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‘Edgy’ Teeters Close to Brink

If you thought the near-riot at the Palace of Auburn Hills was bad, hopefully you missed the week that followed.

There was only one appropriate response to the mayhem at the end of the Detroit Piston-Indiana Pacer game Nov. 19, for everyone to join hands and say two words: “We’re sorry.”

As Mark Jackson, the former point guard, St. John’s alumnus, friend of Ron Artest and lone voice of reason to gain access to the airwaves, said in an ESPN appearance, they had to “man up.”

Instead, everyone blamed everyone else and pursued their own agendas, as usual.

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As far as that went, this was the Perfect Brawl, caught in detail by TV cameras, suitable for replaying 100 times a day in its slow-motion, spot-shadowed glory, with circumstances ambiguous enough to let everyone draw their own pet conclusions.

And everyone was right!

As the lawyer for John Green, the guy in the white cap who was caught on tape throwing that cup at Artest, told the Detroit Free Press: “If he did it, the most he did was throw a cup of ice. Now he’s being made out to be a monster.”

Green isn’t a monster or even a moron, although he did something moronic. It really is unfortunate his rap sheet (assault, bad checks, jail break, DUI) became part of the story, and that he can barely get in his driveway because of the TV trucks.

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Nor does it make Artest a moron for replying to a real provocation by doing something moronic. Of course, getting suspended nine times in 25 months does suggest he has issues.

Unfortunately, not realizing the possible consequences of your moronic behavior doesn’t mean you’re not accountable for it.

Commissioner David Stern’s sentence was harsh, but he wasn’t supposed to make everyone happy, or anyone. Unfortunately, he all but wiped out the season for the Pacers, one of the good-guy franchises. Happily, they’ve rallied and may keep their heads far enough above water until Jermaine O’Neal and Stephen Jackson return from their suspensions.

If Stern’s players were uncertain on this point, he had to make them understand they can’t be slugging the customers on TV. Otherwise, no one can make millions from this game and they’ll all have to get jobs.

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Stern’s decree became controversial, as everything does in the age of the Internet and the all-news and all-sports cable channels.

“We had a skirmish at the Fairgrounds Coliseum, with the Virginia Squires,” says Pacer color commentator and former coach Slick Leonard of the early ABA days. “It went up into the stands and everything like that. And they just took ‘em all to jail....

“There’s always been things break out, skirmishes. Now they got it on TV.”

Controversy gave the story “legs.” That meant everyone could keep showing the incident on TV another 100 times a day!

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Artest was all over the airwaves, including a primo gig on “Today” where he forgot to say he was sorry but plugged his album on his personal label, TruLyclueless Records, or whatever it’s called.

Meanwhile, Green and his trusty lawyer did “Good Morning America,” in the best tradition of accepting any opportunity to go on TV, no matter how embarrassing it is.

In TV, landing a celebrity is a coup, known as a “get,” and “Entertainment Tonight” announced: “Both shows scored, but the ‘Today’ show came out on top!” “Today” co-host Matt Lauer, no doubt grateful, took off his newsman’s hat long enough to sympathize with Artest, noting he’s “in a tough spot.”

It’s all about programming, and the edgier it is, the more the coveted youth demography is presumed to like it. It’s a rare ESPN discussion that doesn’t have a panelist shouting, getting his mike turned off, or being voted off the show.

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You can’t get away from “edgy.” Take Jonathan Brandmeier of the local classic rock station, KCBS-FM, who once affected a falsetto voice to make fun of Kobe Bryant’s accuser and last week did an Upper Midwest/Scandinavian accent, joking about the Wisconsin incident in which five hunters were killed.

Teen rebellion is a constant, it’s just the style that changes. The way I figure it, today’s stuff is our parents’ payback for Elvis.

However, “edgy” means you can fall off the edge. The members of ESPN’s Shootaround Crew, who denounced the fans while forgiving the players, were obliged to come back and (gulp) renounce their views, one by one, like defendants in a show trial.

ESPN boss Mark Shapiro told USA Today’s Rudy Martzke he ordered it, although he insisted there was no protest from the NBA, his broadcast partner. Maybe Shapiro just read David Stern’s mind.

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Piston fans sued everyone between Auburn Hills and Indianapolis. Interestingly, the first five whose filings made the wire services were all represented by Geoffrey Fieger, whose clients included Dr. Jack Kevorkian and the family that sued TV talk-show host Jenny Jones.

This may not have been coincidence. As Detroit Free Press columnist Brian Dickerson once noted, Fieger “craves airtime like oxygen but needs it like Pamela Anderson Lee needs breast augmentation.”

Back in Gotham, where the story moved for the next six months of appeals, etc., the New York Times’ Bill Rhoden noted this could be the cause the NBA players were waiting for:

“His membership, despite earning a total of a billion dollars, according to [executive director Billy] Hunter’s calculation, has never been able to act with unity to challenge owners and make them feel the collective power of its muscle, unlike baseball players and the union that represents them.”

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The union is predominantly African American and the NBA hierarchy, which annually leads surveys of diversity, is still predominantly white, which puts a strain on things. Unfortunately, it often has to come down to crunch time, as in 1999, for everyone to remember how good they have it.

The industry is turning profitable and the players’ average salary is almost $4 million, making them the highest paid in sports. Aside from posturing, what are they upset about?

Then there was TNT’s free-wheeling Charles Barkley, who’s out of control but has a saving sense of humor. Rumbling where no one else dared to tread, he said race was the problem, causing a “disconnect” with white fans.

As someone who has gotten an earful of Piston fans’ rage, I’d suggest they’re still closely connected to their team. It’s the other team they really hate.

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Check out the All-Star lineups chosen by the fans: No white player has started since John Stockton in 1997.

Stars began getting million-dollar deals in the 1980s, which was the NBA’s Golden Age. They got tens of millions in the ‘90s, which was the Michael Jordan decade and the NBA’s zenith.

The problem began when the money began going to young players who hadn’t done anything to earn it, regarded it as an entitlement and couldn’t handle the fame that went with it.

Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had to prove themselves for years, on and off the court, to get endorsements. In the ‘90s, rookies began getting huge sneaker hookups and thinking of themselves as counter-culture sun gods.

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Once, the NBA’s intimacy was a huge advantage. Baseball players were far away and football players wore helmets, but you could see every facial gesture of an NBA star.

Q ratings, the advertisers’ measure of recognition, still tilt toward NBA players but that cuts two ways.

Magic, Michael and Larry grew into the role and handled it gracefully. Now that it’s Artest or, say, Carmelo Anthony, intimacy and fame bring as much embarrassment as admiration.

Anthony, now starring in a saturation TV campaign for Jordan’s Jumpman brand, was recently arrested on suspicion of possessing marijuana, before a friend claimed it and the case was dropped.

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Shortly before that, Anthony was in a fight at a private party for rapper Swizz Beatz in a Manhattan club called Babalu, after Anthony’s MTV-host girlfriend, La La Vasquez, was spit upon by her former fiance, Sugar Ray. It was back in the news last week when the Manhattan district attorney’s office arrested three men for trying to extort money from Anthony with a videotape.

You can’t make up stuff like this. They ought to make a Jumpman spot out of that.

Actually, there’s already a TV series about it. It’s called the NBA.

What were we talking about? Oh, the near-riot. It was bad, but that’s the way things go these days. Stuff happens, faster than you can write it down.

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