NBA Has Big Fight Against Perception

By Tom Sorensen
Updated: December 19, 2006

CHARLOTTE — “I’m going to play basketball,” a friend said as he walked toward the court. “I feel like a fight.”

It was a good line for a Monday morning. But the damage the New York Knicks-Denver Nuggets brawl has done to the NBA’s credibility is not amusing to anybody who cares about the game.

The league has more detractors than the NFL, more than Major League Baseball and perhaps even more than Barry Bonds. Folks love to tell you not only why they don’t like professional basketball but why you shouldn’t.

They invoke clichés about thugs and punks and the two-year-old Detroit Pistons-Indiana Pacers-Detroit fans brawl. Eventually, they get around to cornrows and tattoos. They always get around to cornrows and tattoos.

I can’t fathom why an adult male would get worked up about the hairstyle of another adult male. But that’s just me.

Tattoos are so scary that I bought my older son one for his 21st birthday, and not just because I wanted to irritate my ex-wife. Are there really citizens of the U.S., on the cusp of 2007, who became unduly stimulated by the ink on another man’s body?

These have to be the same folks who thought fluoride and freeways were communist plots.

Unfortunately, the Knicks and Nuggets gave detractors more fodder and fans one more reason to stay away.

Denver coach George Karl, a former North Carolina point guard, was running up the score. With a huge lead and with little more than a minute to play, his stars still were on the floor.

Now, Karl and New York coach Isiah Thomas don’t particularly like each other. But if all the coaches who don’t like Thomas kept their starters in the game until the last minute, nobody’s substitutes would play against the Knicks.

You’ve seen the highlights or lowlights of the biggest fight in Madison Square Garden since Klitschko-Brock.

New York’s Mardy Collins, a hack out of Temple, put Denver’s J.R. Smith in a take-down headlock as Smith drove to the basket.

New York’s Nate Robinson, who is 5-foot-7, went at Smith, so now it was 1 1/2 against one.

Carmelo Anthony, who attended the same school former Charlotte Hornet Derrick Coleman did, threw a quick punch that knocked Collins to the canvas, and then started backpedaling toward Queens. The Robinson-Smith fight engulfed fans at ringside, triggering memories of the ugly brawl in Detroit.

The league reacted quickly and decisively Monday, suspending Anthony, the NBA’s leading scorer, for 15 games, and Robinson and Smith for 10. Four other players were suspended, and each team was fined $500,000.

Was it enough?

It can never be enough.

Although five minutes with Emeka Okafor, Sean May or Gerald Wallace of the Charlotte Bobcats — or with many other players from many other teams — will convince you thug culture is wildly exaggerated, the good guys can’t undo what New York and Denver did.

When reality and perception collide, perception often wins.

When perception wins, the NBA loses every time.