Basketball measures seconds in tenths. Humans can’t make these measurements, our brains don’t work that way. But we have computers now, and thus we have measurable fractions of time, and so officials often stop basketball and review computer monitors to make sure the computer clock is accurate. When they need to, they restore these imperceptible units of time. The difference between a clock that says .3 and .6 is a chance to take a shot, win a game, change a season. It’s important to be precise.
How long were Marcus Smart's fingertips in contact with Jeff Orr’s chest? Two-tenths of a second? Three?
In the 24 hours since, how many more fractions of seconds have already been spent -- wasted -- discussing it? How many milliseconds have Twitter’s servers devoted? How many minutes of your life have you devoted?
And how long will the Oklahoma State men’s basketball team suffer the consequences?
On Saturday night, after committing a foul and crashing into the stands, Smart turned, seemingly provoked, and shoved a middle-aged man wearing a black Texas Tech polo in his chest. That fan, an air traffic controller and die-hard Texas Tech supporter, didn’t fall down. He brushed back a bit, but he didn’t fall or go crashing back. He kept his feet.
And that’s it. That’s what you’ve been hearing about for the past 24 hours. That’s what spawned the whole misguided mess, gave birth to a thousand half-baked sociocultural observations, and permitted the outraged race-tinged equivocation. That’s why you’ll hear talk-radio sirens and read what does it all mean? thinkpieces for the next week, or next three weeks, or whatever. All of this will happen because Smart shoved another adult man in the chest for a fraction of a second.
Oh, the horror. Won’t somebody think of the children. Ad infinitum.
Reports that Smart reacted to a racial epithet fueled much of this ephemeral, weird debate. Memories of Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson surely contributed. But the whole thing was an overblown farce from the start, a pair of bad decisions by two men that indirectly revealed as much about those reacting to it as anyone else.
Hopefully, Sunday night will cool things off. At the news conference, Oklahoma State called to announce and discuss Smart’s three-game suspension for the shove -- which the school levied in tandem with the Big 12 -- the second-year OSU star took responsibility for his actions. He apologized to Orr by name. He didn’t take questions, and he didn’t place blame. Coach Travis Ford wouldn’t talk about what Smart heard, or thought he heard, and the topic was quickly dropped. The school made it clear that it was unacceptable to put hands on a fan while standing behind Smart’s intrinsic character. All vowed to learn from the situation, and athletic director Mike Holder was especially reflective.
“How we deal with it is a lot more important than what happened,” Holder said.
Meanwhile, Texas Tech released a statement from Orr (and a corroborating GoPro camera video) that claimed he called Smart “a piece of crap,” but did not use a racial slur. Orr also apologized, and volunteered to avoid Texas Tech home and road games the rest of the season. The response made it clear that there was at least some punishment involved for Orr -- a welcome tact in a culture in which fans think they can say and do whatever they want.
Save the occasionally strange response from Ford, it was expert damage control by everyone involved, from the Big 12 down.
Hopefully the result is a focus on the only place where this really was a big deal: The basketball court.
Oklahoma State’s next three games -- the three Smart will miss while serving his suspension -- are hardly easy ones. On Tuesday night, the Cowboys will play their first game without Smart at No. 15 Texas, where the lengthy Longhorns have morphed into one of the Big 12’s toughest teams. On Saturday is a return date with Oklahoma, which handled the Sooners with Smart in the first Bedlam game Jan. 27. Then there is a road trip to a desperate Baylor team in need of wins two days later.
It is hardly a stretch to think Oklahoma State could lose all three. The Cowboys were struggling before Saturday’s mess took things up a notch. Center Michael Cobbins' season-ending injury robbed OSU of an All-Big 12-level interior defender, and the Cowboys have been a far less imposing defensive challenge since.
Smart wasn’t playing his best basketball, either. His long-range shooting -- the tentpole of his offseason improvement -- has dipped below the 29 percent he shot as a freshman. But even so, he is still the Cowboys’ most important player, an elite perimeter defender whose penetration makes much of the Cowboys’ offense go.
If losing Smart means losing three straight games, are the Cowboys a lock to make the NCAA tournament? The question would have seemed silly a week ago, let alone a month; the only question would have been how high they’d be seeded. But combined with the loss at Texas Tech (RPI: 118), a 16-10 OSU with a good-but-not-outstanding RPI schedule numbers would no longer be a safe, guaranteed NCAA tournament inclusion. And what happens when Smart returns on Feb. 22, against Texas Tech? What about a road game at TCU on Feb. 24? What about back-to-back home games against Kansas and Kansas State down the stretch, and what about the season-ending trip to Iowa State?
“It’s incumbent upon all of our athletes, all of us, to understand the role that spectators could play in a contest, but that only happens if we allow it,” Holder said. “It has nothing to with what happens out there on the court unless you invite them in. In this case, not only was it a part of last night’s game, it’s definitely going to be a part of our future, too. Because there’s been some repercussions.”
That’s the lesson worth taking away from a Saturday night and Sunday filled with hyperbolic overreactions and classic Internet morality theater: That inviting the chaos outside the court on to it, even for a second, means losing control of what happens next.
How far into the future will these consequences extend? How long will a bad decision made in a fraction of a second affect Oklahoma State? Time will tell.