One punch is all it takes to knock this league for a loop

I had this dream the other night. There was another fight that looked almost as bad as Auburn Hills, even if it wasn't.

Then NBA Commissioner David Stern went into his Judge Dredd act -- again -- handing out even more penalties, $2.6 million worth this time.

(I know Stern has to follow his own star but I'm worried that they're going to put his picture in the dictionary next to "Draconian.")

Then the players said Stern was picking on them -- again.

Meanwhile, the Knicks blamed the Nuggets, the Nuggets blamed the Knicks and the fallout sprinkled over the league for months.

Then Stern ordered another round of "NBA Cares" spots, showing his players up on roofs with Habitat for Humanity, which apparently is what they do when they're not fighting, playing basketball or getting in trouble outside nightclubs.

Oh, it wasn't a dream?

It's a nightmare for the NBA. Worse than that, it's ongoing.

With the best of intentions, the sharpest mind and the most power of all the sports commissioners, Stern is nonetheless stuck in a loop with the Granddaddy of Unintended Consequences.

Huge fines may prevent 99 fights but when one breaks out, it's because someone really loses it. It becomes a huge story, based on the last round of huge fines and the certainty that more huge fines are forthcoming.

The word "millions" in a headline carries as much impact as 30 seconds of videotape of 10 guys fighting (and one good punch -- the one that stood out so clearly on camera and got Carmelo Anthony 15 games off).

If Anthony feels like counting his blessings, he's lucky he learned his lesson (?) this season while making $4.7 million, rather than next when he goes to $13 million. Next season the same penalty would have cost him $2.4 million, instead of $859,000.

Let's face it: "Stern hits Knicks and Nuggets for $2.6 million" is not going on Page 8. If we have to, we'll put the "Monday Night Football" game back there.

Asked about the perception of his league Monday, Stern refrained from using the R-word -- "race" -- but he acknowledged that the NBA is held to a stricter standard for other reasons.

"Our players are visible," Stern said. "They're better known. They play a game where the best seat in sports is a courtside seat watching players without helmets, long sleeves, long pants, no glass....

"Our players are literally as a group the most well-known athletes in the world.... I think we're judged by a stronger standard because of our game and our willingness to engage.

"We could have players coming off the bench [during fights], the same way players come out of the dugout. We could have players stop and fight, the way they do in other sports that I won't name but that are played on skates."

Everything Stern said is true, as is something he didn't say -- that he has a predominantly African American league with a hip-hop ethos, which skews perceptions.

Stern did call NBA Players Assn. director Billy Hunter over the weekend. Nevertheless, Hunter will have no choice but to fight the suspensions if his players want him to.

You might think the players want what Stern does, peaceful venues and happy sponsors so the goose could keep laying the golden eggs.

On the other hand, they never knew a day when "NBA player" and "millionaire" weren't the same thing or that golden eggs aren't an entitlement.

"Listen, the NHL lets them fight," the Pacers' Jermaine O'Neal said in Indianapolis. "Fights happen in baseball. Fights happen in football. Why are we under scrutiny about our game?"

The irony is that fighting has been dramatically cut but the NBA has never looked so lawless. Horrified as everyone was in 1977 when Kermit Washington caved in Rudy Tomjanovich's face, it wasn't as big as this.

Not that I have an answer, other than to point out this is just the way things are. Every game has its peculiar problems. The NBA is a little on the volatile side.

Golf has no image problem and golfers don't get in many fights. Then again, last June's U.S. Open, which was held during the NBA Finals, got a TV rating less than half as big.

Notoriety sells, too, and the NBA has Dwyane Wade to do the wholesome spots.

The sun will come up tomorrow in the NBA too. Bet your bottom dollar.

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