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Monday, May 21, 2007
Mommy Has a Headache


I am a guy who responds to a lot of email. The vast majority, I'd wager, that I receive.

Until, that is, Boris Diaw and Amare Stoudemire got suspended for Game 5 of the Phoenix vs. San Antonio series. Then, for a few days, I got more email then I could possibly even read, let alone respond to.

Those that I did read included all points of view, but are by and large frantically, at times drunkenly, and unequivocally anti-NBA.

A handful of them are so outlandishly bitter that I flagged them as fodder for a potential future post in which I might talk to a psychologist to find out if maybe, for some people, sports are not a good fit.

I'm thinking, for instance, about the guy who wrote, after Bruce Bowen (who somehow was made to seem more evil by the actions of Robert Horry, Stu Jackson, and David Stern) hit the crucial three-pointer in Game 5:

There is no justice in this world. I'm going to go kick a puppy, now, since it apparently doesn't matter.

Wow. You know? Wow. That's what I thought when I read a lot of these.

What's this all about? What's going on here? A bundle of things. I'm guessing these are some of the key points that haven't already been addressed ad infinitum.

I think, for a lot of people, listening to David Stern defend the decision was startling. It was the first time they really got the memo that David Stern is not only all-powerful but in wielding his power can be combative, belittling, and harsh.

(Not totally relevant, but fun to tell: I interviewed Commissioner Stern years ago for an article about David Robinson. He insisted on having the talk via his crappy speakerphone. Halfway through my first question, he made a big noise by scooting his chair or something. Bad speakerphones of that vintage only allow one-way communication -- in any instant, either I could hear him or he could hear me. As I could hear his chair, I knew he wasn't hearing me, so I paused for an instant to make certain he was done rearranging furniture. It was literally, less than a second of pause before he barked "do you have an actual question?" and then just launched into a David Robinson statement more or less on a topic of his choosing. I realize this story is not proof he's anything I accused him of earlier.)

People who follow the NBA closely, or indeed work in the NBA, have gotten used to the idea that the commissioner is no teddy bear, and they tended to take these suspensions much more in stride.

But the bigger point, I think, is that most fans forgot that we're in a period of NBA history that could be described as "mommy has a headache."

You know the scene: kids in need of supervision, and a parent with a throbbing head in dire need of relief. She needs peace and quiet like no one has ever needed peace and quiet. Any kid that wants to play the drums right now is the worst kid in the history of the planet.

At other times, playing the drums is encouraged, and the worst kid in the history of the planet is the one who plays with matches.

But right now? Prioroties have changed for the moment. Mommy has to go lie down for a little while, OK? Please don't burn the house down, and DON'T TOUCH THE FREAKING DRUMS.

We all know what happens, right? A half-hour later, mom is barking at some poor kid who did something innocent but noisy, and that kid is howling about how unfair it is because she's good 365 days a year and right now her brother is outside playing with matches and he's not getting in trouble at all.

You can probably see where this is headed.

The point is: the league has been pretty clear and consistent. You can play hard in the playoffs without getting suspended, if you're a little crafty. You can bang. You can grab. You can kick. You can elbow Derek Fisher once in a while. (You can even trip Amare Stoudemire again.)

But there a couple of things that, as far as the league is concerned, can never happen. First and foremost is the brawl at Auburn Hills. (If you forgot what that was like, click that last link and remember. It's laughable to think that anything that happened in these playoffs can remotely touch it.) Even at that Knicks and Nuggets brawl, if you listen to the commentary, ushers had to go to some trouble to keep the fans from getting involved. What if the ushers had failed? We are on a bit of tightrope here.

This, kids, is Mommy Stern's headache. Hard play, dirty tricks ... whatever. Not a big deal today, or ever. What Mommy can't have right now is any more of those apocalyptic, racially complex, bench-clearing brawls that get the fans involved.

The league could not be clearer that that is their priority. And who's to say they are wrong? Once you have two dozen athletes and 20,000 fans going at it, there's no good way to guarantee there won't be the kind of real deal tragedy that would make a depressing few years of the NBA's bottom line an afterthought.

And there are not good tools available to prevent such things. One of the only ones that exists is to make sure that it never starts -- that is, that there is never a moment when all those players are all over the court posturing and yelling. Because once you get there, whether or not we're back in Auburn Hills depends on the whim of the angriest players and the drunkest fans.

A man in David Stern's position can not leave the future of his league in those people's hands. The drumset that's going to make this head explode is, it turns out, players rushing all over the court playing problem solver at volatile moments. That's what makes everything so hot.

(Mommy said "no drums." Amare and Boris wail "we were playing the drumset quietly!")

So, all you people e-mailing me who can't believe this rule, or that David Stern would enforce it, please keep in mind that any replacement we might discuss -- and we should discuss lots of them, I want to hear a clever idea or two -- has to come with a really clever way to keep bench players on the seats to prevent the out-of-control brawls that the league fears. 'Cause without that, it's just a pipe dream.

And when you're coming up with that rule, you have to stare deep into the mind of your favorite players. All those who have followed the rules and stayed on the bench through the last decade of trips, flagrant fouls, and hip checks ... If David Stern was in the habit of pardoning "nice guys" who leave the bench but don't make trouble, would they still stay on the bench when there's some kind of altercation? And if a lot more players get up to see what's going on, how many more altercations might result from that mass of hot tempers and muscles? How many of those might involve fans?

I'm not saying this rule is perfect. But I am saying that it's there for a reason, and anything that might replace it would have to do a lot more than just get a couple more Suns into Game 5. It would have to be smart about making mommy's headache go away, too.

UPDATE: The Painted Area has some good thoughts.