Well, doggone it, as Stuart Smalley might say, they do. But others see the veep of violence negatively, as a contributor to the homogenization of the NBA. His officials, for example, have become an increasingly faceless—and, in the view of some players, mean-spirited—bunch that make calls almost by rote. That's O.K. with Thorn. "The more literal the calls, the better," he says. "Because of videotape, when everyone can review everything, there is little room for individualism." According to a rule instituted at the start of this season, a player must be fined (at least $2,500 and as much as $20,000) and suspended for at least one game for leaving the bench during a fight, no matter what the extenuating circumstances. A player must be ejected, suspended for at least one game and fined (an amount determined by Thorn) for throwing a punch, no matter how he was provoked.
The veep of violence admits that it took a while for him to get on the same page as Stern, who has long steered a nonviolent course for the NBA. As a player, Thorn even got into a tussle himself in 1970, when as a Sonic he squared off with Calvin Murphy of the then San Diego Rockets. "We both got tossed," says Thorn, ruefully. In fact, like most former players, he remembers the rough-and-tumble days with some fondness.
"I saw some doozies," recalls Thorn. "When I was with the Warriors, I saw Guy Rodgers punch Kevin Loughery of the Bullets so hard, Kevin's bridge flew right out of his mouth. When I was with Seattle, Gus Johnson of the Bullets got in a fight and hit both Al Bianchi, our coach, and Dick Vertlieb, our general manager. I can still see the imprint of Al's glasses on his forehead. Incredible. Yeah, ol' Gus, he would've passed through this office quite a lot.
"There were more fights back then," Thorn says. "If you were unable to defend yourself for whatever reason, then a teammate was expected to do it for you."
But not in today's Stern-Thorn NBA, where turning the other cheek is an official mandate. And make no mistake, the $20,000 threat has made an impression even in the NBA, where almost every player, as former coach Chuck Daly used to say, is a Fortune 500 company unto himself. "Hey, $20,000 is a small house where I come from in Alabama," says Houston's Robert Horry. Besides Rocket Vernon Maxwell's Feb. 6 sortie into the stands in Portland to fight with a fan—a transgression that cost Maxwell the full $20,000 and 10 games at $22,800 per in salary loss—only two other times this season have players left the bench during altercations. One happened during a Jan. 17 squabble between Sacramento King Olden Polynice and Portland Trail Blazer Rod Strickland, and, sure enough, five bench-leaving Blazers were each fined $2,500.
The other bench departure came on Feb. 1, when the Denver Nuggets' Brian Williams entered the fray in a game against the Utah Jazz. Williams got a $2,500 fine, a one-game suspension and a distaste for the rule. "A player can now hide behind the fact that he's going to lose a lot of money for not standing up for himself and his teammates," he says. "That's just going to breed wimps." It's hard to believe that comment doesn't touch a nerve in Thorn, the ex-player.
And a few weeks ago, as the veep of violence reviewed in his office an incident from a Knick-Net game on April 2, one had the feeling he had sympathy for one of the combatants, yet had to fine him $3,500 anyway. Here's how that unfolded on Thorn's screen: Mahorn, now with the Nets, first gave Knick Patrick Ewing a shot to the kidneys that went unseen by the officials. Upon returning to the other end of the floor, Mahorn taunted Ewing, who then took a kind of half swing that grazed Mahorn's neck. Referee Bob Delaney ejected not only Mahorn, whose actions began the confrontation, but also Ewing, because in the zero-tolerant NBA of today, he retaliated. (Thorn didn't consider Ewing's half swing an actual punch and thus didn't suspend him.) Thorn fined Mahorn $7,000, twice as much as Ewing, but, still, was that fair to Ewing, who was twice provoked by a player with a reputation for provocation?
"Yes," says Thorn quickly. "I used to believe nothing should happen if you threw a punch that didn't land. But I came around to the opinion that that's the same as fighting because you intend it to land." If that sounds like Stern-speak, well, so be it. Thorn attributes this season's decline in "incidents" to the "strong deterrents" the NBA has in place. "A lot of times you'll see someone squaring off and a light goes on in his eyes," he says. "Years ago there would've been punches. Now there's restraint."
But the playoffs begin this week, and restraint may once again take a backseat to violence. It's spring, and at Thorn Theatre, the lights will be off and the VCR will be running. "In this job you never rest," says Thorn, "and you never stop watching."