conclude that a fair response would be to suspend two key players from the fouled team because they took a few steps toward a brewing altercation without joining it.

No observer with any sense would think it just that although Monday night’s bad situation was caused by the Spurs and the only real violence was committed by a Spur, the Spurs lose only a journeyman rotation player — though one with an exaggerated reputation for hitting clutch shots — while the Suns lose a first-team all-NBA player and a versatile sixth man.

But the NBA isn’t interested in reason, justice or fairness.

“It is not a matter of fairness, it’s a matter of correctness,” said NBA executive vice president Stu Jackson, the league’s discipline czar, “and this is the right decision at this point of time.”

It’s not about fairness. Got that, folks?

The NBA’s greatest public relations problem is the perception by fans that the games aren’t fair, that referees call the games to favor superstar players and whichever team the league wants to win, usually the one with the more marketable superstar.

Commissioner David Stern thinks the biggest problem is the perception of the league as a haven for hip-hop-influenced thugs. That’s why his major initiatives of the past few years, other than the stupid synthetic ball briefly used this season, have been aimed at cleaning up that image. Those initiatives include a higher minimum age, a dress code and Draconian enforcement of behavior rules, which has turned the NBA into a technical-foul festival.

This thug business is a big issue with the corporate fat cats who buy the luxury suites and have Stern’s ear. And don’t think there aren’t some racial issues going on with the mostly white corporate crowd having a problem with the young black guys acting out. That same crowd hasn’t been heard calling for a crackdown on fighting in the NHL.

But out here among the public, for every conversation about pimped-out clothes and tattoos and angry young men, there are hundreds about how there are different rules for different players. Fans and former fans by the thousands, and maybe by the millions, believe the fix is in when the ball goes up.

And what the NBA really wants you to know is this: It’s not about fairness. That’s the message. In a sports landscape in which baseball is in perpetual crisis mode because the apparent widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs is seen by fans as giving some players an unacceptably unfair advantage, the tin-eared NBA is telling fans not to worry, it’s not about fairness.

“No one here at the league office wants to suspend players any game,” Jackson said Tuesday, “much less a pivotal game in the second round of a playoff series. But the rule, however, is the rule, and we intend to apply it consistently.”

Ludicrous.

If the rule is the rule, and all that matters is consistency, not applying the rule to the specifics of the situation, not taking into account the context and the damage done or any sense of fair play, what is the point of Stu Jackson’s job? An intern could look at the video, see that Stoudemire and Diaw took a few steps, and announce the suspensions.

If all that matters is consistency, if the rule is the rule, why was Derek Fisher of the Utah Jazz not disciplined for breaking the dress code by showing up for Game 2 of the Jazz’s series against the Golden State Warriors in a T-shirt and jeans? Sure, he’d just rushed in from New York where his infant daughter had had lifesaving surgery earlier in the day, but the rule is the rule.

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Keep in mind, for consistency’s sake, that this is the series in which San Antonio’s Bruce Bowen was not suspended for kicking Nash in the crotch.

If no one at the league office wants to suspend players for the pivotal game of a second-round playoff series, here’s an idea: Don’t do it. Jackson talks as though his hands are tied, like a judge forced by legislated sentencing minimums to hand down a punishment he doesn’t believe is just. That’s simply not the case.

Jackson said he makes a recommendation to Stern, but the final decision is the commissioner’s. And there’s no appeals process. Stern is a dictator. If the rules aren’t working — and they are clearly not working, as even Jackson acknowledged during a conference call with reporters, suggesting that the league might reevaluate the suspension rule in the off-season — Stern can make a ruling that works.

But Stern would rather torpedo the product in the service of a foolish consistency. It’s mind-boggling.

So what happens is the team that committed the violent act, made the dirty play, loses a player for two games who during the regular season contributed 16 minutes, four points, three rebounds, a block and an assist per game. The team that was fouled, that restrained itself before retaliating violently, loses 64 minutes, 30 points, 14 rebounds, five blocks and five assists.

Truer words were never spoken than “It’s not about fairness.”

What this shortsighted policy does is create incentive for teams to do exactly what Horry did Monday night. Why would you not send an end-of-the-bench guy onto the floor during the playoffs to commit an act of violence when the other team’s best player or, even better, players are on the bench getting a rest?

If any of those guys have the natural, in-the-moment, adrenaline-charged, human reaction of moving toward their battered teammate to help, they’re gone for the next game. Your guy gets tossed too, but that’s a hell of a trade. Just ask the Spurs. If the other team doesn’t take the bait, well, at least you tried, and all you lose is an end-of-the-bench guy for a game.

The rule also creates an incentive for brawls to escalate. Once a player has taken a step or two from the bench toward an altercation, there’s no reason to stop short of joining in. You’re already suspended, pal. Might as well keep going and get a few licks in. It’s idiotic.

It also can’t be lost on teams that when the Suns didn’t escalate the incident when Bowen kicked Nash, Bowen didn’t get suspended. When they did escalate the Horry incident — Bell going nose to nose with Horry, even ignoring the bogus “leaving the bench area” charge — Horry did get suspended.

It would seem that escalating the incident forces the league’s hand into suspending the instigator, wouldn’t it? Here’s another idea: Get seat belts for your star players, so they can’t leave the bench area if they want to, but instruct those last three towel-wavers on the bench to go into attack mode at the first hard foul by the other team.

Ten years ago P.J. Brown of the Miami Heat, angry at what he perceived to be New York Knicks guard Charlie Ward’s attempts to injure him, threw Ward over his shoulder in Game 5, which started a brawl that resulted in several key Knicks players being suspended for leaving the bench. The Heat, down 3-1, won that game, then beat the shorthanded Knicks twice more to take the series.

Incredibly, with that incident in its past, the NBA hasn’t created a system that deals with situations like these in a fair and just way. Or maybe it’s not so incredible. After all, as we learned Tuesday, it’s not about fairness.

For those of you who are interested in sports that aren’t fair, Game 5 is scheduled for Wednesday night.

Previous column: Suns win Game 4

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