May 15, 2007
The Rule
Posted by Gordon Smith

NBA fans are atwitter after the conclusion of the Phoenix-San Antonio game last night. (Full disclosure: my oldest son somehow become a Phoenix Suns fan, so I am a fan vicariously.) The question of the day: will the NBA suspend Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for leaving the bench have Robert Horry leveled Steve Nash?

The answer to that question revolves around the following rule: "During an altercation, all players not participating in the game must remain in the immediate vicinity of their bench."

Jemele Hill opines: "It's an ironclad rule that isn't open to interpretation."

Obviously, Jemele Hill has never been to law school. Steve Nash, on the other hand, has a future beyond basketball. His defense is straightforward: "There wasn't a fight."

You see, one problem with the "ironclad rule" theory of the case is that "altercation" is not defined. Picking up the theme, Steve Kerr suggests that "if the league decides to suspend Diaw and Stoudemire, it may have to suspend Tim Duncan and Bruce Bowen as well." More:

In a play that went entirely unnoticed until well after the game was over, both Duncan and Bowen actually left San Antonio's bench early in the second quarter after Francisco Elson and James Jones were entangled. Replays clearly show Duncan walking several steps onto the court as Elson and Jones appeared to be ready to get into it. Bowen then followed Duncan onto the floor, grabbed him and led him back to the bench. If the league does indeed follow the letter of the law, both Spurs players would also be suspended for Game 5.

I haven't seen the replay, but that seems sort of silly. Which I assume is Kerr's point. Suspending Stoudemire and Diaw would be silly, especially after the league failed to suspend Bruce Bowen for what seems to me unquestionably dirty (and potentially hazardous) play. The most sensible thing I have read about the affair comes from Marc Stein:

Stoudemire and Diaw never made it near the scrum,* as Suns assistant coaches scrambled them back to the bench. Nor did Monday's incident ever become an actual brawl,* with referees Joe DeRosa and Javie getting between Nash and Horry before it could escalate. There is also a growing perception, most of all, that Bowen was shown a good deal of leniency by the league office after being accused of intentionally kicking a dunking Stoudemire in Game 2 and kneeing Nash in Game 3 ... and going unpunished in both cases. Doesn't the league have to balance that against the notion of "staying consistent" on leaving-the-bench suspensions?

Unlike Jemele Hill, NBA Commissioner David Stern is a lawyer and he knows why lawyers never say, "It's an ironclad rule that isn't open to interpretation." Stern should let them play.

* "Scrum"? "Brawl"? "Altercation"?

UPDATE: Alas, Stoudemire and Diaw were suspended for the next game, and Horry was suspended for two games. Based on past actions, I assumed this would be the result, but the league's appeal to the demands of "consistency" to justify the action ring hollow given the special treatment of Bowen.

UPDATE2: I just noticed that the league addressed the play mentioned by Steve Kerr involving Tim Duncan and Bruce Bowen, using the same reasoning that I suggested it could use to avoid suspending Stoudemire and Diaw (ESPN):

The Suns countered by saying that Duncan and Bruce Bowen were guilty of a similar leaving-the-bench offense in Game 4's first half when San Antonio's Francisco Elson fell on the Suns' James Jones after a dunk. That play was also reviewed, but [NBA executive vice president of basketball operations Stu] Jackson -- while conceding that Duncan "should not have been on the playing court" -- said that the league determined there was "no cause for the suspension rule" to be applied because the Elson-Jones tangle was not deemed to be an altercation.

Of course, Jackson portrayed the rule as insusceptible to interpretation: "The rule is the rule. It's not a matter of fairness. It's a matter of correctness."

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