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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

Stern's Quick Decision May Lead to Second-Guessing

January 22, 2006|Jim Litke | Associated Press

After the "Malice at the Palace," NBA chief David Stern called the boundary line separating fans from the players on the court "immutable" -- something that can't be changed. Fortunately for Antonio Davis, the commissioner's sense of justice isn't quite that rigid.

Stern's approach to discipline has always been no-nonsense and sometimes downright imperial. He makes decisions swiftly and often unilaterally; hence the "King David" nickname occasionally applied behind his back.

He told the players what they can wear and fined Mavs owner Mark Cuban hard enough to make his wallet shudder. Until an arbitrator cut five months off the sentence, he was prepared to put Latrell Sprewell into storage for a year for leaving his fingerprints on his coach's windpipe. He successfully put Ron Artest on ice for all but 10 games after the Palace episode.

But this is one instance where Stern recognized he was better off channeling King Solomon.

A five-game suspension will cost Davis upward of $630,000 in missed pay. It will cost an already anemic Knicks team one of its more able bodies. But it's also a measured response that takes into account a very specific set of facts and still protects the principle Stern had to protect.

A large ballplayer wading into the stands to sort out trouble is going to end badly 99 times out of 100. Even when the ballplayer in question is calm enough to use the aisle. So give Davis credit for that, for keeping his head and his arms at his side. Intentions should matter.

The "he-said, she-said" dispute, meanwhile, between Davis' wife, Kendra, and a Bulls fan that precipitated her husband's visit to the seats won't be settled anytime soon. The fan she got into it with didn't appear to be drunk and Kendra apparently has mixed it up verbally with tougher competition before. When Davis played for Toronto, she got into a brief shouting match with Sprewell after Sprewell made a basket during Game 3 of a playoff series between the Knicks and Raptors a few years ago. And just like Sprewell, Bulls fan Michael Axelrod was unaware the woman he was dealing with was Davis' wife.

But none of that was material in devising a fair punishment. When Davis saw a commotion in the crowd where his family was sitting, he didn't care who was right so much as what might happen next. Just about anyone would have reacted the same way.

But that's what the five-game suspension was meant to drive home. Davis' foray into the stands turned out to be the exception to the rule, which probably owed to his character and generally good intentions. He's one of the league's best-liked, most-respected players, president of the union and enough of a standup guy to turn up at NBA headquarters Thursday to plead his case before Stern and his lieutenants in person.

Clearly, Davis got his point across. The statement released by Stu Jackson, the NBA's vice president of basketball operations, said the league believed he was rushing to his wife's aid, and took "those mitigating circumstances into account in setting the length of the suspension."

In other words, 14 months after a few ballplayers put a lot of people in danger by fighting their way into the stands, the line is still -- to use Stern's carefully chosen word -- "immutable." No exceptions.

That Stern made this decision quickly might lead to some second-guessing. That he made it from the remove of a conference room in New York, with all the video evidence available, should ease most of those concerns.

From the film clips that were shown by midday Thursday, it appears security at the arena wasn't only adequate, but close to resolving the problem until Davis waded in and racheted the intensity up a few notches. If they validated anything, it was Stern's rock-solid belief that a player entering the stands under any circumstances will only make matters worse.

Louts in the seats and matchheads on the playing surface have been a volatile mix even before some genius thought up the idea of charging for tickets. The hefty prices and even heftier salaries have only made the antagonists feel more justified in heaping abuse on each other. Keeping them apart is more important than ever.

If Stern wants this ruling to have even more of a lasting effect, let him follow it up. Cracking down on fights that take place on the court -- handing out the same five-game suspension Davis got instead of the standard one game for throwing a punch -- is a good place to start.

Next, he can ask his owners to start thinking more carefully about the tickets handed out -- or bought -- by players. Stories abound about family members of visiting players being spat upon, harangued and intimidated. A skybox or something like the family sections set aside in baseball parks should be offered as an option.

It's rough out there. And likely to get rougher. The last thing Stern can afford to do is give up any more ground.

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