When Karl Malone made like Scarface Capone and ripped a hole in Isiah Thomas' head, it made people in the NBA and beyond take particular notice. At least, it seemed to. But Chuck Person, among others, was apparently otherwise occupied.
On Dec. 14, in Salt Lake City, Thomas, the 6-foot-1, 185-pound guard for Detroit, drove in for a shot and Malone, the 6-9, 256-pound forward for Utah, defended his basket by going for the ball, he later said. But he missed the ball -- the Mailman was obviously suffering an unaccountable lack of coordination at that moment -- and smashed Thomas in the forehead with his elbow, causing 40 stitches. Thomas was sidelined for a week and missed three games.
Last Monday night, about two weeks after the Malone incident, Person, the 6-8, 225-pound Indiana forward, cracked John Paxson, the 6-2, 185-pound Chicago guard, with a savage elbow in the face while ostensibly trying to prevent a jump shot. By simple good fortune, Paxson's face was not shattered.
Like the Malone attack, though, Person's onslaught made the viewer sick to his stomach. It was reminiscent of Detroit's vicious play in last season's playoffs against Chicago, and made one wonder if, as in hockey and football, basketball players ought to wear helmets and face cages.
Malone was called for a flagrant foul and thrown out of the game. He was also fined $10,000 and suspended without pay for Utah's following game, which cost him an estimated $31,000 more. The penalty would seem considerable, but it really wasn't for Malone.
The NBA did little more than shake its finger at him. And the penalty certainly did not do what the NBA hoped it would -- that is, send a tough message that would deter such brutality.
Malone's salary is $2.5 million a year and he makes a substantial amount in endorsements. Thus, $41,000, while not exactly chump change to him, does not make a huge dent in his wallet, either. Not nearly the dent his elbow made in Thomas' head, anyway.
Person also was called for a flagrant foul, thrown out of the game against the Bulls, and later fined $7,500. But he was not suspended for a future game.
The NBA, meanwhile, says it is concerned about violence on the court, and wants no part of it, beyond the expected battering that goes on under the basket, of course. Before the 1990-91 season, it incorporated what it calls "flagrant fouls" into its rules book. "Flagrant fouls" are "unnecessary and excessive" fouls that could lead to injury.
It is up to the discretion of the referees to call these fouls, and it is up to the wisdom of the commissioner of basketball, David Stern, to administer added penalties.
In neither the case of Malone nor that of Person did Stern take a strong enough stand. Without question, another Malone or Person incident will happen, and maybe soon, and the consequences for the victim could be even greater than they were for Thomas or Paxson.
During the course of last season, two players were ejected for flagrant fouls -- Rick Mahorn and Tom Tolbert. A third of the way through this season, two players, the cherubs mentioned above, have been ejected for the same reason. Statistics from the NBA office inform that one flagrant foul has been called every seven games this season, as opposed to one flagrant foul called every nine games last season.
"You can hardly call that an epidemic," said Rod Thorn, the vice president of operations for the NBA. "But we have instructed our officials, and the coaches and players, that we will not tolerate fighting or the kinds of intentional fouls that may lead to serious injury."
But either some players are so stupid that they can't or won't learn, or the deterrent is not so terrific. In one game recently, in fact, two flagrant fouls were called within one minute, and both were committed against one player. Patrick Ewing of the Knicks hit David Robinson of the Spurs, and on the following play, the Knicks' Anthony Mason jumped on Robinson's back.
Beyond instituting heftier fines, for what, anywhere else, would be a criminal act, the NBA should impose this rule: A player who commits a flagrant foul and causes another to miss games will be out for as many games as the injured player.
Why, for example, should Malone have been playing when Thomas was not? We find precedent in legal cases, as Stern, who is a lawyer, knows. In many instances, a judge metes out punishment not just for the nature of the act but also for any injury caused by the act.
If a player knows that the injury he intentionally causes might put someone out of action for a week or a month or a year -- and him along with that someone -- it seems likely this would be the chilling deterrent the NBA says it seeks.