Monday, December 18, 2006

National Brawl Association

On December 16th the Denver Nuggets were up by 19 points in the fourth quarter with about one minute remaining against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Nuggets guard J.R. Smith got the ball on a one-on-one breakaway against Knicks reserve Mardy Collins. What transpired after that recalled images of the “Malice at the Palace” in Detroit two years ago, also known as the worst brawl in sports history. Collins wrapped his arms around the driving Smith and threw him to the ground, a blatant flagrant foul. Smith was understandably upset and got in Collins’ face. Knicks guard Nate Robinson (all 5’7” of him) came to his teammate’s aid and shoved Smith away. Denver’s Carmelo Anthony and a host of New York Knick players enter the fray. Smith and Robinson tackled each other into the first row of cameramen.

After things had seemingly cooled down, Anthony ran back up to Collins and connected with a punch to the face. Anthony was chased by Knicks forward Jared Jeffries as he backpedaled away. All 10 players on the court were ejected from the game. Each team was fined $500,000. Anthony was suspended for 15 games. Robinson and Smith both got 10 game suspensions. Collins was suspended for six games. Jefferies was hit with a four game suspension. All in all, seven players from both teams were suspended for a combined 47 games.

This story has been on every news and sports talk show for the past 48 hours and will continue to be for weeks. There are just so many sub plots, angles, blame games and power plays to analyze. The coaches, George Karl and Isiah Thomas, have been in a war of words over who is to blame. NBA Commissioner David Stern has had to flex his muscle in an attempt to eliminate violence from his game. And the whole “hip-hop” stigma the NBA has upon it, rears its head again.

George Karl “swears on his children’s lives” that he was not running up the score on the Knicks. He pointed to various games over the past two weeks in which teams had blown double digit leads late in games. He said he was trying to teach his young team how to win. I don’t buy it. Being up by 19 with 1:24 left is a lock. Denver could have taken six ten-second backcourt violations and allowed six Knick three-pointers and the Knicks would still be down 1 with less than 20 seconds remaining. Teaching your team to win? How about teaching your team sportsmanship? This is an early season game with little significance. Your team is up by nearly 20 with less than ninety seconds left to play. I am not saying roll over and let the Knicks make it close. But how about taking out the NBA’s leading scorer in Anthony? Or tell your team to run out the clock instead of run down the court for open lay-ups? George Karl deserves some blame for what happened Saturday.

Karl makes no secret of his relationship with former Knicks coach Larry Brown. Brown had one of the most miserable coaching stints in NBA history last season with the Knicks. Many think that Isiah ran him out of New York before he had time to get his type of players, a feel for the team and adjust to coaching in the pressure-cooker that is the Big Apple. Could it be that Karl was sticking it to the Knicks and Thomas to exact some sort of revenge on his best friend’s former boss? I don’t know Larry Brown, but I find it hard to believe that he was proud of what happened Saturday.

Isiah Thomas allegedly said to Carmelo something to the effect “you better not go into the paint” near the end of the lopsided contest. So did Thomas order Collins, a 10th or 12th option on the team, to hard foul Smith? We will probably never know the truth. What we do know is that Thomas was a member of one of the most intimidating teams ever, “The Bad Boys” of Detroit in the 80’s and 90’s. Thomas was a notorious “take no B.S.” kind of player and it isn’t hard to fathom him ordering retaliation as a head coach.

Call it old school mentality or machismo, but I feel that hard fouls are a part of the game and most sports in general. Not full scale, immature and unnecessary brawls. But if you feel like you are being made a fool of during a game, a degree of retaliation should not be condemned. Having a score run up on your home court qualifies as being made a fool. Did it go too far in New York? Without question. Emotions were running high, including egotism and pride. But I cannot find fault in hard fouling a player driving to the lane to take a lay up when his team is up by 19 with less than minute left. If I was head coach, I probably would have done the same thing.

There is just an unwritten code of sportsmanship when you are winning by a large margin. Don’t take unnecessary 3’s. Instead of passing, just run the ball and then kneel on it. Don’t steal bases when you are up by more than 5 after the 7th inning. Had J.R. Smith just dribbled the ball around for 20 seconds instead of driving in, this brawl may not have occurred.

Carmelo Anthony, one of the league’s rising young stars and all-around nice guy, got the stiffest penalty for throwing a punch during the melee. There is no way he should be alone in serving his 15-game suspension. Nate Robinson, who without question escalated this into a full-scale brawl, deserves the same amount of games Anthony received. Smith, who may have sparked this with his flashy dunk in the 4th quarter with four minutes remaining, also is as much to blame as Robinson. I believe all three of these players should have been suspended for 10 games each. The Nuggets (and to a lesser extent, the Knicks) don’t deserve to lose this season on a heated mistake.

Stern, try as he might, will never ever get rid of fighting in the NBA. It is not because of this so-called “hip hop” mentality or the rampant egotism and pride that NBA players exude. It is because it is human nature for these athletes to go for the throat. That is what makes them great athletes, killer instinct. That is what earns them millions of dollars and the adoration of millions of people the world over. I am not condoning athletes fighting and doing things they will regret. Far from it. But it is ridiculous to expect these kids to play with so much emotion and have it not spill over sometimes. Should they have been disciplined? Of course, what happened was clearly against the rules and unforgivable. But these kids are not robots who can turn their emotions on and off with the flick of a switch.

Being tough is a trait that all successful sports figures possess. Jordan, Bird, Clemens, Pedro, Favre and a laundry list of all major sports stars are all tough. That is what makes them great. As kids we grow up idolizing these guys. I am sure Carmelo idolized Jordan, every young basketball player did. Being soft is a label that all sports figures will try to avoid at all costs. It is a proven fact; you have to be tough to win. Suspending players will not change their views on manhood, toughness, brotherhood and pride. I would bet anything that if the same set of circumstances happened when Carmelo’s 15 game suspension is up, he would react in the exact same way. Same goes for Robinson, Smith, Jeffries and everyone else involved. But part of being an athlete is controlling yourself, which these young men failed to do. There is a difference between being tough and being stupid. Hopefully these young athletes will learn from their mistakes.

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