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COMMENTARY : NBA Choking Down Stretch With Brawling

NEWSDAY

Rod Thorn, NBA vice president for operations, did his job Monday and suspended players. He suspended a star from one team and a starter from another, did this in the middle of the short first round of the playoffs. Thorn did this after the NBA turned into a circus last weekend and made ice hockey seem more civilized. This is no longer merely about image, a religion in the NBA. This is about the league’s integrity.

Dennis Rodman was a punk all Saturday afternoon in San Antonio. Saturday night, Grant Long of the Miami Heat put his hands around another player’s throat right before everybody tried to turn Atlanta’s Omni into a soccer riot. If you watched the NBA playoffs last weekend, you started to wonder if they had decided to replace Michael Jordan with Wrestlemania.

You also wondered why Patrick Ewing had to take a fall in Madison Square Garden for crimes committed in San Antonio and Atlanta.

As dirty a player as Rodman was Saturday afternoon, as dangerous as the Hawk-Heat brawl was Saturday night, it was equally dangerous for players to start thinking there is some sliding system of justice in the NBA now, a system in which Saturday’s events determine how the law will be enforced Sunday. When that happens, there is no real law.

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Ewing was ejected Sunday and because he didn’t do very much to deserve that, it seemed a jittery, knee-jerk response to everything else that had happened in the playoffs. Thorn was asked if Ewing was really doing time for Rodman and Long.

“I see a certain logic in that but it’s a bit of a reach,” Thorn said. “I didn’t say anything to the refs before Sunday’s game. But refs are human. They see the highlights. I think it’s human nature for them to react.”

This was after Thorn announced that Rodman and Long had been suspended for one game, Douglas Edwards of the Hawks for two games, Keith Askins of the Heat for three. There also were fines handed out all around. The suspensions of Rodman and Long are what matter here. Both will sit out Game 3 of the first round of the playoffs. Both the Spurs and Heat could lose because of all this.

Then all players can decide if being tough is worth blowing a season.

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“Any time things are out of order and you do something about them, it’s an important day for the league,” Thorn said.

This all started with Rodman, who gets more rebounds than anyone else in basketball and acts more and more like a punk. First Rodman committed a flagrant foul against Karl Malone in Saturday’s Spurs-Jazz game. Later, Tom Chambers was in the air, on his way to the basket, and Rodman cut the legs out from under him. It was a cheap, vicious play.

Somehow, because there were some other falling bodies on the play, the referees missed the call. There was no foul called on Rodman, flagrant or otherwise. In fact, Chambers got ejected for charging Rodman. At this point, Rodman, who had gone after two players, Malone and Chambers, had only one flagrant foul, one technical. And was still playing Game 2 of the Spur-Jazz series.

In the fourth quarter, Rodman put out a leg and tried to trip Jazz guard John Stockton. A minute later, there was one final scene, Rodman got his second technical, and finally was ejected. It was a beautiful advertisement for the sport. Maybe Nike could make it into a television commercial, celebrating all the colorful attitude and free expression in the league.

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Next was Hawks vs. Heat, Atlanta. Even before all the fights broke out, Danny Manning was called for two flagrant fouls. In the NBA these days, there are two kinds of flagrant fouls, misdemeanors and felonies. Manning was only called for a couple of misdemeanors. And kept playing.

But the next afternoon at Madison Square Garden, referee Mike Mathis kicked Patrick Ewing out of a playoff game for:

--A brief flare-up, mostly talk, with Benoit Benjamin.

--Getting hit by Derrick Coleman’s forearm.

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Manning got to keep playing with two flagrant fouls. In San Antonio, you started to wonder if Rodman had to fire an assault weapon to get kicked out of the game. Ewing was sent to the locker room with 5:21 left in the first half of the Knick-Net game. If his team loses the game because of his ejection, if the Knicks only get a split at home before going to New Jersey for two games, then what? Whom does Ewing talk to about getting those 29 minutes back?

“If the outcome had been different today, we would be having a much different conversation,” Knick president David Checketts said after the Knicks had won Sunday’s game.

Thorn, attorney general for pro basketball, is a good and fair man. He cannot officiate all the games. He cannot change the mistakes Mathis made with Ewing. He cannot eliminate taunting, or cheap shots, or punches thrown.

There sometimes seems to be an epidemic of all this, a virus, not just in basketball, but all sports. You saw it the next-to-last weekend of the regular season, when Alonzo Mourning threw a punch at Luc Longley, even when Mourning’s team needed to win every game it could to still have a chance to make the playoffs.

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Mourning got tossed from the Hornet-Bull game. He got suspended for the Hornet-Knick game a day later. Why? Because he had to make sure everyone knew how tough he is. Even if it cost his team a chance to make the playoffs. Now Rodman might cost his team a chance at the NBA title. I hope he does. He has stepped over the line, as Bill Laimbeer finally did, and now tries to hurt opponents for sport.

Rodman was the face of the NBA last weekend. Rodman and a chokehold by Long. Commissioner David Stern must have been very proud.


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