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Stern Words

When the NBA announced the suspensions of Amare Stoudemire of Boris Diaw for leaving the bench area in Game 4 in San Antonio, I thought it was a horrible decision and difficult to justify based on the specific situation.  And then I heard David Stern and Stu Jackson defend the decision in various interviews on Wednesday, and they changed my mind.  Now I think that David Stern and Stu Jackson are fucking idiots.

First of all, David Stern should suspend himself for losing his cool in his radio interview with Dan Patrick (podcast, transcript, Insider required).  He showed considerably less self-control, in a less heated environment, than Amare Stoudemire did.  

More than anything, this "I know everything, I am right and you are wrong, in fact I'm so right that the fact that you are suggesting that I might not be right makes you an imbecile" attitude is the completely wrong approach.  It's not the tone he should be striking, and it appears that it was not his intent, but his own arrogance and belligerence took over (and quickly).

The Patrick interview begins with a simple question.  "How much deliberating went into the suspensions for Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw."  The commissioner responds, "A lot."  Good.  The implication is, we agonized, we saw the slippery slope of rewarding Horry's behavior, we realized that the rule was problematic.  But then, for the remainder of the interview, he maintains that it's simple, it's clear cut, it's a 'red-letter rule' etc.  Excuse me?  If it's all so simple and straightforward, why did it require 'a lot' of deliberation?  If all of Patrick's questions and qualms were so wrong-headed and naïve, why was there any deliberation at all?  

Patrick blew it of course.  When he suggested early in the interview, that the fact that a 'marquee player' was involved should be factored in, he blew it.  He lost the moral high ground right there, and Stern immediately became hostile.  "I'm going to write that down."  What an asshole.  You know, I look for sarcasm in a good blogger.  But it's not a quality I value highly in my major league sports commissioners.  

If Stern and Jackson had stood up in front of everyone and said, "This was a tough decision.  We agonized.  We compared it to what Tim Duncan did in the second quarter.  And here are the subtle distinctions we saw in enforcing this rule in the one case and not the other.  And we're saddened by it.  And we're concerned about the precedent of an instigating team reaping significant benefit and the potential for teams attempting to provoke a reaction from the bench in the future, but we're prepared to deal with that possibility.  And we're going to recommend that this rule be reviewed."  If they'd come out with that sort of message, I would have nothing to argue about.  I'd be disappointed in the situation, but I would just be one reasonable person disagreeing with other reasonable people.

But they didn't do that.  They spoke in absolutes and used terms like 'cut and dried' and 'red-letter rule.'  They were disingenuous and condescending.  And in the process, they're hurting their own product.

In the various interviews, there was at least one lie, numerous intentionally misleading statements, arrogant indifference to the concerns of others, and inconsistencies in the NBA's position throughout.

During an interview on PTI, Stern said this:  

"Amare went running out there.  In fact, a referee had to stop tending to the combatants to push him away and finally his own coaches eventually figured it out and went and grabbed him and pushed him back."  

Wow.  That's really serious.  No wonder Amare was suspended.  Too bad it's not even close to true.  Amare wasn't running (a point Stern himself wouldn't even dispute in the Patrick interview when he sarcastically suggested that now he would have to "check their pace and decide whether their pace was high enough to cause me to think that their intent, what was going on in their mind, was such, et cetera, et cetera.")  Nor did any referee have to deal with him in any way and certainly no referee pushed him away.  A flat out lie.  Now, you may say, big deal, one lie.  But we're talking about an eight minute interview on national TV.  He needs to defend his position and justify the suspensions for all of eight minutes, and he has to embellish Stoudemire's actions to the point where a referee is physically pushing him away?  Seems like maybe he doesn't trust his own justification.

The ongoing references to Rudy T were interesting to me also.  I understand that no one wants anyone's face caved in.  But consider this Stern quote from the Patrick interview:  

The entire intent as a rule, for the 10 years or so it's been in effect, was to make it clear that there's no way to know whether someone running out on the court is coming as friend or foe, and so when Rudy Tomjanovich came running out to see what was going on, to break up a fight, his face was forever changed.
Kermit Washington punched Rudy T almost 30 years ago, on December 7, 1977.  The 'leave the bench rule' was established 20 years later.  Rudy T was in the game at the time, not on the bench.  Stern intentionally conflates the Rudy T situation with the bench rule, even though they are in no way related.  

Another Rudy T reference:

And in the meantime the one way to be sure I guess is if someone seeing them turns around and breaks their face.
Interestingly, the commissioner might actually be onto something here.  Not that we should wait for the punch to be thrown, but it is rather obvious that there is a problem with the vagaries of the word 'vicinity' (although neither Stern nor Jackson see any issue there, no doubt).  If a player leaves the bench and gets close enough to the altercation to be punched, I can see a problem.  If they don't (as neither Stoudemire nor Diaw did), then what's the issue?

When Wilbon and Kornheiser asked Stern to discuss the spirit of the law versus the letter of the law on PTI, Stern had the audacity to suggest that the spirit and the letter of the law were one and the same in this case.  

The spirit and the letter of the law say "Thou shalt not leave the bench area during an altercation."
To suggest this is insulting and intellectually dishonest.  The reason we have a term 'Spirit of the Law' is because it is not, and never can be, codified into the 'Letter of the Law.'  But in this case in particular, it's painfully obvious that the spirit of the law is that situations not escalate, and Stern clearly recognizes that as well with his continual references to punches and broken faces.  It's simply silly to suggest that the spirit of this particular law is that players are not allowed to leave the bench area in an altercation, period, as if the very act of standing and walking away from the bench were inherently wrong and deserving of punishment.  What kind of controlling megalomaniac would create such a law or defend it?  It would be like telling the players how to dress or making them tuck in their jerseys (ok, bad examples).  Riddle me this, Mr. Commissioner:  If the Spirit and the Letter are the same, why do sentient, reasonable people like Wilbon and Kornheiser (and oh, I dunno, pretty much everyone else) believe that they are different?  Are they all wrong?  Are they all idiots?

But the thorniest issue to me was always the fact that Duncan and Bowen left the bench in the second quarter.  To me, it seemed the perfect 'out' for the NBA.  They could have said,  "Yes Stoudemire and Diaw left the bench, but so did Duncan and Bowen, and in neither case did they become involved with players on the floor, and we have decided that none of the bench players should be suspended.  We will revisit the wording of this rule in the off-season in an attempt to clarify it's applicability to these situations."  Done.  Everybody's happy.

But instead, Jackson oversimplified the situation, while Stern once again was simply belligerent and argumentative.  Jackson said that the two incidents were 'Apples and oranges.'  In the second quarter, there was no 'altercation' and therefore the rule does not apply.  So why was Tim Duncan on the floor?  He was simply concerned about the welfare of a teammate.  Apples and oranges?  Seems more like Gala apples and Fuji apples to me.  (My brother says the Fujis taste better, but I can't really tell the difference.)  

When Patrick asked about the earlier incident, Stern had this to say:  

Now you sound like Charles and Steve Kerr. If all that's going to happen is get the same old stuff repeated, that was looked at. There was no one rushing to an altercation in that case. And, of course, we have had players in the past step onto the court but not go 20 feet."

So, let me get this straight.  Because other people like Charles Barkley and Steve Kerr have already made this point, we don't need to discuss it anymore?  Why is that?  Are Charles Barkley and Steve Kerr idiots?  Excuse me Mr. Commissioner, but it seems possible that a valid question might bear repeating.  To suggest that we're somehow wasting your time by asking you a question that someone else raised (but you've never actually answered) is a tad on the imperial side, dontcha think?  More amazingly, where he continually states that it's a 'red letter rule' in defending the suspensions, while ridiculing the idea that he somehow should determine intent and/or degree, now he's suddenly got his tape measure out and saying, well, he didn't go '20 feet' and he wasn't 'rushing' and it wasn't an 'altercation'.  What happened to that whole nasty problem of having to "decide whether their pace was high enough"?  

Another quote from the Patrick interview:

In the best interest of the game, our players have to learn that they can't leave the bench and move 20 feet down the line, wherever it is, and be subject to all of the possible things that can happen. That's why it's a red-letter rule.
'Wherever it is.'  Make up your mind, David.  Is it 20 feet?  Or is it 'wherever?'  Some people seem to think that it's going onto the court, which by the way Duncan went further onto the court than Stoudemire did.  There are actual, physical lines you could use.  Going onto the court or out of the coaches box seem like reasonable boundaries, if you really want this to be a 'bright line' type of rule.  By that standard, Duncan was actually the furthest 'over the line.'  So pray tell, Mr. Commissioner, what is the rule?

As for the definition of 'altercation', exactly when did the incident in the fourth quarter become an 'altercation'?  Was it when Nash went flying into the scorer's table?  If so, it's hard to argue that Elson hitting the floor isn't also an altercation.  If the latter became an altercation when Horry and Raja Bell got in each others' faces, then you could actually make a pretty strong argument that Stoudemire and Diaw abided precisely by the letter of the law.  They initially moved toward a teammate on the floor out of concern for that teammate (which is exactly what Duncan supposedly did), and then returned to the bench when an altercation ensued.  It's not really a stretch.  In fact, it is exactly what happened.

Stern is arrogant and heavy-handed - that much is obvious.  Back in April during the Spurs-Nuggets series, he did a sideline interview with Jim Gray.  When Gray told Stern that Clay Bennett had mentioned Las Vegas as the most likely destination for the Sonics if they left Washington state, Stern said, "No, he didn't say that."  When Gray said, yes, he did, and in fact the Sonics organization had re-confirmed the statement to the press, Stern said something along the lines of "By tomorrow, he will not have said that."  Wow.  That's positively Orwellian.  Apparently David Stern has the power to alter reality.

But in fact, he only thinks he does.  The NBA will no doubt survive Stern's heavy-handedness.  But it's not going unnoticed.  Henry Abbott has been blogging about the NBA for a long time, but this incident has people really upset about Stern in particular:

I have received tens of thousands of angry e-mails over the last two years, but today is the first day I can recall that any of them were wondering what the procedure is to replace David Stern -- and there were several.

Will this whole thing blow over?  I don't think so.  Not unless the Suns come back and win the series.  Last night's result was the worst possible outcome for the league.  A highly motivated but undermanned Suns team runs out of gas in the fourth quarter and loses the game in the final minute after leading throughout.  No one can possibly maintain that the suspensions did not affect the outcome.  If the Suns are eliminated by the Spurs, it will have to be the biggest asterisk in a major sport championship of all time.  The Suns have the best record in the NBA of the remaining teams.  They have outplayed the Spurs in this series, and as Kornheiser pointed out, have now lost two games at home, one when their first team all NBA point guard was cut and unable to play in the closing minutes, and another when their first team all NBA center was suspended.  People still talk about Don Denkinger's blown call in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series.  That was one out.  We're talking about two key players suspended for Game 5.  (Oh, and you know that 85% of the teams that win game 5 in a 2-2 series win the series, right?)  

If the Suns don't win this series, 2007 will forever be remembered as the year that David Stern took the championship away from Phoenix.  And was a jerk in the process.