Paying the Cost to Disobey the Boss

Roy L. Pickering, Jr.

A look at the world according to David Stern, where his players must walk the tightrope between two very different sets of fans.

When David Stern wishes to make a point, he rarely employs subtlety. His opinions on matters that affect or are affected by the NBA are typically made loud and clear. Ron Artest of the Indiana Pacers learned this lesson the hard way last year when he was suspended for the remainder of the season after running into the stands and getting into an altercation with fans.

Well before that incident took place during a basketball game in Detroit, though, Artest's reputation as a hothead had been solidified. And though he was not the instigator of the events that unfolded, it was obscenely obvious that he exacerbated the situation well beyond what was deemed by the commissioner to be necessary or acceptable. It is one thing to pass on taking the high road, quite another to take the lowest road possible. Although the players' union complained that the punishment inflicted on Artest was too severe, their argument carried little conviction and was doomed to fall on deaf ears.

David Stern's pattern of decision making over the years strongly indicates that the image of the NBA is one of his gravest concerns. Whether he is setting rules that enforce an age limit for incoming players, governing the way players act on and off the court, or making stipulations on how they dress when not in uniform but still on the clock, a certain theme is consistent throughout. As commissioner, he does not want to rule over a league of players who run the risk of being perceived as punks and thugs.

Although he tolerates the myriad of tattoos showcased by the ambassadors of the sport, to as great an extent as possible Stern wants the NBA to be a global and "family friendly" enterprise. He will not tolerate behavior that threatens to alienate a cherished portion of the league's sensitive fan base. The vast majority of premier players today are members of America's hip hop generation, but plenty of the folks watching games on TV possess considerably less urban sensibilities.

The overall NBA fan base is in fact fascinating in its diversity, and that was true even before Europeans and Asians jumped on board. Those on one end of the spectrum are categorized in the polar opposite demographic of those who fall on the other side. Even though they may be seated in the same arena, rooting for the same cause with equal degrees of vigor, most fans who occupy the upper tier cheap seats at Madison Square Garden belong to a far different world than the one inhabited by courtside viewers. Fans with a bird's eye view of their beloved Knicks in action have paid about $50 for their tickets, while basketball aficionados close enough to be sweated on during time out huddles pay as much a couple of thousand dollars for the privilege.

The cheap seat occupants are much appreciated by David Stern because they are the main purchasers of NBA jerseys and other memorabilia, a significant cash cow for the league that has been further enhanced by the recent proliferation of throw back jerseys. On the other hand, big spenders rubbing elbows with the citizens of celebrity row are a different breed of consumers. These are the fans that David Stern found it necessary to be protective of thanks to Ron Artest. An athlete who "keeps it real" by pushing his chest out and letting his fists fly may earn increased admiration from those in the cheap seats, who must carefully consider where to spend their disposable income, but endearment is less likely from those fans with vastly superior seats (and checkbooks) for the player who remains true to his impoverished, rough and tumble upbringing. The fan in the fourth row who gets beer spilled on his suit during a melee that lost its appeal when it landed in his lap will more likely respond with disdain and a lawsuit.

The prospect of being pummeled by one of the athletes you have paid good money to see, even if you have practically begged for it to happen, is not a welcome one. Once their expensive tickets have been purchased, these people feel they have garnered the privilege to scream obscenities at whatever does not please them, and to act as foolish as the alcohol in their systems allows them to be. Security guards are employed to handle fans who get carried away with their enthusiasm, and in extreme situations, law enforcement will get involved. But in the world according to David Stern, there is no set of circumstances where it will be deemed acceptable for a player to police activities taking place off the court, especially not after the Ron Artest fiasco. To him, their job is strictly to dribble, rebound, pass, and shoot the ball.

Any ambiguity about the commissioner's stance on this issue was erased the day after Antonio Davis, then of the New York Knicks and having since been traded to the Toronto Raptors, broke the cardinal rule. To begin with, Antonio Davis is everything that Ron Artest is not. Davis is a seasoned veteran, well respected by fellow players, referees, and other league officials for his even temperament and distinguished demeanor. With his best playing days behind him at the age of 37, his role on the Knicks was as much, if not more, about being a mentor to younger players on the team than his contributions to the box score. He also happens to be the president of the NBA players' association, so plainly this is not a man who takes responsibility lightly. It therefore comes as little surprise that just as Ron Artest and Antonio Davis happen to be very different types of people, so too were the sets of circumstances that found each of them up in the stands.

Whereas Artest ran up to throw punches first and ask no questions after a fan disrespected him by dousing him with soda, Davis calmly walked up when he noticed what appeared to be a drunken fan harassing his wife. This fan turned out to be 22-year old Michael Axelrod, the son of a prominent Democratic political consultant. Upon arrival at his wife's side, Antonio Davis did nothing to escalate the relatively mild commotion. He simply said a few words, most of them to his wife, and then walked away immediately after the arrival of security. His reaction to the perceived threat to his family was instinctual, yet his behavior was impressively composed. Although he was ejected from the game shortly afterwards for his actions, there was no reason for him to feel ashamed. To his mind, he simply did what a husband is supposed to do.

Some may argue that what Antonio Davis should have done was shout out for assistance from stadium security guards and hope they quickly responded, rather than taking matters into his own hands. They will claim that the physical method chosen by the six foot nine inch, 245 pound basketball player to was inappropriate. As they see it, Antonio Davis' job is to thrill and entertain those who have paid to watch him, not to intimidate in a manner that should be reserved strictly for opposing basketball players. Indeed, it is difficult to dispute the validity of the point that his mere presence in the stands potentially could have elevated a minor, controllable situation into total chaos. Everybody wants a shot at fame, and taking a shot at Antonio may have sufficed for someone in the immediate vicinity who was not a designated driver that evening.

On the other hand, Mr. Davis would probably respond that when it comes to the protection of his family, he is bound by no official codes of conduct, nor league rules for that matter. If his actions warranted suspension for the rest of the season, he no doubt would have appealed such a decision. Yet he would have continued to judge his own behavior without regret or doubt that if the same situation were to arise again, he would act in precisely the same manner. He took a calculated risk that David Stern would not overreact to appease those who might feel that the league's discipline problems were getting out of hand.

With the memory of the Artest incident still fresh in people's minds, a harsh reaction by the commissioner was a distinct possibility. So it was with much curiosity that David Stern's decision was awaited. It came swiftly and was in character with the commissioner's track record. Antonio Davis was suspended without pay for five games, considerably less time than Ron Artest's suspension (a player entering the stands normally results in a suspension of double-digit games), yet even this was considered by some to be five games too many. David Stern, however, apparently feels that making exceptions to his rules serves only to weaken them. Antonio Davis had the choice of either ignoring or adhering to league policy, and he opted to think of his family ahead of the league. This could be seen as no less than laudable behavior on his part, but to Stern it is still inexcusable because his dictates do not allow for excuses. A reasonable, measured, even tempered act that goes against league policy is a reasonable, measured, even tempered act that will not go unpunished.

Such is life in the NBA, where Stern must make sure the league's players walk the tightrope between two very different sets of fans. Antonio Davis' reputation remains not only untarnished, but is actually enhanced in the eyes of some by the expensive but affordable decision to defend his wife's honor. The fan who allegedly started this whole mess (but who claims that he did nothing wrong, was completely sober at the time, and that Mrs. Davis was actually the instigator) quickly proclaimed his intent to have papers filed by his lawyer for a battery suit against Kendra Davis and a slander case against Antonio Davis, but, after much huffing and puffing from both sides, they ended up issuing a joint statement that the miscommunication had been settled and all would be moving on amicably without the involvement of lawyers. Most importantly for the commissioner, David Stern's reputation as a stern taskmaster, who says what he means and means what he says, remains unblemished.





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