Several Washington Bullets and their coach said yesterday they believe there is less violence in the National Basketball Association today than there was in the past, despite the widespread attention given the Kermit Washington-Rudy Tomjanovich incident.
"Until all the recent publicity, I though there was a lot less rough stuff," said center Wes Unseld."I'm out there every night and I know it's not as bad as it once was. What's changed is the attitudes. There's another commissioner and some people obviously who think it should be stopped."
Bullet coach Dick Motta, now in his 10th NBA season, says the league "is, not nearly as violent as it was. I've seen 100 fights just like the one between Rudy and Washington, but there wasn't the uproar there is now."
Motta said coaches once would talk about causing mayhem on the court because it helped sell tickets.
"Back then, it was nothing to have fights where the whole bench would clear off. There were more fights in my early years in this league. Right in the rules, there was the no-harm, no-foul wording. Rough stuff was part of the game."
Washington punched Tomjanovich during a game Friday night, breaking his nose and jaw and fracturing his skull. Washington was fined $10,000 by NBA commissioner Larry O'Brien and suspended for at least 60 days.
The players say fights usually follow provocations.
"One thing, like an elbow, can set you off," said Mitch Kupchak. "For a lot of guys who can't control their tempers, that's all it takes. You don't think about fines or suspensions. You just go."
Kupchak, who has never been in a fight on the court despite his aggressive play, almost came to blows last week with Elmore Smith of Cleveland before being restrained by Unseld. Kupchak said he doesn't know what he might have done had Unseld not interferred.
"It's hard to tell," he said. "I was just going after him. He had thrown me down on a rebound and it was the end of a lot of stuff that had been going on. Every time I went up for a rebound, I was getting an elbow in the mouth. It just gets to you after awhile.
"I wouldn't want to see fighting eliminated. I don't like it, but at least it shows we aren't out there playing half-hearted. This is a spectator sport and spectators deserve to see us going all out. And when you go all-out, sometimes there is going to be problems."
It would help, forward Bob Dandridge believes, if officials would begin calling fiagrant rule violations more consistently.
"The flagrant stuff isn't called as much as it was when I first came into the league," said Dandridge, a nine-year veteran. "Officials controlled things a little better.
"A good example was what Smith did to Mitch by tossing him down. The officials didn't even try to make an example of that. They just let it go and then things start getting out of hand.
"There isn't much sense in fighting, at least as far as I'm concerned. You could risk putting yourself out with an injury and you can hurt someone else too. Anytime I've been in a scuffle, it was more out of frustration with my own play. But it wasn't smart."
Nor do the Bullets think O'Briens hard-line policy against fighting will stop the brawling completely.
"Most fights aren't premeditated," said Dandridge. "They are spontaneous. This will stop the guy who is looking for a fight the whole night, but it won't affect the quick flareups."
Said Unseld, "If guys were thinking about fighting there never would be a fight. They aren't planned, except maybe by a few players who are dirty and will tax you to the limit. But he usually gets straightened out in time anyway."
The Bullets say there are a number of reasons why fighting is getting more notoriety now than it did in prior years:
The recognition accorded the so-called "enforcers."
Commissioner O'Brien's emphasis on eliminating violence.
The participation of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the highest-paid player in the game, in a number of fights the last two seasons.
The changing attitude toward violence in some segments of society.
Motta also thinks officiating has much to do with the amount of fighting in the league.
"The games has to be played exactly like it is written in the book," he said. "All the fines and suspensions won't stop a guy from getting mad. He gets mad when he gets frustrated by how he is being pushed around and by what isn't being called.
"Until you get absolute and consistent control of the game from an officiating standpoint every night, there still will be fighting. If the refs show right away every game that the dirty stuff isn't going to be tolerated, things will be different."
But Unseld doesn't think rule changes are in order.
"They need to leave the game alone," he said. "Take a good look at these so-called fights. Most aren't much. The most I've seen other than this last one is a bloody nose or a cut lip.
"Ninety-nine per cent of the time it isn't even a fight. They lose their tempers, take a few swings and that's it. Heck, two-thirds of the time, they don't even hit each other."
"When I was playing," said Bullet general manager Bob Ferry, who spent 10 years as an NBA player, "fights never got any publicity. Darrall Imhoff and I had plenty of them but no one cared. They care more now, even though it was a lot more physical when I played.
"There was less security then and people went after it with each other. Now what does a $1,000 fine mean to these players?"
Motta recalled one fight in which Bob Kauffman, now the Detroit Piston's general manager, broke the nose and jaw of Neil Johnson.
"The next day in the paper they ran a box score with all the usual statistics and at the end, they said, 'broken nose: one.' Everyone laughed and that was it. No fine, no suspension.
"I remember the second game I coached in the pros. It was an exhibition game in Tennessee and the two locker rooms were separated by a screen. The coach of the other team told his players that the first time Jerry Sloan (of Motta's Chicago Bulls) stepped from behind our screen, he better get knocked down or it would be a $50 fine for all of them.
"We heard him and we were ready. They knocked him down and we went from there (there was a scuffle). But you don't coach that way now. Things have changed."