A Hittin' Image

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By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, December 19, 2006

In the context of NBA history, Saturday night's brawl between the Knicks and Nuggets simply wasn't that big a deal. For more than 50 years, NBA players have squared off and thrown punches at each other, sometimes moving dangerously close to the stands if not altogether into the paying customers. Seems to me there were three or four of these every year in the 1970s and 1980s, even the 1990s.

But that was pre-Ron Artest, pre-Malice at the Palace, as in Auburn Hills. It was made clear following that Friday night, Nov. 19, 2004, that the NBA would not stand for fighting of any kind, that the NBA didn't want to be perceived the way it was being perceived, so Commissioner David Stern laid down the law. The NBA would do everything in its power to stop violence on the court, or for that matter anywhere near the court. Everybody in the league, players and coaches, have been aware of this very serious image-cleanup campaign. So Stern had every right to come down hard on the brawlers and instigators from the other night at Madison Square Garden.

Fifteen games for Carmelo Anthony's sucker punch is not only appropriate in the context of today's NBA, it's mandatory. Ten games each for Denver's J.R. Smith and the Knicks' troublemaking little fool, Nate Robinson, is appropriate, too. The others who got suspended got what they deserved. You can even make the case, and I would, that Knicks Coach Isiah Thomas instigated the whole thing and should have been suspended as well.

"You-were-beating-us-so- badly- we-decided-to- take-somebody- down" -- which was essentially Thomas's rationale for Mardy Collins's thuggish foul that started the whole thing -- shouldn't be tolerated.

Seems Thomas had a flashback to his old days as a Bad Boy Detroit Piston, when you could take out even superstar players like Bird and Jordan and Magic just to make a point. The NBA was like the wild, wild West not very long ago, to the point where coaches would say openly, within earshot of reporters sitting on press row during the game, "If he comes down the lane like that again. . . ."

The irony of suspending players but not coaches is inescapable in this instance, because the poor sportsmanship started with the coaches that night at Madison Square Garden. Nobody will come right out and say it, but this childish dispute started with Nuggets Coach George Karl keeping his starters in the game till the end to pound the Knicks in front of their home fans. Karl is a University of North Carolina guy, as is Larry Brown, who was fired and embarrassed to a great degree by Isiah Thomas.

So Karl was getting some payback for his boy, Larry Brown, and since Thomas didn't like being dunked on repeatedly during garbage time, somebody on the Nuggets had to pay.

A stupid, dangerous foul by Collins, who is suspended for six games, triggered the brawl and yet another examination of what the NBA is and isn't, or should and shouldn't be.

NBA players have endured more scrutiny, pertaining to image, than any other professional athletes in America. This was the case in the 1970s, when the league had to deal openly with the perception that the league was too black and too drug infested. And after a very cozy period with patrons and Madison Avenue from, say, 1984 until about 2000, the league is back to dealing with the perception that too many of its players are thugs.

Whether that's racial code or not, the NBA is a business and Stern is its chief operating officer, and he's had to deal with the perception affecting the league's reality and bottom line. The recent adoption of an age limit, the dress code, and the crackdown on demonstrative complaining to the refs is all part of a larger effort to improve the league's image.

So was hiring a conservative operative to figure out how the league that had married itself to hip-hop could be better perceived by the people who buy the tickets and jerseys.

You can sugar-coat this any way you want but the bottom line is: A black league has to be palatable to white patrons. And black multimillionaires swinging at each other isn't part of the equation. If Stern doesn't send the message that the league has zero tolerance, it's incredibly bad business.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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