In 1977, Los Angeles power forward Kermit Washington landed a punch on Houston's Rudy Tomjanovich that fractured Tomjanovich's face and skull, causing spinal fluid to leak into his nose. Up until last night that incident was described by many NBA experts as single most serious event of that kind to ever happen in the sport. Unfortunately, thanks to the events of last night, history might now have a new low point.
First, let's look at the play that set things in motion. With the Pacers holding a commanding 15-point lead with less than a minute to go, Pistons center Ben Wallace took the ball to the basket for what clearly was nothing more than a garbage-time bucket. Even Wallace's initial defender, Stephen Jackson, recognized the insignificance of Wallace scoring and stepped back, preferring to give up the score in exchange for regaining possession.
But once again, Ron Artest interjected himself into a play that had no bearing on the outcome of the game, fouling Wallace from behind as he went up for the lay-up. I listened to ESPN analysts last night talk about how Artest's foul wasn't of the flagrant variety, but that's hardly the point. At no time during that possession did Artest make any kind of play on the basketball. What he did was purposefully shove Wallace in the back and take a swipe with his off hand at the back of his head.
I worked in the NBA for 10 years, and one of the players I feel like I know the best is Ben Wallace, so believe me when I tell you that there is not a more gentle giant playing the game. I can recall a number of times when Wallace was placed in a situation where he or a teammate was being attacked and he chose to help diffuse the situation rather than engage in a physical confrontation.
But just a week prior to Friday night's game, Wallace had just buried his oldest brother, 61-year old Sam Wallace, making it all the more likely his emotions were riding higher than usual. Wallace is no fool. He knew Artest's intention was not to prevent a basket, but to invoke a response. If you look closely as Wallace is advancing, Artest lowers his head as if anticipating the shot that Wallace delivered to his neck. He knew what he was doing, and he got the result he wanted.
Pushing and shoving is relatively commonplace in most NBA games. Even the alleged "fights" of recent years have been nothing more than one big shoving match (you remember Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson in the 1998 playoffs?). Rarely is the case when you will see a player actually throw a closed-fist punch at another player. At the end of the day, the NBA is like one big fraternity, a place where your bitter enemy one year could wind up as your teammate the next. What Wallace did to Artest was not a punch, no matter how many analysts describe it as one. It was a shove, a hard shove to be sure, but nothing even close to resembling a punch. If Wallace, whose nickname in NBA circles is "body," a reference to his chiseled frame, actually did throw a punch, then Ron Artest wouldn't have walked out of Auburn Hills, he would have been carried on a stretcher.
Most of what happened next is open to interpretation. There is no question in my mind that Artest's body language, lying on his back on the scorer's table with his arms behind his head, did nothing to calm Wallace, who was fighting off teammates trying to get to him. Stephen Jackson, who besides Wallace was probably the most animated, only provoked things by taking a fighter's stance and squaring off with Lindsey Hunter. By this time several Pacers and Pistons players not on the floor when the play happened, including Reggie Miller and Derrick Coleman, had wandered onto the court, an NBA no-no that by rule results in an automatic one-game suspension.
Any time you have a blowout situation, which it was at that point in the game, fans begin to get antsy and look for other ways to entertain themselves, which is why I was hardly surprised when Artest was nailed with the cup filled with beer. Here are Detroit fans watching their team get smacked around by their most bitter rival and were seeing their best player being antagonized by the resident NBA bad boy. It's like if Bill Laimbeer clothes-lined Larry Bird and then walked up to the concession stand to buy a hot dog. You expect something to happen. Players have had things thrown at them before, in every sport, but it's like Pistons CEO Tom Wilson says, "no one goes down on the floor, and no one leaves the floor."
I'm sure Artest saw who threw the beer at him -- he went directly after one fan in particular. But when you do something as stupid as running into the stands, you not only put yourself at risk, you put the rest of your teammates at risk as well. While Artest was being restrained by security, Fred Jones was getting pounded in the back of the head by a man twice his size. Jackson went in right after Artest and started swinging wildly at a fan who doused Artest with his beer. And in what might have been the most vicious moment of all, Jermaine O'Neal, responding to a fan walking onto the court and confronting Artest, charged toward the fan and landed a punch that hit the man squarely in the jaw. That shot alone should earn O'Neal a 15-game suspension. It's the old mob mentality: When a fight breaks out, it's survival of the fittest.
It will be interesting to see how the NBA responds to this. Wallace should get five games because it was his blow that incited the melee. Jackson should get seven or eight because he was one of the fight's biggest instigators and was one of the first to go into the stands. O'Neal should get double digits because it was his punch that seemed to connect with the most force and it landed on a fan who at the time was not involved directly in any altercation.
But Artest should be thrown out of the league. How many chances can you give a guy who blatantly doesn't care about the consequences? Time after time we have seen this man suffer meltdowns both on and off the court. Throw him out. He doesn't want to be there anyway. Earlier this season Artest hinted to reporters that if the Pacers won the championship this season, he'd retire. Let the NBA help him out the door. You think his teammates enjoy spending countless hours defending him not only on the court, but to the media as well? Let him go work on his music label. What's the NBA waiting for? Artest to kill someone? After last night does anyone out there not think something like that is out of the realm of possibility?
It's not the players for whom the NBA should feel sorry. It's not the angry fans, either, whose behavior was both disgusting and completely inexcusable. Who the NBA should feel sorry for is the father in the crowd huddled over his daughter, desperately trying to prevent her from being hit by the debris falling from the crowd. Those are the fans the NBA is targeting in its media campaigns, and they are part of the constituency the NBA continues to lose.
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