BRAWL ANGLES AND STORYLINES
Basically each columnist picks a person who they believe crossed the line. Here are some links to start you out. You will find more links later in the article as I discuss issues related to them.
Adrian Wojnarowski for Yahoo! Sports blames George Karl. He was the first one to make a move that could be considered wrong and "as a result" his team paid the highest price.
Dan Wetzel at Yahoo! Sports points the finger at Isiah. It seems pretty clear that Isiah gave the order to give hard fouls, and Wetzel claims that was where the line was crossed and it was his fault the fight broke out. Wetzel says, "If [Isiah] had an ounce of self-respect, he'd realize there is only one person to blame for this disaster and it isn't George Karl for his substitution pattern ... It's all gone in New York now – the pride, the respect, the dignity. This isn't just a bad team; this is a bad act. A once proud franchise and fan base brought to its knees as its pathetic coach makes excuses and whines for mercy."
Basketball, like any other sport, has an etiquette: rules that aren't in the rule book but are understood by every player and coach. The first bit of etiquette that was broken is written in certain terms, but is not in itself a mortal offense, and that was George Karl leaving his starters in with one minute left. I don't care if the Knicks had cut a 28 point lead to 10 in like 3 minutes. I don't care if there hadn't been a stoppage of play. Karl should have taken a foul or called a timeout and gotten his starters out at least a minute earlier. But as I said, this could be viewed as a poor and reckless decision by Karl, but it is not a mortal offense.
The mortal offense came when, up 19, JR Smith decided to try to dunk on a breakaway with like 22 seconds on the shot-clock, at a point in the game when the Nuggets could have just dribbled the ball until the shot clock expired on every possession and the Knicks would have had no chance. Now I don't think Smith made that decision out of malevolence. I think he just likes to showboat and is not a thoughtful player. But don't tell me that Karl couldn't have made it clear to his players when he took at time out exactly 45 seconds earlier, to kill the clock. Now you're probably thinking, well, he just said Smith is an idiot - even if Karl had told him to kill time he may have gone ahead and disobeyed him. Here's the problem with that argument: Smith isn't the one who stole the ball or started the breakaway. Andre Miller stole, recovered the ball, then made the outlet pass to Smith. You can't tell me that Andre Miller, a 7 year NBA veteran, also had a brainfart and forgot that they were blowing the Knicks out. Karl has been coaching for 20 years. Before that he played in the NBA and ABA for another 5. Basketball etiquette has been burned into his mind.
It may have seemed like a subtle thing, not worthy of Isiah Thomas's reaction, but imagine a similar breach of etiquette in the real world: You are at a bar, holding hands and having a soft and loving conversation with your girlfriend. Another man comes up and interrupts your conversation and, back to you, starts hitting on your girl. This guy hasn't broken any laws... now what are you going to do - sit there and wait for him to leave and take the offense, or stand up for yourself? George Karl's team was breaking a rule that, in the game of basketball, is equally serious. Hell, the Pistons brawl broke out for a similar reason - Artest gave a hard foul on Ben Wallace despite the fact that Indy was up 15 with 46 seconds left. Because the game was already decided, etiquette says that you lay back on defense and let the other team score. Artest broke the rules and Ben Wallace flipped out.
Let's get this straight right now, each player is responsible for his or her own actions. I am only arguing that, up until just after Mardy Collins gave a hard foul, the only person who had done wrong was George Karl. He is the one who put his players in a difficult situation, because once the Knicks gave that hard foul, Smith had every right to be angry. He was just following coach's orders. So although it was a poor choice to get up and get in Collins' face, I think at least 80% of the players in the league would have responded in the same way. The blatantly poor and inexcusable situations came later: the first one came from Nate Robinson, who I believe is incapable of being calm, when he shoved Smith away from Collins. The next one came from Smith when he tried to tackle Robinson, and the final and worst decision came from Anthony, who wasn't anywhere near the initial play, things were just calming down, when he came in and punched Collins in the face. I really don't blame Jeffries for his response. Carmelo was the second person to break rules of etiquette for a fight (yes they exist) - and that is you don't hit someone when they aren't expecting it. It was fortunate for Jeffries the rest of the players that he tripped and was then held back by Mark Aguirre, or this could have gotten a lot uglier.
Now in the aftermath of the suspensions (which I will get to later), a lot of people are yelling that Isiah Thomas should have gotten suspended (Marc Stein, Chris Sheridan (requires ESPN Insider)). This is ridiculous. Even if Isiah Thomas told his players to give a hard foul, there is no chance in hell he told them to go start a fight. So he warned Carmelo not to go in the paint. How does that change anything? If the entire thing had ended after the foul by Collins (the only thing that Isiah Thomas can in any way be implicated for) then no one would be talking about this. Collins maybe gets suspended for a game, but even that I find unlikely.
Kelly Dwyer for Sports Illustrated basically says that we are overreacting. He skirts around the question of why we overreact to fights in the NBA and not in other sports. He also refuses to get into any discussion about who is at fault. I wonder if he just likes fluff or if SI forces him to avoid all controversy.
THE BIG PICTURE
Okay we've analyzed how it all went down and discussed who is most responsible for the brawl, now let's talk about what the brawl really meant in the broader scheme of things. The first big picture item up: Why is this getting so much press?
Dwyer suggests that, "Together, cats and kittens, let's turn off the cable TV and move on." Well, what is it that is keeping us attached to the tube? Why is this getting mainstream media attention when fights in other sports are ignored? Obviously there's the fact that it is the first brawl in the NBA since the Pistons brawl and that one was a real homerun for the media. But why? Here's my take:
Americans, unless they are from an urban area, learn most of what they "know" about the young black male from the tv and movies. I don't have to tell you that, by and large, young black men are portrayed as violent, unpredictable, alienated from American institutions like school.
For a sport where you are constantly in physical contact, pushing for position, getting knocked to floor, there are remarkably few fights. But because people prefer to see their expectations fulfilled, every time there is a fight, it gets blown up and is all over TV and news, and NBA players are called thugs, etc etc. Why does this have appeal? Because it gives people an excuse to write off the young black male again, just as he is in his underfunded inner-city schools; to call him uncontrollable and disrespectful of what he has been given to him. People have an excuse not to feel bad about the immense racial divide that, if you look at recent history,continues to grow. It is outrageous.
Hockey players have nearly killed other hockey players in fights. There are big brawls in baseball all the time. But when there's one fight in basketball, no one gets hurt, emotions are running high, the players are labelled as overpaid whiners who don't appreciate what they have. "The NBA gets another black eye". Those looking to maintain their hate and ignorance about black men quickly translate the media's label of "whiners" into a words whose hate is even less thinly veiled - they call the players, as you can read in comments on discussion boards over and over, "thugs", "animals", "monkeys".
People who are crying about these players should look at other sports that have faced real scandals (how about steroids), or look at our politicians. Those people are the real betrayers. I'm a privileged, laid-back white boy and I know I've gotten into plenty of fights on the basketball court. You know why? Because I'm playing really hard and the game is intense. Your kids will see much worse fights in their high school sports and in their backyard basketball games. There were some poor decisions, but it was in the spirit of competition, nothing evil or corrupting.
Stern is trying to accomodate the money that funds the NBA. He is trying to broaden the NBA's appeal. As much as I'm irritated by Stern's authoritarian way of handling a lot of the NBA's issues, I can't really blame him for this one. It's not his fault that our society is the way it is. There were two things that he had to do after this fight broke out:
1) Look at the every day sports fans expectation of what the suspensions might be and then double that number. Why? Because Stern has to come off as if he is taking a hard line here. You see people's brains work in a funny way. A person's first reaction to evidence contrary to what they have so far decided is the truth is to try to prove it wrong. If they can't do that then they will try to avoid it. If they can't do that then they will distort that evidence, look for reasons to believe that it isn't what it seems. In the case of the NBA, people have to look at black kids who come from the ghetto. And what is being challenged here? Why it's perhaps the most complex case of denial: it's the notion that the world is fair and that people get what they deserve. In order to justify in their own minds that black people deserve to be poorer than whites and that they don't have any responsibility to have a hand in changing the world, they search for evidence that blacks will toss away any opportunity that is given to them. They can continue to focus their energy on the problems that they confront in their own lives. They are able to maintain faith that everyone lives in a world that is ruled by justice, accountability, a world where good people get what they deserve. So, when Stern hands out ridiculously long suspensions, it is just the hand of justice giving these "thugs" what they deserve. They can watch the NBA without their naive perception of the world being threatened.
2) And of course Stern has to view every replay and at least assign suspensions that, in relation to one another, are fair. Carmelo did commit the biggest wrong and did deserve the largest suspension. Isiah Thomas did order a hard foul, but he didn't start the brawl. Etc, etc, etc.
The Detroit brawl and the NBA's ridiculous rule changes that followed are another example of this. There is nothing wrong or ridiculous within the simple idea of instituting a dress code. It is the reason why the dress code was instituted that is offensive: Stern chose to institute rules that whitewashed over the hip-hop styles that many NBA players identify with. He portrayed that clothing as wrong. His actions said, you can come from the ghetto, but you better not wear any clothes that remind us of that fact. You can be black, but you better recognize that we don't want any reminders of who you are or where you came from.
I could go on an on about this, but I'll stop here.
AI TO DENVER
I guess this is all Philly could get. Two late draft picks, a flawed point guard with an okay contract and a $7 million expiring contract. This isn't going to do much for Philly other than allow them to continue to bomb this season and improve their own draft pick. I would have held out longer. They should have been able to at least pick up Foye or Gerald Green and a better pick in the draft. I guess it could have been worse too though. Next year's draft is supposed to be amazing so these late picks, if the Sixers find someone who knows how to evaluate talent, could net them some contributors.
As far as AI in Denver goes, I don't think that the there will be big issues as far as Iverson and Melo sharing. I'm sure George Karl will have his problems with AI, but I don't think that it will end up being too big of a deal. The thing that bothers me most about this trade for Denver is that Iverson and Carmelo are redundant. They both like to get in the paint and draw fouls. When Carmelo is doing his thing, AI is going to be a non-factor and vice-versa. Yes, AI does create for other players, but all you ahve to do is look at Marbury and Francis in New York to see that a player who is used to and good at creating for himself is not going to be effective when he is on the receiving end. Carmelo is not a catch and shoot player. AI is not a catch and shoot player. These guys are both scorers. That has been the story of both of their careers. I think all Denver needed was another guy who plays defense and can hit a jumpshot. Work through anthony, keep 3 or 4 guys who can defend on the floor. Even with JR smith, who plays no defense, as his second option the nuggets looked decent. Why? Because smith doesn't need to put the ball on the floor. All he wants to do is chuck up threes.
I'm not saying the nuggets won't be better as a result of this trade, or that they shouldn't have done the deal (they hardly gave up anything), but I don't see great chemistry or playoff success in their future.