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, Artest’s reputation as a hothead had been solidified. Although 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 punks and thugs. David Stern wishes for the NBA to be a global and family friendly enterprise. He will not tolerate any behavior that threatens to alienate a sizeable portion of the league’s fan base. The prospect of being pummeled by one of the athletes you have paid good money to see, even if you practically begged for it to happen, certainly falls under this category. Security guards are employed to handle fans who are compelled to act the fool, 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 take the handling of extracurricular activity in the stands into his own hands.
Just in case there was any ambiguity about the commissioner’s stance on this issue, it was erased the day after Antonio Davis of the New York Knicks broke the cardinal rule. 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 is as much if not more about being a mentor to players on a very young 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. Unlike Ron Artest, Davis probably believes that a player in the high profile NBA has a duty to be a role model to those who routinely look up to athletes for guidance. 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 at all 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. Upon arrival by his wife’s side, he 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 or regretful about them. He did what a man is supposed to do.
So with the memory of the Artest incident still fresh in people’s minds, it was with much curiosity that David Stern’s reaction was awaited. It came swiftly and was in character with the commissioner’s track record. Antonio Davis was suspended without pay for five games, which is considerably less time than Ron Artest’s suspension (a player entering the stands normally results in a suspension of double-digit games), yet considered by some people to be five games too many. David Stern seems to feel that making exceptions to his rules serves only to weaken them. Antonio Davis had the choice of breaking or adhering to one of them, and he chose to think of his family ahead of the league. This could be seen as no less than laudable behavior, 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, but considering the luxurious perks and massive compensation that professional basketball players receive, all things considered it is not an especially hard knock existence. Antonio Davis’ reputation remains not only untarnished, but is actually enhanced by the expensive decision to defend his wife’s honor. David Stern’s reputation as a stern taskmaster who says what he means and means what he says is likewise unblemished. And the fan who allegedly started this whole mess (but who claims that he did nothing wrong, was completely sober, and that Mrs. Davis was the instigator) says he plans to have papers filed by his lawyer for a battery suit against Kendra Davis and a slander case against Antonio Davis, with intent to sue the Davis’ for more than $1 million. The Knicks are a rebuilding team just Ã?Â½ game out of last place in their conference, so Antonio being suspended for a handful games probably does not affect their circumstances very much. And I’m guessing that the Davis’ are not living paycheck to paycheck. So it’s pretty tough to find a loser in this case, including the talking heads on television, radio, and in print who get something interesting to pontificate about for a day or two until the next sports happening.