College basketball in August is rarely memorable, but this image stuck: the Georgetown Hoyas in China, isolated and outnumbered in a hostile gym, closing ranks as a massive brawl breaks out. Violent punches are thrown; chairs are grabbed; the crowd whistles and throws detritus as coach John Thompson III just tries to get his team off the court, out of the tunnel, and onto the team bus, concerned not only about the incident itself but the potential international and legal implications.
Georgetown’s infamous brawl in China was just last summer, and it was a frightening, sad scene, a blight on an otherwise positive trip to one of the world’s most enthusiastic rising basketball nations. It was also a nightmare scenario for coaches, the kind of thing that keeps you from sleeping well on those transcontinental flights.
In that context, you can forgive Frank Haith for not wanting to risk it. Tensions were rising Saturday between Missouri and the national team of the Netherlands, where the Tigers are playing part of their August exhibition tour: Elbows had flown, words were exchanged, no calls were made, and Haith, after being ejected for arguing a no-call on an elbow to the head of forward Stefan Jankovic, decided he wasn’t interested in letting things come to a head. So, midway through the third quarter, he pulled his team off the court -- and came to regret it afterward. From a Mizzou release:
“In my mind I was just fearful for the safety of our players, but in retrospect I wish I had let our team play it out and learn from the adversity,” Haith said. “I take complete responsibility. This is a learning experience for us all.”
Despite the decision Haith had nothing but praise for the Netherlands National program.
“This in no way reflects how the Dutch team played tonight,” Haith said. “They are a great team and for us to be up 25 at the half, we were obviously playing well. I had a split second to make a decision and I chose to err on the side of caution.”
It’s the kind of move that can make a coach look small, or timid, or even petulant. But according to the release, Dutch event organizer and national basketball program manager Matthijs Groot had Haith’s back, saying he could understand the reasons for concern:
“It was strange what happened because it (ejection) so suddenly came out of the blue,” Groot said. “There were inconsistent calls on both sides including a technical foul on the Dutch, so our staff could understand that the game was stopped. It was just a pity it got to that point.”
Both sides may wish the game had continued, and judging from their reactions, they’re probably right: The players would have cooled off eventually, probably, and maybe learned the difference between chippiness and general danger. But really, can you blame Haith? If he felt like his team was in any way in danger -- if he felt like a full-on fight was inevitable -- why take the risk? It’s an exhibition game in August. It’s just not worth it.