I know a lot of your are thinking, Mike, you wrote an NBA murder mystery (Murder Off The Glass, now available as an E-book –thanks for asking!), so what do you make of the Lakers’ Metta World Peace and his flying elbow? For those of you non-hoops heads (you’re still reading?) the Lakers’ forward, formally known as Ron Artest, flung a vicious elbow while preening after a dunk shot, just missing the temple of Oklahoma City Thunder forward James Harden. Harden left the game with a concussion and hasn’t been cleared to play again as of this writing. MWP was ejected and was just handed a seven game suspension by NBA commissioner David Stern.
Once the ugliness of the episode was visible to everyone on the planet, MWP was apologetic in his own narcissistic way. He professed regret that Harden was injured. He didn’t mean to do it. The idea that a 33 year-old celebrating a basket by beating his chest and violently flinging his elbows might be considered aberrant behavior is surely contained in a thought bubble floating far, far above his level of comprehension.
Basketball fans’ condemnation of such behavior depends, of course, on our distance from it. We Chicago folk ought to know. Dennis Rodman was Public Enemy #1 when he was leading the Piston’s Bad Boys to their annual mugging of the Bulls, more so when he joined his teammates in the unsportsmanlike refusal to shake hands after the Bulls finally vanquished them in 1991. Once he joined the Bulls, it was a different story. Oh, sure, he took the occasional cheap shot, or kicked a cameraman in the head. But he was mostly an adorable nut case, embraced by Bulls fans as long as he didn’t get himself kicked out of anything important. The eventuality that his life would spiral downward when there was no more basketball to be played wasn’t much of a worry to anyone then, and doesn’t seem to be much on anyone’s mind now.
The NBA has a different perspective, and you can’t blame them. If the current players can’t remember when the league played its championship games on tape delay opposite Johnny Carson, David Stern certainly can. That’s where he came in. The public perception of the NBA then was too black, too drug-infested, too violent. Then came Magic and Bird and Michael Jordan, the Dream Team, Kobe and Shaq. Stern was a marketing genius, but even as his league attained rock star status, memories remained long. MWP’s elbow to the head of Harden brought vivid reminders of the punch from Kermit Washington that shattered Rudy Tomjanovich’s face during an on-court fracas in 1977. And MWP’s participation in the “Malice in the Palace” near-riot in 2004, which found him brawling in the stands and led to an 86 game suspension, hasn’t been erased by his name change.
The NBA takes some flack from sportswriters for wanting its players to get a couple of years of college under their belts before entering the league. The NCAA, of course, is rife with hypocrisy and the NBA surely benefits from the training and publicity the players get as college participants. But the NBA would also like to see some level of maturity from its incipient stars before they are immersed in the media fishbowl. They’d like to see some semblance of discipline and dedication to team play before the kids come in with guaranteed money and big shoe contracts.
Would any of that have made the slightest different to Metta World Peace? He played two years at St. Johns, so clearly not. He undoubtedly has some psychological problems – he famously thanked his therapist after helping the Lakers win the NBA crown two years ago and auctioned off his ring to support mental health. He’s capable of being charming and generous. As Phil Jackson pointed out, his personality is far different from Dennis Rodman. But he seems to function in a world oblivious to consequences.
Is seven games enough of a consequence? What if the Lakers, who had come to depend on his recent improved play, stumble in the first round? Might they take advantage of a new league salary cap “amnesty” and release him? Of course, he would still get all his money. He just wouldn’t be playing for the Lakers anymore.
Out of sight, out of mind.