By D.K. Wilson
A friend called me yesterday. He was pissed off and nearly breathless. The object of his ire? The San Antonio Spurs and David Stern.
“Stern could have used his power to interpret the rule and keep the best interest of the game in mind and not suspend Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw. Stern could have done that,” he said loudly into the telephone.
“When the playoffs first started I wanted the Suns to lose and for Steve Nash to fail. Now, I really hope the Suns win. If the game is going to “get right” again, the Suns will win this series in spite of what Stern did to them. I can’t believe Stern would do this to his league. All this bad publicity is horrible for the NBA.”
It took me an hour to talk him back down to Earth.
The first thing I explained to him is that at this high level of entertainment that is the NBA, any pub is good pub. I reminded him that the goal is to globalize the game. I told him that the Suns are the team held up as the shining light of the NBA as a global game (look Euro-dudes, South American floppers, and Asian Nash hairdo look-alikes, if a little white guy like Steve Nash, who for eight years has been regarded as a decent point guard can win consecutive MVPs and Dirk Nowitzki can win an MVP – well, with some hard work and by playing in the right Euro-tinged system, you can, too!
I explained to him that through of image manipulation, no one finds it odd that less than a month ago Tim Duncan and by extension the San Antonio Spurs were the undeserving “victims” of a heinous act by referee Joe Crawford when Crawford ejected Duncan for clapping as a way to protest a call (the same “infraction” for which Stephen Jackson was ejected from a playoff game against Dallas; no one complained about Bennett Salvatore). The same people who jumped to San Antonio’s aid less than a month ago are today villainizing the Spurs.
The Spurs have long been known as a pillar of what the NBA is all about: great fundamental basketball, selfless team play, player sacrifice, excellent coaching, veteran leadership, and, other than Bruce Bowen, gentlemen on and off the court.
Today the Spurs are, as one commenter to The Starting Five said, “DIRTY!!!”
I asked him to think about how all this was possible if David Stern didn’t want this to happen; to make the Suns look like Victims writ large by sacrificing one of his favorite teams, the Spurs, at the twin altars of “the global game” and “global television ratings.” Finally, I asked him how he thought it possible that it was a mistake for Stern to turn the entire basketball-watching audience, including grizzled NBA pundits against him and the Spurs and have Nash – “Little Stevie Fingertips” – portrayed as this poor guy who has been purposely beat down by roughnecks like Tony Parker, Bruce Bowen, and Robert Horry.
He took a deep breath as is he’d just awakened from a deep slumber.
“Damn,” he said quietly. “You’re right. Damn, I fell for this crap. Everybody I know fell for this crap. Wow, wow.”
I have always maintained that San Antonio is one of the five or so “clutch and grab” defensive teams that get somehow are allowed to circumvent the rules of officiating mainly through the force of their reputation. I have also been pooh-poohed for remaining steadfast in my perception of the Spurs and other teams that engage in this defensive practice. I also put the Suns, for different reasons, in this clutch-and-grab category. But making the Spurs look like the second coming of the Detroit Bad Boys, and making Stern look like the second coming of a “third world” despot is taking things a little too far.
Today, Robert Horry is a “36-year old journeyman” and implied “3rd-string desperado” (according to Peter Bonventre of ESPN this morning on First Take). Bonventre also invoked Ralph Waldo Emerson to pillory NBA commissioner’s David Stern’s ruling on the Horry-Stoudemire-Diaw, Nash matter: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
Robert Horry as Rick Mahorn and David Stern as, hmmmm, George Bush, the Younger?
What minds like Bonventre, so many NBA “experts,” sports intertube types, and fans fail to understand is that Stern had no choice but to enforce the ruling that ended in the one-game suspensions of Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw.
What everyone seems to fail to realize is that the owners made this rule. This is not a David Stern, let’s use a synthetic basketball” edict. This is not a David Stern dress code mandate. This is not a David Stern-initiated, we need zones where night clubs and NBA city areas of “questionable repute” are off limits to players and if they are found to have visited these zones, they and their teams can be fined large dollar amounts, thought put into action.
No, the, “get off the bench during an altercation, get suspended” rule was handed down by the owners of the NBA teams. Stern has no choice but to enforce this rule as it was derived 10 years ago by the owners. And because it is an owner-initiated rule, Stern cannot interpret the rule or bend it to his liking without chancing a league-wide mutiny led by the very people who are largely responsible for his paycheck which would likely end in his dismissal as commissioner.
In short, David Stern was and is hamstrung. If the owners want to alter or tweak the rule, fine, they can do so after the season is over ; Stern will then enforce it as it is altered or tweaked, no more, no less.
However, this fact has not deterred well-known sports writers from chiming in against Stern. Sam Smith of the Chicago Tribune describes Stern’s act:
The commissioner is concerned about precedent. But what kind of precedent is it to back yourself into a corner where you can’t do what’s right for a great playoff series? This is not about protecting stars or some ludicrous conspiracy theory. Stern spends too much time these days worrying about whether people think his league is manipulating events rather than setting things right.
Horry’s action was inexcusable and what the NBA should be trying to restrain. It was not basketball. That’s the point. The game should transcend everything, not become a debate about rules of law.
The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Stephen A. Smith goes a bit further:
This wasn’t Ron Artest jumping into the stands at the Palace in Auburn Hills in 2004. Nor was it Carmelo Anthony igniting a brawl this season in Madison Square Garden, just a few blocks from the NBA offices.
This was the Spurs vs. the Suns, the Nos 2 and No. 3 seeds out West, respectively, putting on the kind of show the NBA has craved for years. It is a show filled with excitement, intrigue, tenacity, and, dare we say, some physical play.
Now it’s potentially ruined. And for what, exactly?
It’s one thing to suspend Horry, who hip-checked Nash, whose flop into the scorer’s table could have given Al Pacino a run for his money. It is quite another thing to suspend Stoudemire and Diaw.
The NBA, no doubt, will attach itself to “the letter of the law,” as commissioner David Stern has so eloquently stated in years past. The league will point to the precedent-setting decision in 1997 – 10 years to the day yesterday – when it suspended five members of the New York Knicks (Patrick Ewing, Allan Houston, Larry Johnson, Charlie Ward and John Starks) and Miami’s P.J. Brown. That came after Brown sparked a near-brawl by flipping Ward upside down as if the Knicks guard was back playing quarterback at Florida State.
To be fair, league officials will say there is no way to determine what potential harm will occur by waiting to see what will happen if someone is allowed to evade the letter of the law by exceeding the vicinity of his bench, etc.
Forgive me, though. It just seems stupid.
Lastly, Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic has this to offer:
“…the league felt compelled to suspend two players from the nicest team in basketball before a pivotal Game 5, tilting the best series going and angering fans from coast to coast.
Along the way, one of the league’s more popular players, Steve Nash, has been beaten up like a piñata in his personal quest to improve the quality of basketball. And, clank, just imagine the ratings disaster that would accompany a final four of Utah, San Antonio, Detroit and Cleveland.”…
“Steve has bruises all over his body. Literally,” Suns trainer Aaron Nelson said. “You can see them.”
Although some Suns fans actually believe that Horry pre-planned his body check in Game 4, hoping to coax some key Suns off the bench, there probably is something much more subtle at work. That would be a concerted effort from San Antonio to take as many liberties as possible with the Suns point guard, hoping he becomes a lesser player.
My god, you’d think the Spurs took Nash into the parking lot and beat him senseless.
But this is exactly what Stern wants. This is the larger picture that most seem to be missing. If the Suns lose, Nash and the Suns look like pitiable victims to be loved and revered as long as Nash is the point guard and as long as they play that Memphis Tigers-NCAA and soft Euro style of play. If Phoenix wins they will have overcome with all odds against them and Nash will be hailed as a hero for the duration.
As for the Spurs? They’ll recover. The “Big Whiner” Tim Duncan will regain his “Big Fundamental” moniker if he stays cool and accepts winning or losing graciously. Gregg Popovich’s legacy as a great coach is already intact and will not be diminished. Big Shot Bob (or “Rob” if you don’t believe in alliteration) Horry is a good guy and everybody knows it; plus his big shots are captured on video to be viewed forever. Bruce Bowen will always be a polarizing figure. Some will maintain that Bowen is just a hard-nosed defender. Others will maintain he is a dirty player. And next season San Antonio will yet again be a favorite to come out of the Western Conference and play in the Finals.
Either way, David Stern’s NBA world is, for the moment, fine. Especially as long as he has Steve Nash by his side.