Nary a nationally televised game takes place without reference to today’s “softer” NBA. Be it a double technical foul — the bane of broadcaster and fan alike; after all, certainly someone must be at fault in any altercation between two players, and to punish both parties equally seems to gloss over the allocation of blame — or a questionable flagrant, referees are seemingly quick on the draw in doling out judgments seemingly more severe than would befit the crime committed. That propensity for those in charge to mete out justice seemingly incommensurate to the perceived failings of the players gives rise to a wailing threnody that mourns for days past, where men were men and forays into the paint were met with a forearm shiver and an icy glare.
Wherefore has the league cracked down on its enforcers and been so quick to put a lid on even the lowest boiling tensions, the afflicted wonder. Might not such overreaction beget a future where no attempt at the rim goes abetted, one where to commit a foul is to take on the risk that a flagrant will be called, regardless of impact and intent? “Let them play!” swells the crowd, or at least the loudest members within it. What good is a double technical that effectively amounts to zero punishment allotted in this apparent zero-sum game?
Indeed, there was a time when such conflict was settled on the court — and the results were far from pretty. Real, honest-to-goodness fights happened. It’s cited to the point of cliche nearly 40 years later, but Rudy Tomjanovich might be the first to outline the risks of letting boys be boys in the NBA; he very nearly perished at the hands of Kermit Washington in an era where players were expected to be tough as nails and made of granite.
And more acute in the memory, yet perhaps too far gone now, is “The Malice At The Palace,” that event whose quaint, rhyming label does no justice to the chaos at hand that November night nearly nine years ago. Much fades in the passing of a decade, but not for outgoing commissioner David Stern. For Stern, that squalid interaction between players, and between fans and players, lingers as the greatest flaw in the diamond he’s crafted from the rough in his time at the helm of his league.
But over his 30 years, Stern has overseen a whole lot of problems, and didn’t mind noting them when asked if anything particularly stood out.
“It’s the whole thing. Actually you’ve got all kinds of things that happened,” he said. “Whether it’s Tim Donaghy, whether it’s Magic Johnson being HIV positive, or Ron Artest going into the stands, or Latrell Sprewell deciding it would be a good idea to strangle his coach or Gilbert Arenas bringing a gun into the locker room, I see that as, those crises have to be managed.”
Which one was toughest?
“Each one kept [me] up in its own way,” Stern said. “But the brawl that happened between the Pistons and the Pacers provided much of the media in the course of that weekend to use the words ‘thugs’ and ‘punks’ with respect to all of our players which to me is freighted with respect to what they’re really saying and brought up visions of the way the media treated us a decade or more earlier.”
I’m not sure it’s breaking news that the Malice was the low-water point in Stern’s tenure as commissioner, at least in his mind. He and those around him have hinted as much in the past. But the latest interview, and Stern’s outright declaration that above all else, the events of that night were the worst he’d seen, provide the necessary context to the “softer” environment the NBA currently enjoys.
The league and its officials will blow the whistle on a thousand double technical fouls before they ever allow such a black mark to ever again darken the NBA. Every slight bump and every play that may or may not have been on the ball stands as an instantaneous reminder of the grotesque happenings of the Malice at the Palace. It’s with the Malice on their minds that the league offices make it an offense punishable by suspension to simply come off the bench during an altercation on the floor, even if following through on the suspensions means turning the tide of a playoff series (right, Suns fans?). The shadow of the Malice will always cast itself over such considerations; be it fines levied, games suspended or double technicals called, preventing another night like that will always be at the forefront of the league’s efforts to crack down on the emotions of the players.
And it’s worth remembering that’s what is on the mind of the league and those who set its rules when they decide to crack down so strictly on extracurricular events during the course of a game. If heading off any possibility of a repeat of that night means leaning toward extreme punishment for tasks just beyond the mundane, then so be it. If it means quicker whistles, then so be it. After all, it’s commonly thought that were the referees slightly more in control on November 19, 2004, the whole situation might have been averted.
Montieth: People complain about referees like Joey Crawford and [his] quick whistle. I guarantee if Joey Crawford was working that game, it wouldn’t have happened because he would have controlled it. He would have called technicals and gotten people out of there.
So in the future, if you choose to bemoan the quick whistles and commonly flagrant fouls, understand where the NBA is coming from. They might be too cautious, but in their eyes, they’re simply erring on the side of caution. And they’re going to do so every time in order to ensure that the fading memory of the Malice at the Palace continues to do just that. The NBA will continue to be “soft.” In fact, if Stern and his replacement Adam Silver had their druthers, it might get even softer. Even minor altercations, such as between the Warriors and Pacers in February of this year, must be entirely worrisome to the powers that be, and anything that can be done to alleviate even the possibility of such an occurrence will be taken into consideration. Basketball is a beautiful game, full of balletic movement and operatic characters divining their fates between the lines of the game. Tensions will rise, and from time to time, they will spill over. Such is the human condition.
Yet when the frivolties of sport lead to the trappings of fisticuffs, the league and its officials will be there in full force to take the legs out from under the fight before it even has a chance to stand. Emotion happens. The whistles aren’t to prevent emotion; they’re simply to keep it in check and prevent it from becoming violence incarnate.