The most enduring image from the early rounds of the 1994 NBA playoffs is not of Indiana Pacer Reggie Miller draining three-pointers from all over Market Square Arena against the Atlanta Hawks or of the mano-a-mano battle between Houston Rocket Hakeem Olajuwon and Phoenix Sun Charles Barkley. No, the most enduring image is that of NBA commissioner David Stern in the stands at Chicago Stadium last Friday night, watching in horror as his game went straight to hell in front of his eyes.
The most salient memory from the first couple of months of the major league baseball season is not of the spectacular hitting of New York Yankee outfielder Paul O'Neill or of the turnaround of Baltimore Oriole mound giant Ben McDonald. No, the most salient memory is of Reggie Sanders of the Cincinnati Reds charging the mound in the eighth inning on April 13 because he thought that Montreal Expo pitcher Pedro Martinez was throwing too close to him...while Martinez had a perfect game going.
Basketball and baseball have a problem. They can release statistics about fighting being down, and they can whine that the media are exaggerating the unruly incidents, and they can suggest that their games used to be rougher and tougher in the old days. But perception nowadays is reality, and right now the perception is that both great American pastimes end in brawl, not ball.
How bad is it? It's so bad that both leagues could—nay, should—be taking comportment lessons from the NHL, long the stepchild of professional sports. Though fighting was up slightly in that league during the regular season, it has been virtually nonexistent during the playoffs. Hockey fans are talking about the unexpected surge of the San Jose Sharks or the possibility of the New York Rangers' breaking their 54-year Stanley Cup jinx, instead of who bashed in whose face.
Such is not the case in the NBA, which should be enjoying its finest moment right now, or in major league baseball, which has gotten off to a horrendous start in the public-relations department this season. A friend of ours took his son to a baseball game last week, and the kid seemed really excited about going.
"Jeez, Dad," the boy said, "I hope we see one today. I've never seen one."
"A homer?" says the dad.
"No," says the kid, "a brawl."
Attention NBA commissioner Stern and major league commissioner...well, whoever's in charge over there: You've got a problem, and you better do something about it.
The biggest problem is that so many one-on-one skirmishes are turning into free-for-alls, as was the case in the ugly scene witnessed by Stern. New York's Derek Harper and Chicago's Jo Jo English squared off in a tussle that quickly escalated into a bench-clearing brawl that tumbled into the stands. Fueled by lingering bad blood and taunts past and present, Bulls and Knicks dashed into the action and started throwing around bodies and locking arms. A woman's $300 necklace was yanked off, and two little girls were nearly buried in the melee.