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NBA still needs an image makeover

Wilbon: If NBA players have any sense of the sports and entertainment marketplace in America, they had better act like it.
APTOPIX Nuggets Knicks Brawl Basketball
The Denver Nuggets' Carmelo Anthony yells at the New York Knicks bench as he leaves the court after the big fight Saturday.Frank Franklin Ii / AP

In the context of NBA history, Saturday night's brawl between the Knicks and Nuggets simply wasn't that big a deal. For more than 50 years, NBA players have squared off and thrown punches at each other, sometimes moving dangerously close to the stands if not altogether into the paying customers. Seems to me there were three or four of these every year in the 1970s and 1980s, even the 1990s.

But that was pre-Ron Artest, pre-Malice at the Palace, as in Auburn Hills. It was made clear following that Friday night, Nov. 19, 2004, that the NBA would not stand for fighting of any kind, that the NBA didn't want to be perceived the way it was being perceived, so Commissioner David Stern laid down the law. The NBA would do everything in its power to stop violence on the court, or for that matter anywhere near the court. Everybody in the league, players and coaches, have been aware of this very serious image-cleanup campaign. So Stern had every right to come down hard on the brawlers and instigators from the other night at Madison Square Garden.

Fifteen games for Carmelo Anthony's sucker punch is not only appropriate in the context of today's NBA, it's mandatory. Ten games each Denver's J.R. Smith and the Knicks' troublemaking little fool, Nate Robinson, is appropriate, too. The others who got suspended got what they deserved. You can even make the case, and I would, that Knicks Coach Isiah Thomas instigated the whole thing and should have been suspended as well.

"You-were-beating-us-so-badly- we-decided-to-take-somebody- down" — which was essentially Thomas's rationale for Mardy Collins's thuggish foul that started the whole thing — shouldn't be tolerated.

Seems Thomas had a flashback to his old days as a Bad Boy Detroit Piston, when you could take out even superstar players like Bird and Jordan and Magic just to make a point. The NBA was like the wild-wild West not very long ago, to the point where coaches would say openly, within earshot of reporters sitting on press row during the game, "If he comes down the lane like that again . . ."

The irony of suspending players but not coaches is inescapable in this instance, because the poor sportsmanship started with the coaches that night at Madison Square Garden. Nobody will come right out and say it, but this childish dispute started with Nuggets Coach George Karl keeping his starters in the game 'til the end to pound the Knicks in front of their home fans. Karl is a University of North Carolina guy, as is Larry Brown, who was fired and embarrassed to a great degree by Isiah Thomas.

So Karl was getting some payback for his boy, Larry Brown, and since Thomas didn't like being dunked on repeatedly during garbage time, somebody on the Nuggets had to pay.

A stupid, dangerous foul by Collins, who is suspended for six games, triggered the brawl and yet another examination of what the NBA is and isn't, or should and shouldn't be.

NBA players have endured more scrutiny, pertaining to image, than any other professional athletes in America. This was the case in the 1970s, when the league had to deal openly with the perception that the league was too black and too drug infested. And after a very cozy period with patrons and Madison Avenue from, say, 1984 until about 2000, the league is back to dealing with the perception that too many of its players are thugs.

Whether that's racial code or not, the NBA is a business and Stern is its chief operating officer, and he's had to deal with the perception affecting the league's reality and bottom line. The recent adoption of an age limit, the dress code, and the crackdown on demonstrative complaining to the refs is all part of a larger effort to improve the league's image.

So was hiring a conservative operative to figure out how the league that had married itself to hip-hop could be better perceived by the people who buy the tickets and jerseys.

You can sugar-coat this any way you want but the bottom line is: A black league has to be palatable to white patrons. And black multimillionaires swinging at each other isn't part of the equation. If Stern doesn't send the message that the league has zero tolerance, it's incredibly bad business.

Still, you'll have to excuse me for expressing a bit of cynicism here.

Of the four major team sports in America, basketball has the least amount of fighting. The NHL sells fighting, promotes and glorifies it. Major League Baseball can't go two weeks without somebody rushing the mound to start a bench-clearing brawl, and suspensions are minimal. Pro football, in what seems almost an outgrowth of the mandatory contact, has its skirmishes and fights all the time. Basketball hasn't had a fight in two years.

So, fighting's okay in baseball but not basketball? Why? Fighting is cool for the NHL, but not the NBA? Why?

Because the NBA is the only one of those leagues that's perceived as being a "black league." The NFL is more than 60 percent black, but enough of its stars are white that you would never hear anybody, regardless of the percentages, refer to the NFL as a "black league." If black participation drops any more in major league baseball, it'll rival the overwhelmingly white NHL. I don't hear any great outcry for suspending pitchers or hitters for a meaningful number of games when there's a bean-ball war, even if the participants are men of color.

No, this fighting issue and the way it attaches itself to the players is the NBA's burden to bear. "Those thugs" are going to have to be more red-state friendly in order to sell seats, much less jerseys and shoes. NBA players are the most identifiable of professional athletes. They make the most money. They've got the most intimate relationship with the patrons.

They've got the longest shelf life. I'm not about to feel sorry for them because they're being held to what seems to me to be a different standard.

Eliminating the fighting is a very small price for these players to pay; still, let's see it for what it is. Stern has.

This latest episode at Madison Square Garden bears no resemblance to the Malice at the Palace because players didn't fight fans this time; they fought each other. But what the NBA has surely found in its research is that if the perception of the league and its players is going to improve, fighting cannot under any circumstances be a part of the product.

It's a shame that Carmelo Anthony, at the same time he took over the league lead in scoring and donated $1.5 million to keep a youth recreation facility open, has to now sit out 15 games. His public apology seemed sincere and his asking for forgiveness genuine. Perhaps it knocked the suspension down from 20 games or more. Either way, my bet is Anthony won't be involved in anything like this again. It cost him too much.

Actually, I found Anthony's cheap shot far less offensive than Terrell Owens's spitting in the face of the Atlanta Falcons' DeAngelo Hall on Saturday night. Yet, Owens wasn't suspended; he was only fined $35,000 and the outrage over his thuggish act quickly died out. The paying customers will tolerate almost anything from the preeminent NFL. But as the NBA has found out once again, professional basketball players operate on a much shorter leash, and if they have any sense of the sports and entertainment marketplace in America, they had better act like it.