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Hard to fault Davis, but move still no-no

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Regarding New York Knicks forward Antonio Davis' decision to charge into the stands during a game in Chicago on Wednesday night because he believed a fan was threatening his wife and children - everyone did what they had to do.

Davis certainly did. And so did NBA commissioner David Stern yesterday.

Davis, a respected veteran, did what any right-thinking person would do. He put his family's safety above all other concerns. As president of the NBA players union, he surely knew he could be suspended for leaving the bench and going into the stands during a timeout, but he didn't care.

Security successfully handles most ugly situations that arise at stadiums and arenas, but there are moments when a player - or any person, for that matter - shouldn't stop to think about protocol or ramifications. This was such a moment, Davis thought.

"I saw [the fan] touch her, and I know I should not have acted the way I did, but I would have felt terrible if I didn't react," Davis said in a statement Wednesday night.

Modern athletes are regarded by many as selfish and spoiled, but with drunken knuckleheads making more noise than ever in stands, it's hard to blame players for being skittish, especially when their families are involved.

The Knicks' Maurice Taylor called Davis' leap into the United Center seats "a no-brainer." Another Knick, Jamal Crawford said: "His wife and kids were up there. If you see your family in harm's way, you're going to go protect them. ... At that point you're thinking like a regular human instead of an athlete."

I don't disagree with any of that. Even if Davis misread the situation, which might be the case (the fan, a 22-year-old Bulls loyalist, told the Associated Press yesterday that he wasn't drunk, as Davis alleged, and that Davis' wife was acting out and precipitated the incident), Davis was just responding to what he thought was a dangerous situation.

Still, just as Davis did what he had to do, so did Stern yesterday when he suspended Davis for five games.

Fourteen months after the infamous basket-brawl between the Pistons and Pacers in Auburn Hills, Mich., the NBA can't tolerate players going into the stands - for any reason.

Davis' charge into the seats behind the scorer's table bore an alarming resemblance to the mad dashes of Ron Artest and the other Pacers who went after fans in Auburn Hills in November 2004. The melee that resulted was one of the low points in U.S. sports history.

Davis' situation was entirely different, of course, actually the polar opposite of what happened in Auburn Hills - Davis was trying to stop a fight, not start one. That's surely why Stern went relatively easy on him. Five games? It's more than a slap on the wrist, and it will cost Davis more than $750,000 in salary, but it's still nothing compared with the lengthy suspensions given Artest and his Pacers teammates, Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O'Neal, last season.

Fans in Indiana are going to howl, no doubt, wondering why Davis got off so much easier when his crime (running into the stands) was fundamentally the same. But once you dig deeper than that basic similarity between the incidents, you can see why Stern made the call he did.

Frankly, Stern almost could have given a pass to a player as levelheaded as Davis, 37, who is a bona fide adult, unlike the immature kids now populating the league.

No doubt, Stern breathed a deep sigh of relief when he learned it was Davis who had gone into the stands; in the hands of other players, the situation easily could have escalated into a major problem. As it happened, Davis calmly made sure no one was getting hurt and then left the scene almost as quickly as he arrived, without throwing punches or making matters worse.

The referees rightfully ejected him when he returned to the bench, and Stern had no choice but to levy a legitimate punishment yesterday (i.e., more than a symbolic one game) because, in the end, it's critical to send a message to the league, where, as the Auburn Hills debacle illustrated, general decision-making isn't always so, um, levelheaded.

It must be clear that what Davis did is unacceptable, regardless of the circumstances. Going into the stands is an absolute no-can-do, with a suspension guaranteed.

Fans are your customers. They can do or say whatever they want, as long as they don't get arrested for it.

Players and coaches are professionals, paid not to be distracted by catcalls, no matter how odious.

You can't blame anyone for doing what it takes to protect their family, as Davis did. But in this case, he still must pay a price.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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