Stupid Is As Stupid Does

The big loser in "The Brawl" is--surprise--the NBA

It's never good for any business when the employees start wailing the shit out of the paying customers. But immediately after Friday night's almost surreal lunacy in Detroit, that fundamental fact seemed to escape the quartet of pompous mental midgets who comprise ESPN's now infamous "Shootaround Gang." Listening to John Saunders, Greg Anthony, Screamin' Stephen Smith, and especially Tim Legler vent most of their scorn toward the fans made me more irate, and more depressed about the rapidly declining state of the NBA, than anything else that occurred that night.

For those of you who missed it: With Indiana enjoying a comfortable lead over Detroit in the final minute of the game, Indiana's Ron Artest delivered a cheap, albeit not particularly bruising, foul on Detroit's Ben Wallace at the end of Wallace's drive to the basket. No doubt frustrated by his team's imminent loss, Wallace overreacted, administering a vigorous two-handed push just below Artest's neck that sent Artest reeling backward about 10 feet. What followed was the sort of chaotic macho posturing that often occurs in these circumstances. Some of Indiana's players left the bench and those from both squads who were already on the court began jawing and facing off with each other. But there was also a lot of milling around, and attention focused on the referees to see what penalties would be meted out. There was no serious scuffling and no punches thrown. A few fans had thrown things out on the court, however.

Artest went over and lay on his back on the scorer's table at mid-court with a towel draped over his face. That's when a person in the crowd tossed what appeared to be a nearly full cup of water that landed on Artest's chest. Artest instantly clambered off the table and made a diagonal beeline into the bunch of rapidly dispersing Detroit fans. About a half-dozen rows of seats up from the court, he grabbed one fan--who almost certainly wasn't the offender who threw the cup--and wrestled him to the ground. A few of his Indiana teammates followed him, most notably Stephen Jackson, who began throwing haymakers at fans near Artest. There were also a few players from both teams who went into the crowd trying to act as peacemakers and restore order.

A few minutes later, his shirt torn, Artest was back down on the court and somehow unencumbered enough to deliver a quick flurry of punches to the face of a fan in a Pistons jersey stupid enough to half-heartedly confront him. A few seconds after that, Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal roared over and cold-cocked another Pistons fan who was trespassing on the court, hitting him flush in the jaw. By now the rest of the game had been called off and the main order of business was getting Indiana's players off the court and into the locker room without further incident. They were mercilessly doused with liquid and pelted with anything the crowd could lay its hands on--mostly small objects such as cups and programs, but at least one chair was tossed. One middle-aged female fan looked like she was being trampled during the melee, and there were a number of scared and bewildered children crying in their parents' arms.

From their television studio hundreds of miles away from the scene, the Shootaround Gang piled on with their own mob mentality, unanimously savaging the behavior of the fans and the lack of security in the arena. By contrast, the four commentators offered up only token disdain--more than counterbalanced by their vehement excuses and justifications--for the players' actions. Anthony and Legler are former NBA players. Smith is a newspaper columnist and Saunders, the supposed moderator, is a professional talking head. As the first theoretically impartial public figures to analyze what happened, they revealed themselves to be jock-sniffing wannabe cronies of the league's most immature and selfish performers. Legler vociferously claimed that, assaulted by a cup of water, any NBA player would have "defended" himself and mimicked Artest's thuggery.

This asinine statement is not only belied by the facts--NBA players have occasionally, if infrequently, been hit by objects thrown from the stands, yet there has never been a players-fans brawl that comes close to the carnage wrought last Friday--but impugns the vast majority of players who would have exhibited greater restraint. Anthony said it was understandable that Artest's teammates would rise to his defense, but made no distinction between those trying to save him from himself and those, like Jackson, with similar mayhem on their minds. Even when Detroit General Manager Joe Dumars, a classy ex-player known for his rugged defense on the "Bad Boys" Pistons teams of yore, called Smith off-air to express his outrage over players wading into the stands, the group used his comments to launch into another screed rebutting his opinion.

Perhaps most incredibly, the commentators actually praised Artest for not escalating his physical confrontation with Wallace. I happened to watch the entire game when it was rebroadcast on ESPN in the wee hours of Saturday morning, and when Wallace straight-armed Artest and then hollered out a challenge, it was obvious that there was more fear than venom coursing through Artest's body. Like most bullies, Artest wanted no part of an enraged foe who happens to be one of the few NBA players with more strength and sinew than he possesses. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if Artest bolted into the crowd in part because of the shame he felt from backing down from Wallace.

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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