Stern made the tough call
Stu Jackson, who carries the title of senior vice president of basketball operations, normally handles NBA fines and suspensions. Not this time.
This time David Stern was the judge and jury. When the NBA is on the front pages of newspapers and A sections of newscasts for a reason that has nothing to do with basketball, the commissioner must do it himself. Nothing less than the entire reputation of his league was at stake.
Stern now has spoken, and he has spoken with authority. For escalating a bad incident into a textbook riot by entering the stands in pursuit of a fan, Indiana Pacers forward Ron Artest has been suspended for the remainder of the season. Indiana guard Stephen Jackson has been suspended for 30 games. Indiana forward/center Jermaine O'Neal has been suspended for 25 games. Indiana guard Anthony Johnson has been suspended for five games. And Detroit Pistons forward/center Ben Wallace has been suspended for six games. A number of players on both sides have been suspended for one game after violating the league's prohibition on leaving the bench when a fight commences.
The single ugliest incident of its type in the league's 58-year history has been ajudicated. Stern has risen to the occasion.
"I hope that this is a one-of-a-kind incident," said Celtics managing partner Steve Pagliuca. "We need to make sure it is."
Stern's legacy was at stake. The sports world was watching, because what happened Friday night in Auburn Hills, Mich., was one of those "There-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I" occurrences. Players and fans alike each are acting more and more inappropriately these days. Stern had to send a classic message, and he knew it.
"The actions of the players involved wildly exceeded the professionalism and self-control that should fairly be expected from NBA players," Stern declared.
But he did not stop there, because the players did not act in a vacuum.
"There are other issues that the NBA must urgently focus on at this time," Stern continued. "We must redefine the bounds of acceptable conduct for fans attending our games and resolve to permanently exclude those who overstep those bounds. Participants in and around the court must be assured complete protection from unacceptable fan behavior."
"The fans need a code of ethics," maintains former Celtic Cedric Maxwell, who has been playing in and observing this league for 27 years. "I happen to be one of those idiots who went into the stands because of what a guy said to me. Fans think that because they pay to come to a game they can say anything. You hear people screaming obscenities with kids around. That has to stop. Things have gotten ridiculous. And you can quote me on that."
Stern doesn't really have control of the fans. But he does have control of the players.
"Everything is measured in money," notes a wise man named Arnold "Red" Auerbach. "Forget fines. Players don't care about fines anymore. But suspensions mean you're talking salary, and that is a lot of money. This is an abject lesson."
Who knows more about the NBA than Auerbach? Better yet, who cares more about the NBA than Auerbach, who was present at its birth and who is the last original from the 1946-47 season still associated with a team?
Auerbach believed from the start that Stern would have to be a very stern judge. "It was a disgrace," Red says. "There is no reason to go into the stands. I don't care what they throw at you, or what they say. You've got to live with it. Security has to take care of it. I know it's hard, but you cannot go into the stands."
Auerbach has been there and back. You think it wasn't crazy in Rochester or Fort Wayne or in Syracuse, where a guy actually ran into his huddle one night? "Gene Conley and Loscy [Jim Loscutoff] whacked him," Red explains.
Let's be honest. Auerbach was the original polarizer. He also was inherently combative. But living in Washington had its benefits. One night Red found himself at a banquet where he was able to ask a question of three pretty sharp lawyers. OK, they weren't just any lawyers. They were sitting Supreme Court Justices Byron "Whizzer" White, William Brennan, and Tom Clark.
"I said to each of them, `What can you do if people are threatening you, insulting your family, and being real loud and vulgar right in front of you?' " Auerbach recalls. "All three said, `Red, you can't touch them. Verbal abuse is no cause for physical retribution.' I said, `You guys must have all read the same book.' "
Stern is also a lawyer and he must have read the same book. So if Artest offered as explanation for leaping off that scorer's table and heading after a vulnerable fan the premise that the perp had hit him with a cup of ice, that wasn't going to wash. He had no justification for going into the stands.
In the end, this really was about Artest. You think Wallace would have overreacted to a borderline hard foul had the offender been anyone other than Artest? Who else but Artest would think it's a good idea to lie atop the scorer's table as a taunting gesture to the fans? And how many other people would have gone into the stands in such a frenzy for being hit with a cup of ice? You easily can argue that, absent Artest, Wallace walks to the foul line and life would have gone on very nicely.
What transpired brought out the worst in a lot of people, and they now will pay the price for endangering the public's safety and bringing disgrace to the league that enriches them.
"I've got a hunch our games are going to be played with a lot of decorum from now on," Auerbach says.
"The league is making some examples," agrees Boston's Paul Pierce. "Hopefully each of us are watching, and when we come across a situation, we'll know what to do."
David Stern was overseeing a league already on the defensive because of the Kobe Bryant mess. He could not allow the American public to think that he was soft on anarchy. And he didn't.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.