- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 17, 2007

Stu Jackson, who hands out the detentions in the NBA, actually uttered these words about his latest verdict: “The rule is the rule. It’s not a matter of fairness. It’s a matter of correctness.”

It’s not a matter of fairness. Do I really need to write the next 700 words of this column or can you folks take it from here? In the midst of the best playoff series we’re likely to see this year, the winner of which figures to capture the NBA title, we’ve got the league’s jail keeper saying that justice in pro basketball finishes a distant second to the letter of the law.

No wonder David Stern opted to skip Game 5 in Phoenix as the Suns and Spurs, tied 2-all, resumed their quarrel last night. I mean, it’s hard even for a lawyer to mount a vigorous defense of unfairness, especially to a mascot in a gorilla suit.

If Stern were acting like a commissioner rather than a hanging judge, he would have said, “No, it really is a matter of fairness. Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw shouldn’t be suspended for a pivotal game because they strayed a few steps from the Phoenix bench during an ‘altercation,’ one they neither provoked nor participated in. A ruling as myopic as that threatens to tip the balance of the series, and we want our championships decided by players, not men in tailored suits.”

Unfortunately, Stern and Jackson are two peas in a prosecutorial pod. So the Suns went to battle last night without Stoudemire, an All-Star, and Diaw, a valued reserve. The Spurs, meanwhile, will lose only the increasingly inconsequential Robert Horry for two games. And it was Horry, of course, who started the ruckus by hip-checking Steve Nash into the scorer’s table in the waning seconds of Game 4.

It was the kind of cheap, parting shot you used to see in hockey all the time, until the NHL began suspending, with no possibility of appeal, players who instigated fights in the last five minutes. So it was only fitting that Horry sent Nash, a Canadian, crashing into the “boards.”

Such a heinous act is rare in basketball, though, which is why fans, even those without a strong rooting interest in the series, are so appalled by it. (Never mind that Horry the Horrible is 6-foot-10, 240 and Nash a mere 6-3, 195.)

But none of this seems to bother the NBA — and it should. It should because, as the replay shows, the situation was quickly brought under control. Nash was mugged, Horry was surrounded, there was some minor jostling, but coaches kept players on the bench from becoming involved. In other words, it was handled exactly the way a commissioner should want it handled … taking into account that these are Actual Human Beings and not CD-ROM creations.

Every crime has its context (though the league considers the latter irrelevant). The context of this particular felony is the bandage on Nash’s nose, which has turned the series into a kind of “Chinatown” with dribbling. When the Suns’ playmaker hasn’t been smashing face-first into Tony Parker, he’s been getting “unintentionally” kneed in the groin by Bruce Bowen. Stoudemire, too, has had a run-in with Bowen — and has branded the Spurs a “dirty” ballclub.

So Horry’s brush blocking of Nash was hardly an isolated incident. It was the latest in a succession of swipes San Antonio has taken at Phoenix, all with the intention of slowing the run-and-gun Suns down to the Spurs’ speed. And yet Jackson is much less troubled about that than about Stoudemire and Diaw — gasp! — leaving their seats after a teammate got leveled.

It’s funny, the Sacramento Kings didn’t even make the NBA’s Sweet 16 — mercifully — but Ron Artest haunts these playoffs nonetheless. Were it not for his part in the infamous Pacers-Pistons brawl of 2004, the league might be more flexible in its law enforcement, more willing to distinguish posturing from punching. So in one sense, I suppose, the players have nobody to blame but themselves for Jackson’s knee-jerk overreaction.

But in every other respect, the league’s ruling is breathtakingly bad — the equivalent, as Phoenix owner Robert Sarver put it, of being “punched in the gut.” Stern had better pray the suspensions have no impact on the series. Otherwise, he’ll never be able to show his face in Phoenix again — and the media, just to spite him, might vote Horry the playoff MVP.

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