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But that would ascribe a rational thought process to Artest, which is no sure thing by any means. This is a player who has been involved in numerous scuffles throughout his checkered career, in addition to smashing a video camera and confronting opposing coach Pat Riley in the middle of a game. In the Target Center a few years back, Artest, in response to being accidentally hit in the jaw by Wally Szczerbiak, fired a capped, half-full plastic bottle of water about 30 rows into the crowd. By Legler's way of thinking, the fan hit by that bottle had every right to come onto the court and start rumbling with Artest. As it was, Artest's action went unreported (by me and other media members who saw it) and unpunished.
Two weeks ago, just five games into the 2004-05 season, Artest told his coach that he wanted to "rest" for a month or so because he was tired by the hectic schedule of producing and promoting his upcoming rap record in addition to getting ready to earn his $6 million basketball salary. Whether or not this was a "cry for help," as ex-NBA player Mark Jackson told ESPN on Sunday, it clearly demonstrated Artest's distant relationship with the responsibilities and realities of his current existence.
Fortunately, instead of the Shootaround Gang, the NBA is governed by David Stern, the strongest and most capable commissioner of a professional sport since Pete Rozelle made football "America's game" during his heyday running the NFL more than 30 years ago. The day after the brawl in Detroit, Stern appropriately called it "shocking, repulsive, and inexcusable--a humiliation for everyone associated with the NBA." A day after that, he announced a number of suspensions that have generally been termed "harsh" and "strong" in the media, but were, for the most part, exactly what was needed to begin to repair the league's abominable image. Artest has been suspended for the rest of the season (73 games) while Jackson and O'Neal have been shelved for 30 and 25, respectively. Wallace was tagged for a six-game suspension and there was an assortment of smaller penalties handed out. Bravo.
I also expect Stern to deal as harshly as possible with the fans who threw things at the players and came down on to the court. For those who can be identified, criminal penalties should and probably will be assessed. And you can expect tighter security and less opportunity for direct contact between fans and players at the arenas around the league. That is a price that the overwhelming majority of good-natured fans will have to pay for the actions of a few jerks, but it needs to be done. Finally, if Stern is truly serious about trying to eliminate the possibility of future incidents like this, he will call for the severe restriction or outright elimination of alcohol sales at NBA games. But that would cost teams plenty of money, a factor that has compelled the commissioner to compromise his vaunted integrity in the past.
I'm not big on grand pronouncements or self-important punditry on the "big issues" of sports. Whenever possible, I'm happy to sail along on the momentum of my longstanding love for the game of pro basketball, and I sincerely cherish my access to it. I'd much rather use my space explaining why Latrell Sprewell's recent play in the Wolves' losing effort against Detroit was a thing of selfless beauty, or why Eddie Griffin will soon be Minnesota's crunch-time center.
But I recognize that the health of the league is highly dependent on those who have a more casual affection for the sport. And in recent years, the retirement of Michael Jordan, the bickering underachievement of the Los Angeles Lakers, the boorish behavior of many NBA stars, and the ineptitude of our Olympic teams have significantly diminished the loyalty of those casual fans. What happened in Detroit last Friday has created more damage--how much or for how long, I have no clue. But I do know that those who make their livelihood in the NBA need to realize that a crisis of public relations is upon them. If they don't respect the image of the game, fair-weather fans will follow suit. And so with equal parts anger and selfish concern, I humbly request that everybody get their shit together, and stop the avarice and stupidity before it is too late.
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