The NBA, anxious to project its image as the professional sport of the '90s, has worked diligently this season to counter the mounting violence and explosive atmosphere more characteristic of the NHL's goon-squad mentality.
With a commissioner named (David) Stern and a fine collector named (Rod) Thorn, it would seem the NBA has the right men for the job to deter brawling among its employees.
Thorn must have believed he sent a clear and painful message when he fined 21 players a total of $160,500 and suspended chief combatants Greg Anthony and Doc Rivers of the Knicks and Kevin Johnson of the Suns following the ugly free-for-all in Phoenix on March 23.
So what happened? Exactly a week later, Orlando's rookie sensation Shaquille O'Neal was suspended for a game and fined $10,000 for punching Detroit guard Alvin Robertson. That same night, New Jersey's Derrick Coleman drew a $5,000 fine for swinging at Philadelphia forward Armon Gilliam. The fact that Coleman failed to make contact saved him from suspension.
And Friday night in Miami, there was almost a repeat of the Knicks-Suns donnybrook when the officials called 10 technicals against the Knicks and Heat.
The highlight film showed Patrick Ewing flooring Miami forward Grant Long with an elbow to the chops. Apparently, this does not constitute punching. Ewing escaped an ejection, and paced the Knicks' 123-107 victory with 26 points and 22 rebounds.
"We've got some hotheads on this team," said Knicks guard John Starks. "We know teams are coming at us, and can't let it get to us."
The NBA may finally have realized that subtracting a few thousand dollars from a player's paycheck won't discourage fighting. With a goodly number earning more than $1 million a season, the current fines are about as harmful as a flea biting an elephant.
As O'Neal said jokingly after his recent assessment, "Subtract $5,000 from $40 million, and I've still got a lot left."
And asking players to walk away during battle is just as ludicrous.
Thorn admits that the present deterrents just aren't working as well as expected.
"We're getting very concerned," he said. "This is not the image we're trying to convey, and people might get hurt. We've escalated fines and suspensions, and, if we have to, we'll escalate them more."
But the league should be equally concerned about teams trying to capitalize on the violence. The Suns were guilty of such poor judgment when, in their next home game following the Knicks brawl, they showed footage of the fight complete with Michael Buffer's familiar cry, "Let's Get Ready to Rumble."
Like Wrestlemania, the Suns were depicted as good guys and the Knicks as loathsome thugs. Even the Gorilla, the team's popular mascot who doubles as a filmmaker, was depicted in the video, peering into a jail cell that held unsavory-looking characters wearing Knicks uniforms. The Suns fans, of course, cheered gleefully. Can Hulk Hogan and Gorilla Monsoon be far behind?
King for a day
Former Bullets star Bernard King enjoyed his finest game as a New Jersey Net when he scored a season-high 21 points in the second half of a 118-105 loss to Chicago on Friday.
"My game is coming along," said the controversial forward, who all but forced his exit from Washington. "It took awhile to get acclimated to a new team, but if you get extended minutes, you don't feel like you have to do everything in five minutes. But I'm a professional. I'll play as many minutes as Coach [Chuck] Daly sees fit. I want this team to win as many games as possible."
Daly rewarded King for his showing against the Bulls with his first start Sunday, against Cleveland. King had 14 points in the 105-99 loss.
Said teammate Sam Bowie, "I don't care if Bernard is playing on half a leg. If he gets the ball in the low post, he'll score."
No home cooking
The Charlotte Coliseum was once viewed as the most rabid home arena in the NBA, raising the roof in support of the Hornets.
But all that has changed this season, with the Hornets winning more games on the road (19) than at home (18).
The team was booed lustily following a 34-point loss to Miami last Tuesday. Said point guard Muggsy Bogues, "Before, the atmosphere was great. Now it's not the same. Maybe, we don't feel like this is our home anymore."