NBA Players Need To Play by the Rule

By Michael Wilbon
Saturday, November 11, 2006

The only thing worse than the whining, complaining and gesticulating over foul calls during NBA games is the whining by the NBA players' union over the league's attempt to get rid of the demonstrative behavior.

The crackdown on acting out has resulted in nearly twice as many technical fouls called this season compared with last season at this time. Pull your jersey over your head after a whistle for an offensive foul, it's a tech. Throw your hands over your head as if you've never seen such an awful call in your life, it's a tech. Keep yapping at the referee a full minute after he called goaltending, it's a tech. Keep it up, it's two techs and you're out of the game.

Nobody likes the scowling, the arm-waving, the stomping and ball-slamming, certainly not after a meaningless call in the second quarter of some game in mid-November. And such ridiculousness was one reason why too many consumers perceived NBA players as self-absorbed, overbearing, churlish and out of touch. In other words, the league's network partners, sponsors and patrons were fed up with the bad acting all the time, and usually over nothing.

So David Stern, in yet another crackdown, has cracked down.

And Billy Hunter, head of the NBA players' association, says the union may take legal action to combat what he perceives as Stern's overzealous policing of players. "I think that what may ultimately happen if it continues to occur is we will probably be compelled to bring an unfair labor practice action or something," Hunter said.

What the players ought to feel compelled to do is shut up and play. Too many are out of touch with the people who pay the freight. Who pays to come to the arena to see this demonstrative complaining? Nobody. The notion some players have put forth, that the NBA is trying to take the emotion from the game, is so preposterous it's insulting. As if Rasheed Wallace, the runaway leader in technical fouls since Dennis Rodman retired, plays with any more emotion than Bill Russell did, or Wes Unseld did, or Magic or Larry Bird or Michael Jordan did.

Playing with emotion and behaving like a fool are entirely different things.

I was thrilled to hear Chris Bosh, Toronto's 22-year-old forward, say this week that he had no problem with the existing rules of behavior finally being firmly enforced. "You can still talk to [officials]; you just can't be excessive," he said.

I love the rule. If Wallace wants to get himself thrown out of every game, then suspended for piling up technical fouls, let him.

That said, given the emotional nature of this growing disagreement, I went looking for someone who could present the other side of this issue persuasively, and found him in the Wizards' Antonio Daniels.

The Wizards have only one player with a technical, and that was assessed to Etan Thomas for hanging on the rim.

Daniels is 31 years old and a player who never needed a dress code because he comes well dressed to every single game, period. He does not need a behavior code because he's never flailing and gesticulating. Yet he said before last night's game: "I hate the crackdown. Hate it." He understands the Wizards stand to benefit because his team simply doesn't have players who pile up technical fouls.

"But I dislike it, in principal," Daniels said, "because I think it's part of something larger, which started with the dress code and continued with the changing of the basketball. I always thought the dress code would expand to other things and it has. Why change the ball without major input from the players who use the ball? Why not test it during the preseason and consult the players? It's the general feeling of being subjected to a dictatorship that some of us object to.

"Look, I'm blessed to have this career," Daniels said. "I wake up every day and acknowledge how fortunate I am to do something I love to do. But what's too much? When is it going too far? I liked wearing a wristband with my daughter's name on it. But the rule says that now I cannot do that. I can only wear a wristband with my name or number. What's next? Will the league decide hair has to be shoulder length? Or that players can't have tattoos.

"We know this is about the perception of NBA players and trying to get rid of the things that have damaged the reputation of NBA players. . . . There ought to be a way to maintain the kind of image that's necessary and yet compromise. The ball is an issue that has nothing to do with the image of the players. Yet the attitude is: 'Here's your ball. Play with it and like it.' You get to a certain point where that's resented, and you can't separate the dress code from the change of the ball from the zero tolerance. And I really think there's more to come."

Well, the NBA says it's not a zero-tolerance rule because players are allowed to have what the NBA calls a "heat of the moment" reaction to a call, but it cannot drag on. But I get Daniels's point.

The problem here is too many players don't have Daniels's sense of professionalism. After a foul call last week, Daniels started running toward referee Leon Wood (a former NBA player, no less) but caught himself. "We joke before games now and say, 'I'd love to say hello to you but I don't know if that's allowed anymore.' I will say this: I now am more conscious of what I do."

There's no doubt that Daniels should be one of the players brought to argue the union's position, if it comes to that. And his fear that this dispute could be perceived as a crackdown on a league of largely black players by a white power structure is a legitimate concern.

Still, the problem with even eloquently stated opposition to behavior crackdown is a simple counterargument: The game and the league functioned all too well without all the histrionics, for decades, with overwhelmingly black players.

Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan, who played in the 1970s and 1980s, said he doesn't know when all the drama with the refs began but added: "Magic used to scream 'oh wow!' when he thought he got hit and there was no call. But I don't remember the same kind of demonstrative behavior when we played."

The question now is whether Hunter and the union will seriously challenge Stern's authority and whether the commissioner has accurately gauged how people feel about the league and what's in the best interest of its image.

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