Tuesday, December 19, 2006

David Stern’s worst nightmare or an overreaction?

If you’re a hockey fan Saturday evening’s dustup at Madison Square Garden might have not even earned a two-minute roughing penalty. This wasn’t Malice at the Palace revisited; one punch was thrown in the entire melee, and that one punch did little if any damage. Saturday evening Terrell Owens spat in the face of Atlanta cornerback DeAngelo Hall. The NFL fined Owens $35,000 for his reprehensible act Monday, but David Stern’s reaction to what took place in the last moments of Saturday evening’s Denver Nuggets 123-100 pasting of the New York Knicks Monday sent a Stern warning to all – there is no fighting in David Stern’s NBA.

In announcing his response to what took place at Madison Square Garden, Stern said the following: “The NBA and its players represent a game of extraordinary skill, athleticism and grace, and, for good or bad, set an example for the entire basketball world, on and off the court. On the positive side, there is our players’ passion for the game, engagement with our fans, commitment to their communities and respect for the history and tradition of the game. With respect to the negative, while we have worked diligently to eliminate fighting from our game, there are failures such as Saturday night at Madison Square Garden that demonstrate there is still more to be done.”

“It is our obligation to take the strongest possible steps to avoid such failures in the future and to make a statement to all who follow the game of basketball that we understand our obligations and take them seriously. Accordingly, I am issuing the penalties that Tim (Frank) just listed, and will take the occasion to set forth some of the considerations that have influenced my decision here and will continue to guide us as we seek to demonstrate our determination that the NBA and its players be viewed as standing for the best in sports.”

“Among the considerations that influenced my decision:

• Teams will be held accountable for the actions of their employees – management and players alike.

• Players must take advantage of a break or pause in a heated situation to stop and restore order, instead of escalating the situation.

• Players must heed directions from referees and others who are trying to maintain order and not continue to put fans, referees and peacemakers in harm’s way.

And for anyone who may have joined the call late, the suspensions and fines, again, are as follows:

• Both the Knicks and Nuggets organizations have each been fined $500,000.
• Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony has been suspended for 15 games.
• Nate Robinson of the Knicks and J.R. Smith of the Nuggets have been suspended for 10 games each.
• Knicks guard Mardy Collins has been suspended for six games.
• Knicks forward Jared Jeffries has been suspended for four games.
• Jerome James and Nene each has been suspended for one game for leaving the bench during an on-court altercation.”

The first question Stern was asked during the media conference call why didn’t Stern deal with the alleged actions of New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas. According to every media report as to what transpired Saturday evening (remember in the NBA the media are seated at courtside directly across from the players benches), late in the game with the Nuggets starters still in the game, Thomas allegedly issued a warning to a member of the Denver Nuggets. The warning was allegedly issued to Carmelo Anthony. Thomas told Anthony the NBA’s leading scorer he better not go anywhere near the “paint” (better known as the key directly in front of the basket.

Seventeen seconds later, the Knicks rookie Mardy Collins tackled Denver’s J.R. Smith as Smith drove to the basket, setting off a wild, sprawling fight.

Everyone expected Thomas a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame would be suspended and many media pundits (present company included) believed Knicks owner James Dolan who last week gave Thomas a vote of confidence would seize the moment and fire Thomas. For reasons known only to David Stern, the iron fisted commissioner choose to ignore the ample evidence provided by the media who where much closer to Isiah Saturday night than Stern was.

“We interviewed everybody involved and watched the tape closely, as well as everybody else did. We’re acting on definitive information in issuing these penalties; though we’re not unmindful of the issues swirling about of those … but we’re not factoring that into these decisions.” Stern said in coming as close as he would to talking about Isiah.

Stern claimed it was see no evil, hear no evil therefore do no evil when it came to whether or not Stern’s review of the incident caught the alleged Thomas – Anthony incident.

“Yes, my finding was that there was not adequate evidence upon which to make a determination.” Stern said. “You have to find something in order to suspend someone. And so, even in the NBA there is presumption of innocence.”

Since the game ended Saturday evening Nuggets coach George Karl has been anything but indirect in letting everyone knows how he as the Nuggets coach feels about the actions of Thomas. Karl suggested the Knicks attack was premeditated and used more than a little profanity earlier Monday in making it clear he believes Thomas was front and center in what took place Saturday. Stern for his part had little reaction to Karl’s profanity laced tirade.

“I’ll be dealing with the Nuggets organization on that. That’s for Mr. Kroenke (Stan Kroenke Nuggets owner) to decide, and I’ll have that conversation with him about the public comments of his employees. Although, if it gets beyond the emotional outburst of the moment and there is a continued lack of self-control, I will deal with it myself.”

“We believe that the heat of the moment allows certain overstepping of traditional bounds and so we have coaches that sometimes say things or indeed some of them even tell us about what underwear they wear or don’t wear. So we understand that we’ve got some original characters among our coaching staff and we allow it a one-time outburst, but over time we have to realize that a lot of people are watching us, many of them young ,and there really should be better attempt for us to keep that into account with respect to our activities and our conduct.” Stern said

Is David Stern in total denial or is he just being a good commissioner. Here’s a man who a little more than two years ago after the Malice at the Palace made it clear to the world, he was upset and he wasn’t going to take it anymore. The NBA was going to institute a zero tolerance when it came to on-court violence.

“Well, I was very disappointed. And actually in situations like this you tend to turn around to yourself. I think we had the message to our players, we meet them and clearly we are not getting through. Or the players cannot, in certain circumstances, just do not want to be restrained. I would suggest that those players will not have long careers in the NBA because we’ve made our intention very clear here. And now it’s just a simple question of whether they understand it and can act accordingly, because my concern is actually for the safety of the players and the fans and when things get out of hand you cannot predict or project where they are going to go.”

“And it is part of our responsibility, by ours I mean the teams, the league, and the players to do nothing to contribute to things possibly getting out of hand. I actually think that Saturday night, Garden security and staff did an admirable job in calming things down but there were certain players who were not going to allow themselves to be calmed and they have to know, and all players have to know, that that is the critical issue. I’m very disappointed that it happened, but I am totally prepared to do whatever necessary to assure that our games are places that don’t place players or fans at risk of physical harm.” Stern told the media

Regardless of what was or wasn’t lost in translation, the NBA’s image today has taken another hit in a critical area David Stern assured sports fans the NBA wouldn’t return too.

“Actually, just doing what our players, the vast majority of them, do everyday. We’re in the midst of some extraordinary demonstration that our league and our players are deeply engaged in efforts of social responsibility. The sad part is that an individual case like this is used to brand everybody and even my responses are necessarily going to what we can do to stop this. We will just continue the extraordinary amount of good works and deeds that we do, and we will continue to show what a great game this is on a global scale, because we’re having an extraordinary year basketball-wise based upon teams and players and talent; and do what we can to not allow an incident like this to distract us, while at the same time keeping faith with our fans and the fans of all of basketball that we’re going to lead the way on issues like this.” Stern said in trying to deal with the body blow the NBA was dealt.

“Well, if you ask the question, then we have an image issue, because that’s the standard that we are happy to have ourselves held accountable for. You know, obviously there are other sports that have fighting baked into them and others that are considerably more violent, but we have set up the goal of eliminating fighting from our game. We have eliminated it to an extraordinary degree based upon any historical basis, but we haven’t eliminated it completely, so we’re subjected to features and questions that seem particularly reserved to the NBA but we accept that; we’re going to demonstrate that the example that we set for all of basketball and all of the world of basketball is going to be very high. I think that this will not – this will not be a lasting issue because we’re going to succeed at leading the way to eliminating fighting and violence in our game.”

David Stern knows all to well his off season work on improving the NBA image which included a dress code, an age code – all in hopes of improving the perception of the NBA, remains a work in progress.

“I think that’s a conversation that I will delicately sidestep, for another day. I just accept the fact that we are held to a standard that we are happy to be held to. Our players are more visible, they are better known; they play a game where the best seat in sports is a courtside seat watching players without helmets, long sleeves, long pants, no glass and the camera captures that as well. And over the years that has been … that’s been our burden. But that’s also been our opportunity. Our players are literally as a group, the most well known athletes in the world.”

“There are soccer players, who are better known individually, but as a group we have extraordinary visibility because of that and as a result, and as a result of our openness to the locker room, to all of the things that we do as a matter of media policy and to our availability, our players are much reported upon. That’s terrific during the good days and that’s not so good on the bad days and you tend to be judged not by your best days sometimes but by your worst. And that’s just it. And we accept that and we are going to continue doing what we are doing because we realize that we have an example to set that far transcends just our game at the NBA. But it’s something that kids watching the game, our future fans grow up with, and that fans around the world watch.”

“I’m less worried about the image because the image will come from the substance. The substance is that we’re having a great basketball year; we have an enormous number of great players. They’re doing extraordinary things on and off the court and yet they’re going to be judged and we’re going to be judged and we’re going to set examples based upon things like Saturday night. And I’m not going to be a part of it. I don’t think that any of my 30 ownership groups want to be a part of it and I know that our players, as a group, do not want to be involved in it that way. And so with all of that agreement, we’re going to continue to find a way to make it happen.”

The $500,000 fines leveled at the Knicks and the Nuggets amounts to nothing more than pocket change to James Dolan the Knicks billionaire owner and Wal Mart heir Stanley Kroenke the Nuggets owner. Does David Stern honestly believe Dolan or Kroenke are going to care about paying the fine?

“Actually, it is a more general message that I am going to start holding our teams accountable for the actions of their players and other employees. In any case, I’m not finding a cause of the altercation -- its specificity -- what I’m saying is if you continue to employee employees who engage in these actions, your organization is going to have to pay a price even beyond the suspensions that are involved here. That’s why I set forth the penalty, which you can expect to hear more about if this doesn’t … obviously my previous inability to cause my communications to change behavior is not corrected by this, there will be more fines, for general managers and for coaches and for anyone in the management positions for the actions of the people that they manage.”

Before Saturday evenings game Anthony led the NBA in scoring. The Nuggets record stands at 13-9. In the last two years the Nuggets have raised ticket prices by 19 percent after holding the price on their ticket prices for the three previous seasons. The Nuggets last year made the playoffs for the first time in four years. Nuggets management used the teams’ recent success as the catalyst to increase ticket prices by nearly 20 percent.

Much was expected this year of the Nuggets and with Carmelo leading the league in scoring the Nuggets had to believe fate might be on their side. There may be twelve players on an NBA team, but most teams are built around two or three key players and the key man on the Nuggets is Carmelo Anthony. Losing your key player for 20 percent of the NBA season could cripple the Nuggets chances of making it back to the NBA playoffs this year.

What if anything was learnt from Saturday evening’s Battle at the Garden? Again if the same skirmish took place at an NHL game it wouldn’t even have warranted two minute roughing penalties. The brawl between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox during the 2003 American League Championship series was much more violent, and the end result was nothing more than a slap on the wrist from Bud Selig. In the NFL men are hitting each other for sixty minutes.

It would seem whenever anything overly aggressive takes place at a basketball game everyone reacts as if the world is coming to an end. Is that in anyway suggesting behavior along the lines of what took place Saturday night in New York is acceptable, it isn’t. But it also isn’t the end of the world as we know it.

What took place Saturday evening in New York bore little if any resemblance to the near riot that took place on November 19, 2004 in Detroit. But in relationship to similar incidents in other sports – it was much to do about nothing. What brought so much attention to what happened Saturday evening – the game was at the basketball Mecca, Madison Square Garden. For the Denver Nuggets David Stern’s reaction represented an overreaction that could cripple the franchises ability to move forward as a business for years to come.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom

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