Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The NBA Gets It Wrong

Bill Simmons' column on the travesty of the NBA suspensions of Boris Diaw and Amare Stoudemire of the Suns is fantastic.

To recap: in the best NBA series I've watched in years (by that I mean the level of play), the Suns beat the Spurs in Game 4 to even the series at two games apiece. In the waning moments of the game, Spurs backup forward Robert Horry sent Suns star guard Steve Nash sprawling into the boards between the benches with the basketball version of a hipcheck. Stoudemire and Diaw jumped up off the Suns bench, as much in concern for Nash as anything else, and sprinted toward their teammate. Immediately realizing that they might get in trouble, both retreated to the bench.

Now, the NBA has a clear-cut, black-and-white rule on this stuff -- if you leave the bench during an altercation, you're suspended a minimum of one game. Knicks fans recall that this cost the 1997 Knicks a playoff series -- of course, they're Knick fans, so they got what they deserved. Of course, the NBA should have revisited the rule in response to the Knicks series, but did not do so, mostly because NBA Commissioner David Stern and the league office seemingly decided that to revisit the rule would be to admit weakness, rather than to realize that it's idiotic.

So, now, the NBA has suspended Stoudemire (the Suns' leading scorer) and Diaw (one of the better big men and the logical replacement for Stoudemire) for tonight's crucial game five. Even the Spurs fans are up in arms about the decision, and not simply because Horry got hit with two games. No, it's because the suits in the NBA offices have decided to apply their rule without any consideration for common sense.

Hence, we have a diatribe from Simmons that should be framed for a Sports Pulitzer...
Sadly, regretfully, unfortunately, the Stoudemire-Diaw suspensions tainted a successful playoffs and inspired a record-setting number of fans to exhale in disgust, "That's it, I'm finally done with the NBA."

But there's a larger issue that everyone seems to be missing, an issue that keeps popping up during these playoffs in various forms and might be fixable: Namely, that the NBA turned the competitive sport of basketball into something else. It's still basketball, only it's a bastardized version of it. A certain amount of instinct and competitiveness has been compromised. Why? Because of the league's misguided attempt to create a fairy-tale universe in which world-class athletes can play basketball without ever raising their voices, trash-talking, bumping bodies, exulting after a great play or rubbing each other the wrong way.

... Let's say you're one of the best seven players on the Phoenix Suns. You love Nash -- he's your emotional leader, your meal ticket to the Finals, the ideal teammate and someone who makes you happy to play basketball every day for a living. He's killing himself to win a championship. His nose was split open in Game 1. His back bothers him to the point that he has to lie down on the sidelines during breaks. He's battling a real cheap-shot artist (Bruce Bowen) who's trying to shove and trip him on every play. But he keeps coming and coming, and eventually everyone follows suit. Just as things were falling apart in Game 4 and you were staring at the end of your season, he willed you back into the game and saved the day.

Suddenly, he gets body-checked into a press table for no real reason on an especially cheap play. You're standing 20 feet away. Instinctively, you run a few steps toward the guy who did it -- after all, your meal ticket is lying on the court in a crumpled heap -- before remembering that you can't leave your bench. So you go back and watch everything else unfold from there. Twenty-four hours later, you get suspended for Game 5 because your instincts as a teammate kicked in for 1.7 seconds.

Think about how dumb this is. What kind of league penalizes someone for reacting like a good teammate after his franchise player just got decked? Imagine you're playing pickup at a park, you're leading a game 10-3, your buddy is driving for the winning layup, and some stranger clotheslines your buddy from behind and knocks him into the metal pole. Do you react? Do you take a couple of steps toward him? I bet you do. For the NBA to pretend it can create a fairy-tale league in which these reactions can be removed from somebody's DNA -- almost like a chemical castration -- I mean, how stupid is that?

...So don't blame the NBA higher-ups for the way they interpreted that stupid, idiotic, foolish, moronic, brainless, unintelligent, foolhardy, imprudent, thoughtless, obtuse and thickheaded rule. Blame them for having the rule itself. Blame them for allowing the league to morph into something that doesn't quite resemble basketball anymore. Blame them for a league in which basketball players aren't totally allowed to think and act like basketball players and teammates aren't totally allowed to think and act like teammates. Blame them for an ongoing double standard in which the Bruce Bowens of the league can willfully endanger other players, but a roundhouse swipe on an attempted block can get someone ejected if they miss by a scant 10 inches while moving at full speed. Blame them for dubious officiating that's compromised the playoffs to the degree that an increasing number of fans are wondering where the WWE ends and the NBA begins.

And speaking of blame ... if you want to skip tonight's Game 5 between the Suns and Spurs, I can't blame you.
And people wonder why I like college basketball better than the pros. I hate the officials at both levels, but I don't really question the integrity of the college refs as much as their intelligence. Simmons is correct to point out that the NBA seems to be a lifeless husk of the game I grew up watching. And he actually watches regular season NBA games, which should be listed as cruel and unusual punishment. Ironically, this may drive up the ratings for this game, as people tune in to see the undermanned Suns attempt a miracle. The only way this would have been worse was if it was Game Seven.

Stern won't be at the game tonight, citing a cold from his recent travels to give Dirk Nowitzki his MVP Award (there's an obvious joke there about Dirk and the Dallas Mavericks' gawd-awful shooting, but I'll avoid it). My guess is that he'd rather not be in Phoenix, because they're going to be pissed. And deep down, he probably knows that they're right.


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