In the NBA, the focus is on the game


November 20, 2005|By DAVID STEELE

Less than a month ago, the NBA's dress code seemed extreme, a petty browbeating of players just when they should have been promoted for the coming season.

Now that the past few days have brought the signature player-fan confrontation in American sports history back into view, it's time to say, "Ohhhhh, yeah. That's what this was about."

On its own, the brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills a year ago yesterday does not justify the dress code, or the age limit written into the labor deal signed last summer, or even the persistent negative image of the league.

The racial, cultural and generational fault lines that crystallized that night haven't closed, and might never. (A new book by New York Times columnist Harvey Araton, Crashing the Borders, deals thoughtfully with the fight's implications and the forces that led to it.) Besides, if ever there was an incident that deserved to be called "isolated," that was it.

On the other hand, since then, the NBA's behavior has been pretty good. Since the dress code was put in place, it has been pristine. On court, the game has picked up where it left off last season. Off court, the NBA did itself proud in its response and leadership in hurricane aid, among other community and charitable works.

Last Nov. 19 was the pits. It appears now that it's exactly where the NBA needed to land before it finally could get itself together.

One of the many emotions shared by the thunderstruck viewers who drank in the endless replays of the mayhem at the Palace was that nothing would be the same afterward. Nothing has been.

That includes Ron Artest, the central figure, and the fans with whom he fought. It includes the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons organizations and the price they paid on and off the court, and it includes every NBA player who was tainted by association, whether they were pulling teammates out of the stands or watching ESPN in their locker rooms as the chaos unfolded.

They all seemed to get it: We can't ever be part of something like this again. We'd better figure out what went wrong.

Eleven months later, a dress code seemed as if it had little to do with what was wrong. A month after that, though, it seems right. Instead of revolting against the perceived attack on their culture, the players voiced their dissent, then knotted their ties and went out and played - played above and beyond, so far, much as they did during an exhilarating postseason last spring.

As opposed to the early stages of last season, offseason headlines have been practically nonexistent - whether for alleged crime (Kobe Bryant), contract (Latrell Sprewell needing to feed his family) or cluelessness (Artest needing time off to promote the CD he produced). Team play, exemplified by the Pistons-San Antonio Spurs final and the uptempo, share-the-rock Phoenix Suns, became the norm, rather than the bickering over shots, money and status.

Artest himself is now what he should have been all along: a tough, dedicated, talented player, not a Diddy-in-training or cartoon wrestling villain. He has apologized profusely and insisted that he "owes" his Pacers teammates a championship.

You wonder if commissioner David Stern had it planned this way all along. He had the right touch on the brawl. He disciplined and castigated the players involved, and he came down on franchises for not controlling their arenas and laid out security standards for all. He also called out fans who abuse their privileges and dehumanize players out of jealousy or small-mindedness, making them accountable for their role in the growing gap between them and players.

In hindsight, it appears Stern had the right touch on the dress code, too. By removing such superficial adornments as gold chains and do-rags as cheap targets of scorn, he has challenged the critics: "OK, they don't look like what you call gangstas or thugs anymore. What else have you got?"

The answer: nothing, except the game, which has been fine the past few years, anyway.

Meanwhile, the other pro sports are immolating themselves. Terrell Owens, cheerleaders-gone-wild, the Love Boat, the Bears' shooting-range punchout - the NFL has been a scandal-a-week. Baseball's steroid complicity is peeling away layer by layer, finally.

You wonder if Stern had a hand in any of it, in those sports' warts going on display while his get healed. With his track record, you shouldn't put it past him. I underestimated him on this one. As someone who thinks the NBA has taken an unfair public flogging, I'm glad to be wrong on it.

At this rate, by the next anniversary of the Palace brawl, there won't be anything left but those riveting replays. By then, the lesson might be that it was the best thing that could have happened to the NBA.

Points after -- David Steele

One lesser-known issue on the table at the Terrell Owens arbitration hearing: If Hugh Douglas was the Eagles' team "bad-ass-ador," and Owens beat him up, wouldn't that mean Owens took his crown? Shouldn't he have demanded to have his title reinstated? Could the arbitrator name an interim bad-ass-ador while they sort it all out?

Maybe Shannon Sharpe should leave the NFL Today crew and take that position with the Ravens. They seem to need one, and he seems to want to do it.

Eagles fans aren't that original, giving Owens' jersey that mock funeral in the stadium parking lot. The same ceremony was performed in September with Rafael Palmeiro's jersey, in Miguel Tejada's front yard.

Ravens fans selling tickets to Steelers fans is nothing. Wait until Christmas night against the Vikings, when they sell their tickets to 15,000 fans dressed as empty seats.

This much is certain after the Ravens' loss last week: The Jaguars' Matt Jones could never have played for Fisher DeBerry.

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