MINNEAPOLIS — Lay off the refs.
That was the message the NBA sent Wednesday when it suspended Laker point guard Nick Van Exel for the final seven regular-season games and fined him a league-record $25,000 for shoving an official.
"I think everybody understands that if this happens again the penalty will be even more severe," said Rod Thorn, the NBA's director of league operations.
Van Exel's suspension, which began with Wednesday night's game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, came less than a month after Chicago Bull forward Dennis Rodman was suspended six games and fined $20,000 for head-butting a referee.
Rodman's suspension had been the third longest in NBA history for an on-court incident until Wednesday.
"It was more than Rodman did," Thorn said of Van Exel's actions in Tuesday night's loss at Denver. "Therefore, the fine was $5,000 more and one more game. I think we got Mr. Van Exel's attention."
Jerry West, the Lakers' executive vice president of basketball operations, said he fully supported the suspension.
"I've dedicated 35 years--my entire adult life--to this game and this league, and I think it is imperative that the NBA address the incredible number of incidents that are undermining the professionalism of this league," he said. "Personally, I am embarrassed and apologize to our fans."
Thorn said he considered suspending Van Exel for the playoffs.
"I think they're sending the right message," said Timberwolves guard Terry Porter, an 11-year NBA veteran. "They don't want people to feel like they can put their hands on an official and get away with it."
Van Exel, in his third season, traveled with the Lakers to Minnesota, but he remained at the team's hotel during the game. He plans to discuss his suspension during a news conference at the Forum today.
Sedale Threatt started at point guard in Van Exel's place. Coach Del Harris said Magic Johnson would not play more than his normal 20-25 minutes to help make up for Van Exel's absence.
Harris said he had talked to Van Exel twice since the incident, including once Wednesday.
"I think he's totally embarrassed by now," Harris said. "At first there was an adrenaline rush, just like there is any time you go through an emotional situation."
The league's action will cost Van Exel about $187,000, including $161,000 in pay during the suspension. It also jeopardizes the Lakers' playoff chances only three weeks after the team was splintered by Cedric Ceballos' unexcused four-day absence.
"It's inexcusable," Johnson said Tuesday night of Van Exel's actions. "You just don't do that. Now you're going to have to sit . . . the rest of the season. Just when I thought we were smart, and then wham!"
The incident occurred with 3:23 left in the Lakers' 98-91 loss to Denver.
The exchange between Van Exel and referee Ron Garretson began after a foul was called on the Nuggets' Dale Ellis. Van Exel apparently made a sarcastic remark about the call, and Garretson, after a brief conversation with Van Exel, signaled a technical during a timeout.
Van Exel had turned away before the technical was assessed, and he then followed Garretson to the scorer's table to protest. Van Exel called Garretson a "little midget" during the subsequent argument, and Garretson gave the second technical, which results in ejection.
Van Exel then became enraged, using a forearm to shove Garretson onto the scorer's table.
"I turn away from him. He pushes me. . . . He pushed me onto the table from what I remember," Garretson told the Rocky Mountain News. "Instinctively, I started to do something that I think I quite possibly would regret, and caught myself, and his players took him."
Kermit Washington was suspended for 26 games in 1977 for punching Rudy Tomjanovich, and Vernon Maxwell received a 10-game suspension last season for going into the stands and hitting a fan.
Three weeks ago, Van Exel had been among the Lakers most critical of Ceballos for leaving the team.
"He abandoned us, you know," Van Exel said at the time. "At a time like this, at a time we have to stick together. It's going to be hard."
The rest of the Lakers were reluctant to discuss Van Exel's suspension.
"Don't talk to him if he asks about Nick," Vlade Divac said when a reporter asked Eddie Jones about Van Exel.
"I feel as though being young you make mistakes," Jones said. "He's young, and I think that's what he did. You just have to learn from them."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Bad, Bad Boys
NBA'S LONGEST SUSPENSIONS
G Player, Team Reason Yr 26 Kermit Washington, Lakers Punching Rudy Tomjanovich 1977 10 Vernon Maxwell, Rockets Going into stands, hitting fan 1995 7 Nick Van Exel, Lakers Shoving referee Ron Garretson 1996 6 Dennis Rodman, Bulls Head-butting referee Ted Bernhardt 1996 5 Greg Anthony, Knicks Fighting 1993
NBA'S BIGGEST FINES
Fine Player, Team Reason Yr $25,000* Nick Van Exel, Lakers Shoving referee 1996 $20,000 Dennis Rodman, Bulls Head-butting referee 1996 $20,000 Vernon Maxwell, Rockets Hitting fan 1995 $20,000 Charles Barkley, 76ers Fighting 1993 $20,000 Greg Anthony, Knicks Fighting 1993 $20,000 Bill Laimbeer, Pistons Fighting 1990
* Will also lose $161,000 in pay during suspension