- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Before going to MCI Center last night, I put a call into the National Guard in the District to see whether they were being deployed.

The operator said no and wondered why I asked. I said, “Don’t you know the NBA is coming to town tonight?”

When I found out the Guard would not be the first line of defense, I put in a call to the second line of defense in this city: Charlie “Bad News” Brotman, fresh off his victory at the Washington Nationals press conference the day before. Alas, Brotman was out of town, no doubt in negotiation with Don King.

With no protection, I ventured down to MCI anyway because, after analyzing the risk factor, I determined the damage was done. After all, how much violence could there be at a funeral anyway?

I wasn’t referring to liveliness of the MCI crowd that came to watch the Washington Wizards face the Toronto Raptors in the first game in the District since Ron Artest declared war on plastic cups and basketball fans Friday night in Michigan. Actually, for a Wizards crowd, it was relatively loud, and the fans saw another fine effort by the Wizards in a 102-86 win.

No, any game connected with this league can be considered a memorial service as much as a sporting event.

The NBA is dying, perhaps even dead. It may have died in a police interview room in Eagle County, Colo., when the league’s future, Kobe Bryant, revealed what an amoral, spoiled weasel he was, describing the way he forced a young woman to have sex with him by grabbing her around the neck and telling police, “That’s just my thing. That’s what I do.” He also ratted out his ex-teammate Shaquille O’Neal for his extracurricular activities and complained about the private plane the Los Angeles Lakers provided him to fly back and forth between Lakers practice and police proceedings.

You can put Kobe Bryant’s confession on the NBA tombstone.

Maybe it died on the basketball court in Athens during the 2004 Summer Olympics, when an American team full of NBA stars embarrassed the game with its selfish and undisciplined style of play and was run into the ground by players with half its talent and twice its heart. Even American fans were rooting against their own team — a death chant.

And whatever was left most likely died Friday, when Artest led an Indiana Pacers rumble against Pistons fans in the stands. The post-brawl bleatings by ESPN analysts like Tim Legler and Greg Anthony defending the players’ actions were further proof that those close to the league can’t recognize when dirt is being tossed into the grave.

Look, the Friday night riot was not caused by some idiot in the stands who threw a cup of liquid (we don’t even know whether it was beer, really; maybe we should start talking about banning soft drink sales by the second half). It was started by the fight on the court between Artest and Ben Wallace. If there is no fight, there is no riot. And not to defend the fan identified as the cup thrower, but he didn’t exactly toss a Molotov cocktail.

There are some critics who want to see this guy go to jail. But here is what was supposed to happen: Once Artest got hit with the cup, the players and Auburn Hills officials should have tried to pick out the guy right away. Most fans gladly would have helped. Then he should have been escorted from the arena. No one would be talking about jail. Should we be now just because Artest went into the stands and set off this ugly riot?

Anyway, jail wouldn’t do this guy much good. He has been there before, with a few assault and drunken-driving convictions on his record. Heck, that’s an NBA resume. No wonder he felt like he was part of the game — kindred spirits and all that.

NBA commissioner David Stern has tried to shock the league back to life with his season-long suspension of Artest and his discipline against teammates Stephen Jackson (30-game suspension) and Jermaine O’Neal (25 games) — both too short.

Wizards forward Antawn Jamison — one of the more thoughtful players in the league — said he believes Stern’s actions will send the right message.

“Now you know the circumstances and repercussions if you were to do something like that,” Jamison said. “I don’t think you will see too many incidents like that again.”

If you see one like that again, then the league indeed will be dead and buried.

Not enough of these NBA players are as thoughtful as Jamison. Those players in Auburn Hills reacted impulsively, which is probably how they have reacted to most things in their lives. What makes anyone think they will stop to think it through the next time this happens? And how much worse will it be the next time?

Perhaps there is a way to reconnect the players and the fans — have teams run disaster drills in practice. Just like practicing plays, coaches could drill their players on how to react when fans are throwing stuff from the stands and screaming awful things. Teams could invite fans to participate, strictly for practice purposes.

Then again, if they could learn in practice, maybe the game wouldn’t be in such bad shape.

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