THE FIGHT BUSINESS
We proceed along the downhill path to wisdom. Already, the triumphal march upon Philadelphia is behind us. Renowned as the Bad Boy of the NBA, Charles Barkley was supposedly hated in the City of Brotherly Love. Instead, he was treated by his old fans as though he were General Charles de Gaulle marching victoriously up the slight incline of the Champs élyses to the Arc de Triomphe.
The much-anticipated stop in Chicago is now behind us. Next come the Boston Celtics. The season is almost over.
But even after it concludes and the playoffs begin, we will still be looking back on that unforgettable Suns battle here against the New York Knicks as the pivotal game of this or any year.
As an event, it pales before the My Lai Massacre, the Battle of Little Bighorn and Governor J. Fife Symington III's sack of the Esplanade project. But the near-riot became an incident of such monumental proportions in basketball that it deserved the secret meeting held in the New York offices of Commissioner David Stern. All parties taking part have been sworn to secrecy, but New Times, by nefarious means, has obtained a copy of the minutes of that fateful event. "Mr. Stern is ready to commence the hearing," said the sergeant-at-arms.
David Stern, commissioner of the National Basketball Association, raised his head slowly. He looked out over the witnesses who were in his sumptuous office to testify.
"I am of two minds about this brawl between the New York Knicks and the Phoenix Suns," Stern said. "My first thought, as an American citizen and father, is that we can't condone hooliganism.
"But I have a second thought." Stern grinned.
"It sure is goddamned good for business. Hell, everyone in the country is talking about the NBA. "Baseball is in the climax of spring training and the college kids are playing their Final Four. But everyone's still talking about NBA basketball. This is wonderful.
"Generally, at this time of year, you can't even find the NBA box scores in the sports sections."
Seated in Stern's office in midtown Manhattan was a cornucopia of witnesses and experts from all sides of the spectrum. They had been called to this summit to assess blame for the donnybrook, which erupted seconds before halftime with the Suns leading the Knicks by six points. The sad part is that it brought to a conclusion one of the truly good games of the year. Once the players from the Knicks and Suns had been ejected, the second half was no longer a true contest. The Knicks, bereft of their two best guards, were crippled. "We are going to watch the films one more time," Stern said. "Then we'll discuss what must be done."
By now, everyone had studied the films to the point where the scenes were virtually committed to memory. Media excitement was unparalleled. Jude LaCava, a local sportscaster, became so apoplectic while battling verbally with sportscasters from WFAN in New York that he fell to the floor in a swoon. The New Yorkers hung up the telephone on him. LaCava had to be helicoptered to the nearest hospital emergency room. J.D. Hayworth, the political aspirant, who reads the sports scores for Channel 10, was so inspired by the excitement that he came to the Milwaukee game several nights later and actually remained on the premises through the entire first quarter.
It was such a major event that even David Casstevens rushed all the way back from a Dallas tennis tournament to comment upon the frailty of man.
E.J. Montini, who normally confines his outrage to rascality in the legislature, denounced Kevin Johnson for causing the contretemps. Montini insisted KJ was trying to assert his manhood.
It was never actually a battle to compare with Waterloo, Austerlitz or even the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. And when it was over, remarkably little real damage had been inflicted. There were more hurt feelings and injured psyches than black eyes. KJ suffered a slight bump on the side of his head. But he remained fractious and combative, storming by sportswriters who sought to find out what was going on for several days.
Pat Riley, the Knicks' coach, who was wearing a pair of Giorgio Armani suit pants valued at $1,000, suffered the most. The pants were ripped apart as he tumbled about on the America West Arena floor with KJ and his own point guard, Greg Anthony. However, Riley's hair, held firmly in place by his favorite brand of mousse, remained eerily perfect.
Anthony, once the vice president of the student Republican party on the University of Nevada-Las Vegas campus, suffered the loss of his costly but garish multicolored shirt. That item was torn to shreds when Anthony was tossed from the battling heap by Tom Chambers of the Suns. No price was set on the shirt. In some quarters, the destruction of such a bizarre piece of apparel was even considered something of a public service. Looking back upon the carnage in which he had played the part of a peacemaker, Barkley opined:
"I blame the media. They caused all this."
The statement is remarkable because no one is a bigger or more active figure in the media than Barkley himself.
@body:If you were a film director, there are three distinct scenes in the Battle of America West:
1. KJ steps up and deliberately throws a block on an unsuspecting Doc Rivers of the Knicks. It is the sharpest physical contact anyone has seen in this town since the close of the NFL season. In fact, nobody on the Phoenix Cardinals has delivered a hit that emphatic since Bill Bidwill moved his team here from St. Louis. If the Cardinals had somebody willing to hit as hard as KJ, the stands at Sun Devil Stadium would be packed just as tightly as those in America West Arena. Rivers is knocked to the floor and Kevin, perhaps thinking that Rivers is rendered hors de combat, runs to the other side of the floor in pursuit of the ball.
2. Rivers, from the floor, reaches desperately, trying to trip Kevin with one hand. He misses. He gets up and chases KJ to the other side of the court and begins throwing punches. Players from both benches swarm to the spot and begin wrestling and pushing. Barkley grabs and holds Rivers. He was the only player in the crowd who wasn't fined. Included in the swirling crowd is Harvey Shank, the Suns' vice president in charge of season-ticket sales. He is clearly visible because he is the only man in the pile, other than Barkley, who has a bald pate. Shank had been sitting underneath the backboard and so had a clear path to the site.
3. Kevin then wanders to the other side of the court thinking that the battle is over. But this is when Anthony, dressed in civilian clothes, steps up and blindsides him with a wild right hand. Anthony was dressed in street clothes because he has an injured ankle. In the films, he was visible on the fringe of the throng throughout the fight. Watching him after the fact is eerily reminiscent of that famous photo of John Wilkes Booth, down in the crowd at Lincoln's inauguration.
But Coach Riley does his best to stop it all. He immediately piles on Anthony, attempting to break up the fight with KJ. Riley is followed by all the players. Jerrod Mustaf can be seen hurling various Knicks' bodies about. Once again, the mysterious Mr. Shank of the Suns' front office comes into view. He is seen ordering Knicks players to depart from the scene.
Jerry Colangelo is upstairs in the press box. No doubt he is wondering what his money man, Shank, is doing out there on the floor in the war zone.
Later, Colangelo braces Shank about charging into the fray. Shank, a Stanford man, reminds Colangelo about the famous words of Thoreau.
Ralph Waldo Emerson spotted Thoreau inside the Concord jail after he had been arrested in a protest demonstration. Emerson asked Thoreau why he was inside.
"Never mind why I'm in here," Thoreau said. "Why are you out there?"
@body:"First, we'll hear from a referee," Stern said to the assembled experts on the NBA.
"You all know Mr. Earl Strom. He was an NBA ref for 33 years. I don't always agree with Earl, but let's hear what he has to say."
Strom has the hard-bitten look of a big-city police officer. Magic Johnson once called him the referee you wanted in a big pressure game. He spoke intently:
"Some people call it frontier justice, but I think it's like being the cop on the street. You ignore the jaywalkers and watch for the muggers. I never condone the hatchet men, the bullies who inhibit the play of the biggest talents. That's the primary role of an official--to make sure that talent has a fair chance to display itself in the spirit of the game."
Heads nodded all around the room. They know what Strom means. Riley has been teaching intimidation tactics to the Knicks for two seasons. During last season's playoff, they butchered the Chicago Bulls and extended the playoff round to seven games against Michael Jordan's far superior team.
Several weeks ago, John Starks, one of Riley's chief hatchet men, clobbered Kenny Anderson, the New Jersey Nets' star point guard, as he drove to the basket. It was an unnecessary foul. Anderson suffered a broken wrist and is out for the season. All season long, Anthony has been trying to start fights with Jordan. So has Anthony Mason, another of Riley's intimidators.
Stern called for one of his lawyers to read a passage from Riley's book Showtime, written after he had led the Los Angeles Lakers to the NBA title.
Riley, seated in the front row, showed signs of uneasiness. He crossed his legs. Then he began biting his nails.
"Here are a few direct quotes from Mr. Riley's book. They make it plain how this Knicks team has become so aggressive." The NBA lawyer began quoting from the book:
"When you're on top, teams measure you for weakness. They think maybe your motivation level has eroded after a succession of wins. They think if the game is tough down in the trenches, you'll say, "The hell with it, if they want it so bad, I'm not going to fight."
"The season is like a single game. There will be four or five skirmishes, when the action flares into decisive moments. If you can come out of most of those skirmishes on top, you'll win. "Our mentality when the ball comes off the rim has to be concentrated mayhem. We have to root it out, scratch, do whatever it takes to get in position and get the ball. The team that fights for position and aggressively pursues the ball is eventually going to be the team that wins.'"
Stern looked over at Hubie Brown, a former Knicks coach and now a television commentator:
"Nobody cares about the physical thing," Brown said. "L.A. did it. So did Boston and Detroit. Those teams got right into you. But there was no trash talking. Now that comes from the coach. I say the next time, you will have to enforce punishment on them."
"What can you tell us?" Stern asked Riley.
"I blame the media," Riley said. "They had been writing for a week that the Suns couldn't beat an Eastern team. They wrote they couldn't play the game tough enough. So it became a test of the Suns' manhood.
"If you are using quotations from books, how about what Phil Jackson told the Chicago Bulls before the playoffs with the Pistons?
"You've got to hit someone,' Jackson told the Bulls. Punch someone. Get thrown out of the game. Just do some damage.'
"Before I rest my case," Riley said, "let me say that I think Kevin Johnson was the instigator of the whole thing. We just made the mistake of retaliating."
Stern called next on three sportswriters, two from the New York Times and one from USA Today.
"The Knicks are a team that mistakes muscle for manhood," Dave Anderson of the Times said. "The next time it happens, Riley himself should be suspended."
Harvey Araton of the Times said that even worse was the fact that the three Knicks players involved, Greg Anthony, Doc Rivers and Anthony Mason, were prowling the corridors under the stands looking to continue the fight with Johnson.
"They are risking their chance at a title through senseless belligerence," he said. "In fact, Riley had been forced to bench all three earlier in the season when they ganged up on Mark Jackson, a former teammate, who was playing for the Los Angeles Clippers."
Peter Vecsey of USA Today said:
"Greg Anthony is a know-it-all who isn't even liked by his own teammates. But KJ is frustrated by an injury-riddled season and so he sets this vicious defensive pick. By the way, there is no such thing as a defensive pick."
Vecsey concluded by saying, "I find it amazing that Riley takes no responsibility for his team's habitual problems."
Even Charles Barkley had a chance to speak.
Someone asked him whether the contretemps would make him afraid to go to New York to play against the Knicks in the playoffs.
Barkley likes the idea of New York and a big series. Instead of seeing money manipulators like Karl Eller and Keith Turley in the front rows, he'll be greeted by celebrities like Spike Lee, Tom Brokaw and Donald Trump.
"Why should I be afraid?" Barkley said. "I got a gun."
Wasn't it the late A.J. Liebling who once wrote: "People everywhere confuse what they read in the newspapers with news.
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