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Big Beef with the NBA: Failing to Drop the Hammer

Updated: Apr 27, 2022

Bad Men, Bad Takes – Season 1

I’ve got a beef with the NBA.

In 2004, in the wake of the now infamous ‘Malice at The Palace’, David Stern took to the stand and announced the suspensions for those involved in what was the NBA’s darkest hour.

The headline was Indiana’s Ron Artest, who was suspended for the remainder of the season. This was followed by teammates Stephen Jackson (30 games), Jermaine O’Neal (25 games, later reduced to 15 on appeal), and Anthony Johnson (5 games). For Detroit, Ben Wallace received a 6 game suspension.

While the suspensions for those who fought with fans, broke into the crowd and threw punches during the brawl are well documented, there were also a handful of players who received one game suspensions for ‘leaving the bench during an on-court altercation’. These included Indiana’s Reggie Miller, as well as Detroit’s Elden Campbell, Derrick Coleman and Chauncey Billups.

This rule is well-known by NBA fans and is intended to prevent players from joining, and possibly escalating, any on-court altercations. The one flaw with the rule, however is that it doesn’t take into account intent – that is whether the player is seeking to play a peacemaker role or indeed, join the fracas.

Regardless of this potential flaw in the rule, remember this as you read on – during the NBA’s darkest hour, under one of their toughest task-masters in David Stern, four players received one-game suspensions for simply leaving the bench during an altercation.

The brawl between the Pistons and Pacers, known as “The Malice in the Palace”, remains the NBA’s darkest hour. Credit: Distractify

Fast-forward to 2021, and in the last ten days, we have witnessed two of the most appalling incidents I’ve seen on a basketball court in the last 15 years. Isaiah Stewart trying to fight LeBron James following an altercation on a free-throw box-out, and reigning MVP Nikola Jokic striking Markieff Morris from behind in retaliation for a hard foul. Jokic received a one-game suspension as did LeBron James, while Isaiah Stewart was suspended for two-games.

Let’s think about that. In the modern game, which some lament as not being allowed to be as physical as the old days, two players have received one-game suspensions for non-basketball acts, while 17 years ago, four players received the same punishment for simply leaving the bench while there was an altercation happening on the court. This highlights one thing to me in no uncertain terms.

The NBA has become gutless.

David Stern announces the suspensions following the “Malice in the Palace” in 2004. Credit: China Daily

A league that once suspended four players for simply leaving the bench while there was an altercation now hands out the exact same punishment for essentially king-hitting an opponent on a dead-ball play. The exact same punishment for instigating an altercation that lead to a player refusing to leave the arena and receive medical treatment because they would rather try and fight an opponent, despite having blood pouring down their face.

How these suspensions can be equal in terms of games, given they exist on opposite ends of the scale in terms of the actual act committed, is baffling to me. While the NBA officially suspended Jokic for “forcefully shoving…Markieff Morris to the floor from behind”, what they have actually said, deliberately or not, is that if you king-hit somebody who is not expecting contact on a basketball court, you will only miss one game. That the League classes the act of striking somebody from behind and causing whiplash to be as bad as leaving the bench during an altercation you may or may not be directly involved in, regardless of whether you are trying to play peacemaker.

This fact is an indictment on the Association.

Markieff Morris is attended to by Heat medical staff following being shoved to the ground by Denver’s Nikola Jokic. Credit: Dave Zalubowski AP

In light of the case of the incident involving LeBron James and Isaiah Stewart, Jokic’s one-game suspension becomes even more confusing. James received a one-game suspension for an act that would’ve likely had him ejected regardless of Stewart’s response – swinging what appears to be either an elbow or a closed fist at the Pistons’ centre’s face.

This impact caused Stewart to fall to the floor, with LeBron immediately holding his hand out in apology. Stewart’s response escalated the situation after the initial impact, but the fact LeBron was given a one-game suspension, the same as Jokic, for an accident which he immediately tried to apologise for is, put simply, a dis-proportionate response. There are other incidents which have resulted in one-game suspensions in the last 15 months throughout the NBA which also make it abundantly clear that Jokic’s punishment was laughable.

Consider this incident in which Indiana’s JaKarr Sampson head-butts San Antonio’s Patty Mills from April this year, or this incident where Giannis Antetokounmpo head-butts Washington’s Moritz Wagner from August 2020. The NBA, unbelievably, considers all three incidents to warrant the same disciplinary action – just a one-game suspension. Let’s now take a look at Isaiah Stewart’s suspension for the aforementioned incident with LeBron James.

The NBA officially hit Stewart with a two-game suspension for “escalating an on-court altercation by repeatedly and aggressively pursuing Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James in an unsportsmanlike manner”. While I agree that Stewart’s behaviour warrants a harsher punishment than that of Jokic’s, a two-game suspension is still laughable. This is a young player who repeatedly put himself, his teammates, opposition players, coaches, staff and officials in danger over an accident that the offender was apologising for.

Pistons staff attempt to restrain Isaiah Stewart as he refuses medical help and pursues LeBron James. Credit: Lakers Daily.

Consider the potential for injury to the staff who were trying to hold Stewart, who is 6-8, 250lbs (203cm, 113kg), back from pursuing James. Consider the potential danger for officials who routinely stepped between Stewart, James and other players who were involved in altercations, such as Crew Chief Scott Foster. Consider the potential for Stewart to be knocked over during his rage, fall into the crowd, and for a fan to take exception and get involved.

There are a myriad of things that could’ve happened and nearly all of them are things Stewart made inherently more likely. Despite this, as well as the sheer optics of Stewart bleeding from his eye and refusing medical treatment, he suffers a penalty that is just one-game more than Jokic.

The NBA has lacked strong leadership and disciplinary action following the two major altercations that have occurred so far this season. In my opinion, Jokic’s hit on Morris deserved, at minimum, a three-game suspension, while Stewart’s rage-fuelled pursuit of James deserved at least a five-game suspension.

Adam Silver has done many things right in his time in charge of the NBA. In some of the most trying of circumstances such as the Donald Sterling saga and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, Silver has gotten key decisions right. This season, however, he is failing to adequately discipline the league’s players for acts that show a lack of sportsmanship and are putting other players, officials and staff in danger. I’ve never thought or uttered these words before, let alone wrote them down, but I have to now.

David Stern would have got this right.

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