Ah, the glory and wonder of sport. The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, the building of bodies and character. The teamwork, the sportsmanship, the community bonding.
The brawls, the spitting.
Not a great Monday to be a sports fan, is it? The two biggest sports stories of the weekend were a battle royal at a Denver Nuggets-New York Knicks game and Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens spitting in the face of an opponent, both on Saturday night.
On the plus side: Not a peep from Mike Tyson!
Not that either of these things, the brawl or the expectoration, upset our little applecart of harmony. Nobody really expects anything beyond second-grade deportment from Owens anymore, and the Knicks were an affront to decent sensibilities long before Mardy Collins employed a horse-collar tackle on Nuggets guard J.R. Smith on a breakaway.
Highlights of the rumble on endless loop on the highlight shows called up memories of the far worse fight at the Palace of Auburn Hills two years ago, when the Indianapolis Pacers, Detroit Pistons and sundry fans got into it.
That shining moment ushered in a new era in the NBA. Almost everything commissioner David Stern has done since Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson of the Pacers waded into the stands throwing punches, from the off- and on-court dress codes to the hair-trigger technical foul order, has been an effort to clean up the league's thug image, which reached its apotheosis that night.
It may be too early to tell, but it seems to me the effort isn't working. What's happened instead is that Stern has gotten himself a reputation for being high-handed.
The signature moment of this new era has been the one that didn't arise from trying to polish the rep. It was the new-ball fiasco, when the commissioner unilaterally introduced a new, synthetic game ball. The players hated it, even filing an unfair labor practices complaint, and Stern was forced to reverse himself, announcing last week that the old leather ball will return on Jan. 1.
But for all his troubles, and for all that two years probably isn't long enough to turn around the reputation of an entire league, as evidenced by the fact that plenty of casual sports fans still dismiss the NBA as the plodding, defense-first league it hasn't really been for two or three years now, Stern just can't catch a break.
On the same weekend when shining star Dwyane Wade returned from two games off to score 41, when Yao Ming scored 32 points in a game and Gilbert Arenas dropped a 60 on the Lakers, and just two weeks before the old leather ball returns and makes everything all hunky-dory again, demonstrating the wisdom and reason of the man in charge, there's a huge brawl in a game.
On a Saturday night.
In New York.
So let the scolding and tongue-clicking and head-shaking and post-morteming begin. Or continue. There's plenty to click one's tongue at. So much went wrong in those few moments at Madison Square Garden Saturday that it's almost simple-minded to talk about it. It's like earnestly issuing the opinion that it's wrong to spit in another guy's face during a football game.
Which takes care of our earnest consideration of the Terrell Owens issue.
Of course it was wrong for Collins to tackle Smith. Smith got up and confronted Collins, and then it was wrong for Nate Robinson, who's proved himself to be a first-class knucklehead since entering the league, to challenge Smith rather than pulling his teammate, Collins, away.
It was wrong for the Knicks, especially coach Isiah Thomas, to whine about the Nuggets running up the score, the evident reason for the hard foul. Anthony reportedly told Nuggets coaches after the game that Thomas had warned him just before the hard foul to stay out of the paint. In other words: Hard foul coming.
If ever there were a punk move in sports, it's got to be cheap-shotting an opponent, then blaming the opponent for running up the score. Once and for all, citizens of the world: If you don't like your opponent running up the score, play better. This is the big leagues. Your incompetence is not your opponent's problem.
Obviously it was wrong for Anthony to re-escalate the violence that appeared to be calming down by sucker-punching Collins.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. It was all so wrong that Anthony even issued a genuine-sounding apology, rather than an athlete-apology. It was released as a statement and looked lawyer-vetted, but he admitted that he'd done a terrible thing and apologized to the person he'd done it to, as well as the league, the fans and his mother. When an athlete apologizes genuinely, you know it's gotten bad.
But what does any of it mean? I suppose Stern could accompany the announcement of punishments by reminding the public of all the NBA games that don't involve on-court brawls that spill into the stands. Just looking at Saturday night the ratio was 9:1.
He could talk about how similar incidents in baseball get chuckled over and hockey fights are so routine as to be labeled "part of the game" by the sport's fans, but when basketball players fight it's perceived as symbolic of a breakdown in Western civilization.
All of which would be as true as it is pointless.
The point is there's only so much you can do, and you really can't legislate against idiocy. All you can do is punish it.
Isiah Thomas is an idiot. As an executive he mismanaged a proud franchise with a huge budget into a laughingstock, and then he took over as coach and is coaching them with roughly the same skill. If he doesn't like his team getting embarrassed on its home floor, the quickest solution would be to get out of the way and let someone who knows what he's doing take over.
Sending a goon out to commit a hard foul to send a message -- it was the second straight blowout loss in which Collins had been charged with that duty -- doesn't do anything but confirm that the coach has run out of ideas. Ask John Chaney. He's got time to answer now that he's not coaching at Temple anymore.
The speculation on suspensions in the media has topped out at about eight games for Anthony. Based on nothing but a hunch, I think it's going to be stiffer than that. I think Anthony and Robinson are in for something like a 20-game sentence, and Thomas, Collins and Smith -- who tumbled into the paid seats with Robinson -- maybe half that.
Stern's left with little to do but the old standby of sending a message. His problem is that the message is "Don't be an idiot." The problem with that message is the capacities of the people it's aimed at.
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Update: NBA commissioner Stern fined the Nuggets and Knicks $500,000 each Monday and announced the following suspensions:
Carmelo Anthony, Denver: 15 games
Nate Robinson, New York: 10 games
J.R. Smith, Denver, 10 games
Mardy Collins, New York, 6 games
Jared Jeffries, New York, 4 games
Jerome James, New York, 1 game
Nene, Denver, 1 game
Knicks coach Isiah Thomas was not suspended or fined, Stern said, because there was no "definitive information" that Thomas had ordered the hard foul by Collins.
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