A friend called me on Tuesday.
He works in what he calls "real news" television, covering politics and tragedies. He considers the term "sports journalist" an oxymoron. Sports, he says, doesn't deserve journalism.
The sarcasm dripped from his voice like Thanksgiving gravy as he said: "Well, ESPN finally has its 9/11."
As offensive as that might sound, he has a point: Since Friday night's brawl in Detroit, sports media outlets have competed like so many out-of-control Ron Artests to convince the world that IT HAS ENDED! Sports will NEVER BE THE SAME because of the SHOCKING VIOLENCE THAT TURNED A GAME INTO A RIOT!!!
I wonder: Are we telling people what they want to believe?
Or: Are people overreacting because we in the media are?
Or: Do the video images simply speak -- or scream -- for themselves?
Funny, but "real news" networks have stooped to run with this story, too. Of the 1,466 times I've seen the RIOT video, I believe six or seven were even on The Weather Channel. That's because this video is what producers call "great television." It's a fast, furious flurry of eye-bites that shock and amaze viewers who are desperate to be shocked and amazed.
I'm still not tired of watching it.
Yet the more I watch it, the less I see.
Forgive me for pointing this out, but the death toll was zero. Not one player or fan was seriously injured. Yes, this was a black eye for the NBA. But I couldn't see a single split lip. A "dark day" for this league could have been so much darker.
Just this once, try watching the RIOT video with your brain instead of just your wide eyes.
Ben Wallace's two-hand shove certainly qualifies as violent, yet his palms were open and he didn't aim at Artest's face. Hockey players would laugh at such patty-cake. Earlier in his career, Artest might have returned fire with his fists --- and I'm not sure my money would be on Wallace in that fight. He's two inches taller, but gives away 10 pounds to Artest, who was taught to box by his father, a Golden Gloves champ.
But Artest occasionally shows signs of maturity. He backpedaled all the way to the scorer's table, for example, because trading punches with an enraged Wallace wasn't worth it. Artest is at least smart enough to know the league office was itching for an excuse to punish him after he told the media he needed a month or two off to promote the rap album he produced. And after all, Artest's Pacers were only 45.9 seconds away from humiliating the defending champions on their home court.
But he couldn't simply follow his instincts all the way back to the Pacers' bench. No, he had to grandstand by lying back on the scorer's table with his hands clasped behind his head and his legs crossed. His body language said: "I'm just going to chill here on this table while you sorry losers try to calm down that chump Wallace."
Artest not only was taunting Wallace, but every Pistons fan still in the building. In effect, he was turning himself into a wrestling villain, provoking every nut in the stands. If Artest had merely sauntered back to his bench, it's highly unlikely the WORLD WOULD HAVE ENDED.
But some guy sitting a section away from Artest pulled off a near-miraculous feat. From 60 or 70 feet away, this guy underhanded a cup that landed smack in the middle of Artest's chest. If you give that guy 100 cups from that distance, he couldn't hit Artest in the chest more than two or three times, if that. If he had missed this time, it's highly unlikely that SPORTS WILL NEVER BE THE SAME.
But Artest had placed his pride on center stage. And, even though the cup was almost empty by the time it reached him, the embarrassment of getting nailed pulled Artest's trigger. Quicker than you can say "see you in court," he was charging up into the stands.
Obviously, nothing good can happen to an athlete who goes into the stands after a fan.
And obviously, the solution here is to beef up courtside security. That way, Artest and other players could control themselves because they have a reasonable alternative. All they would have to do is point out the cup-thrower. Then security guards could escort the fan out of the arena and perhaps the home team could take away his season tickets, if he has them.
But as an NBA general manager in another city told me: "Right now, that wouldn't work for us because that retired 65-year-old female security guard we have sitting behind the visitors' bench wouldn't have much of a chance against a drunk fan. This isn't the NFL. We don't have the bouncers they have."
They might now.
Yet in this case, Artest had no idea who threw the cup. He went flying by the guy who appeared to have thrown it and terrorized another poor soul who was merely jumping up and down and celebrating the direct hit. And here's a lost point: Though Artest pushed the innocent fan, HE DID NOT STRIKE HIM.
Wes Wilcox, an advance scout for the Cavaliers, was watching from his courtside seat. Wilcox told the Cleveland Plain Dealer: "Artest did a good job of keeping his composure."
By his rock-headed, short-fused standards, Artest certainly did. But most fans want to believe Artest has a screw loose, and they automatically assume the worst. If this incident had involved any Pacer other than Artest, the reaction wouldn't have been nearly as nuclear.
Same with Terrell Owens and the "Desperate Housewives" skit.
Yet now, Artest is a wrestling villain caught in the middle of an Artest-hating crowd. What if a fan had pulled a knife or gun? Don't tell me some Artest-hater at the Palace wasn't armed.
And let me tell you: I hear from many fans who sound crazier than any athlete I've covered.
Yet Artest appeared to believe the fan who was screaming, "It wasn't me!" He tried to back off, but so many hostile fans were trying either to restrain him or attack him that he was momentarily stuck. That's why you couldn't condemn teammate Stephen Jackson for rushing to his rescue.
Jackson is known as a loyal-to-the-death teammate who will go to any means to defend his team's stars.
But of course, two players in the stands means double jeopardy -- especially when Jackson can be as emotionally incendiary as Artest. As the GM said: "You can get away with having one of those guys on your team. But not two."
And just as Jackson swooped in, another fan threw a full beer right in Artest's face. That appeared to send Jackson completely over the edge, though he was restrained from pummeling the beer-thrower. Meanwhile, the fan who initially appeared to have thrown the cup at Artest had grabbed him from behind. One moment, this guy was trying to pull Artest away. The next, he was slugging Artest in the back of the head.
Only then did Artest throw the ONLY PUNCH HE THREW IN THE STANDS. Only as the fan lost his balance and fell beneath Artest did he fire one quick, tentative, downward jab. Artest's body language said: "I know I shouldn't be up here and that I definitely shouldn't be throwing a punch at a fan."
Moments later, Artest was safely back on the court. Or so he thought.
As he walked toward the bench, here came another fan in a Pistons jersey. The guy did a little Ali shuffle and appeared ready to rumble. And Artest immediately fired a hard, straight right that appeared to land on the guy's jaw. It's possible the fan partially blocked it. But here came the most amazing moment of the night.
The guy didn't flinch or teeter. He just looked at Artest as if to say: "That all you got?"
It's also possible this fan was feeling no pain. But Artest clocked him again as the fan's buddy tackled Artest around the legs.
I do not blame Artest for blasting the fan who challenged him. Under the near-riot circumstances, any fan who crosses the line and enters the court should have been fair game for the players. Again, how could Artest know the guy's sanity or alcohol level?
No, Artest was right to swing first, ask questions later.
I can't blame Jermaine O'Neal, either. In the night's most sensational video scene, O'Neal got a running start and tried to deliver a blow that could have rivaled the near 'kill' shot with which Kermit Washington once struck Rudy Tomjanovich. Fortunately, O'Neal lost his footing and some of his leverage as he landed his haymaker upside the head of what appeared to be the fan who had tackled Artest.
But again, this happened ON THE COURT. Fair game.
Through this all, I couldn't see a single security guard or policeman on the video. The Pistons should be ashamed.
And so should anyone in or out of the media who characterizes what happened in the stands as "the lowest moment in American spectator sports." I was at Wrigley Field the night five years ago when a fan swiped the cap of Dodgers' catcher Chad Kreuter, who was sitting in the bullpen. Krueter hopped over the wall and chased him. Soon, six or seven Dodgers were trading punches with four or five fans. Blood was spilled.
That was much worse than this. But that was some player named Kreuter, lost amid distant, fuzzy video.
After a father and son attacked Kansas City first-base coach Tom Gamboa at what was then Comiskey Park in Chicago, many baseball players said that any fan who enters the field during a game will take his life in his hands. In these post-9/11 times, the same should hold for NBA games.
But please don't let any of these facts ruin your RIOT video.
Skip Bayless recently joined ESPN after a career as a sports columnist that includes stops in Miami, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and San Jose. He can be seen Monday through Friday on "Cold Pizza," ESPN2's morning show. His column will appear weekly on Page 2.
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