- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 3, 2008

The Washington Wizards learned after yesterday’s morning shootaround that the NBA suspended Darius Songaila for what the forward and his teammates and coaches insist was an unintentional blow to Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James’ head in the Wizards’ Game 5 victory on Wednesday.

That meant the team had to go without the backup forward for last night’s Game 6 of the Eastern Conference first-round series.

The play happened with 3:20 left in the first quarter, when Songaila and James wrestled for a rebound and their arms became entangled. James’ arm was pinned under Songaila’s and when he freed it, Songaila’s hand connected with James’ jaw, drawing a technical foul.

Immediately after the call was made, Songaila said he didn’t intentionally hit James.

Songaila was prohibited from being at Verizon Center for last night’s game, but he said in Thursday’s practice that the hit was an accident.

“We got tangled up and my arm got caught inside of his and when he tried to free himself it was an accident,” Songaila said. “He lifted my arm, and it hit him right in the face. It was caused by him. It wasn’t anything intentional.”

Songaila’s agent Mark Bartelstein said yesterday he and Songaila were “very disappointed” by the ruling “because it definitely was not intentional.”

But league officials, led by NBA executive vice president of basketball operations Stu Jackson, reviewed the tape Thursday and ruled the foul worthy of a suspension.

“Following the game, the next day we conducted an investigation that included interviewing both of the players involved and also taking input from the officials on the floor,” Jackson said. “After that, we reviewed the video and then ultimately gathered all of the information and made a decision.”

Many of the Wizards players didn’t learn of Songaila’s suspension until later in the day — some of them when they arrived at Verizon Center before the game — because the league didn’t contact the team with word of the suspension until noon, following the shootaround.

“We all know in this locker room that Darius isn’t a dirty player and he didn’t mean to hit anybody,” Brendan Haywood said. “I don’t think he’s ever been in a fight in his life. He was just trying to get his hand untangled. … It’s unfortunate, but it’s the hand we’re dealt and we’ve got to be ready to play.”

DeShawn Stevenson agreed.

“I thought it was messed up,” Stevenson said. “It just so happened that Darius was at the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s not in Darius’ nature to do something like that. I didn’t think he’d get suspended, maybe a fine. But I didn’t think he’d get suspended. “The timing is terrible. We need him, he’s important. … It’s not a good situation.”

“They asked me if I thought it was intentional, if I had anything that went on with Songalia in the past,” James said. “I told them, ‘No I haven’t.’ Did I think it was intentional by him? I’m not sure. I don’t know. But it happened. So I don’t know if it was intentional or not.”

Cleveland coach Mike Brown took the same posture, but did offer an opinion.

“The one thing I do know is, they’ve come out and said they were gonna hit him,” Brown said. “They publicly said it. And I’ve stated all along that the NBA just has to watch that. Was that intentional and some other things weren’t? I don’t know what the criteria is. … There were a couple of other things that I could have guessed on that were intentional.”