One headline read: "National Brawlers Association." An editorial in a major newspaper described the NBA as being "long known as a halfway house for pampered, self-indulgent millionaire athletes with minimally controlled tempers." Conservative talk-show pundit Rush Limbaugh described the incident as "gang behavior on parade minus the guns. That's the culture that the NBA has become." Syndicated columnist Clarence Page said, "the jaw-dropping footage has aired over and over again like an ad for some sort of a 'Negroes Gone Wild' video."
"It became a convenient outlet for people saying, 'those thugs' and 'those punks.' And that's hurtful to NBA players and undeserved," NBA Commissioner David Stern said in an interview this week, when discussing the initial reaction following what is considered the ugliest clash between athletes and fans in the nation's history.
One year ago today, a beer-filled cup landed on the chest of Indiana Pacers forward Ron Artest as he lay on the scorer's table and triggered an unsightly melee between several members of the Pacers and fans of the Detroit Pistons at the Palace of Auburn Hills in Michigan.
The league is still trying to recover.
In the aftermath, players and fans were subjected to lawsuits and criminal charges, some of which are still pending. Stern handed out stiff penalties two days afterward, suspending nine players, including a record 73-game suspension for Artest, who lost almost $5 million in salary.
"A lot of people felt I overreacted," Stern said. "We had to establish the barrier that vigilante actions that involve players and fans are not acceptable. We cannot tolerate that. It was one event that didn't help anything."
Realizing that his league had a serious image problem -- which was magnified by sagging ratings and merchandise sales -- Stern has made several "small steps" to help the NBA rebound. The league has established a fan code of conduct (which includes, among other things, prohibiting sale of alcoholic beverages in the fourth quarter), a dress code (which requires players to wear "business casual" clothing) and a community outreach program called "NBA Cares" (which plans to raise and contribute $100 million for charity). "By and large, I'm very satisfied with where we are right now," Stern said.
Kathleen Hessert, president and chief executive officer of Sports Media Challenge, a Charlotte-based public relations and crisis management firm, applauded Stern for his swift, uncompromising actions on the suspensions and said the league's image is on the upswing.
"The NBA, I think recognizes its relevance and the importance of its brand, and image is part of that brand. The response showed that it understood the negative image. Everything from the dress code to media training, is saying, 'We need to re-look at our brand and what we're saying to the world, how we're saying it and if it reflects what we want it to,' " said Hessert, who is aiding such teams as the Orlando Magic and Charlotte Bobcats with media training.
Pacer Jermaine O'Neal, one of the participants in the brawl, said players and fans were taught a valuable lesson. "I think one good thing that everybody learned from the Detroit situation was that, you can have fun -- you can heckle -- but you got to know how to turn it off when it gets serious because we are talking about basketball," said O'Neal, who was suspended 25 games but served only 15 for punching a fan who walked onto the court and was one of five Pacers sentenced to one year of probation. "Basketball is strictly entertainment. We go home, see our families and friends and we live regular lives. We come here, entertain fans for 48 minutes and when it's over, it's a wrap."
Stern said he never thought about eliminating the intimacy of the NBA. In fact, despite stricter security measures, some arenas, such as Atlanta and Miami, have offered fans closer seats than ever before. "After the incident, you pretty much thought that it was going to be like playing overseas, with a barbed wire separating you from the fans," Washington Wizards forward Antawn Jamison said recently.
"We certainly focused on post-Detroit as a low point as far as perception of our league because the media ran with . . . the notion that this was representative of the NBA," Stern said. "Being that I've been commissioner for 27,000 games and it happened once, I don't know what representative means."
Asked why isolated incidents such as the brawl led to a condemnation of the entire league, Stern paused. "Do you really want to go there? Do I have to?" Stern asked. "I think it's fair to say that the NBA was the first sport that was widely viewed as a black sport. And whatever the numbers ultimately are for the other sports, the NBA will always be treated a certain way because of that. Our players are so visible that if they have Afros or cornrows or tattoos -- white or black -- our consumers pick it up. So, I think there are always some elements of race involved that affect judgments about the NBA."
Seattle SuperSonics guard Ray Allen said the media free-for-all following the brawl was rooted in jealousy. "Whenever you see something going well or doing well, people are envious," Allen said. "The league has been prospering for a couple of decades and a lot of people like taking shots at it."
However, Morris Reid, managing director of the Washington-based branding agency Westin Rinehart Group, said the league's problems run deeper than the brawl one year later.
"I don't know if the league has an image problem, it has a commodity problem. The commodity is not as good as it was in the past," said Reid.
"They thought they were always going to be able to turn to a Michael Jordan or a Larry Bird or a Magic Johnson. I'm not sure LeBron James won't be able to live up to being Michael Jordan, but here's a multibillion dollar sports league that's putting it on the shoulders of these young kids. Is it fair? Sure, because they get these big contracts. Is it bright? Probably not."
Stern envisions a day when the NBA will no longer have an image problem. "All of these things are cyclical. We went through this 25 years ago, when the league was in the process of becoming predominantly African American and people didn't think we'd survive. But here we are, we are surviving and we're thriving and we're doing great."