BAD BOYS, BAD BOYS, WHAT WE GONNA DO NOW (WITHOUT YOU)?


After Kurt Thomas stupidly head-butted Mavs rookie Josh Howard -- in front of a 100 or so family and hometown friends from Dallas, no less -- we wondered what an appropriate punishment for such knuckleheaded behavior might be. After all, Thomas' foolish display probably cost the Knicks two wins, and ended their hottest streak -- five straight victories -- in years.

Punishment? Forget punishment. Thomas will probably be rewarded with a long-term contract -- and that's only right, says the WB's Robert Lipsyte. It's all part of the historic love affair between Beastmaster coaches and owners and their Bad Boys, a love affair that both defies reason and makes perfect (winning) sense.

Wired to be bad? | From Robert Lipsyte

If you're still waiting for Kurt Thomas to be clapped in irons for deliberately head-butting Josh Howard in Dallas last week, go hit your own head against the wall and wake up. The only clapping will be for Thomas showing some of the bad-boy spirit that coaches love. It's been more than a year since Thomas showed such spirit, but then it wasn't in a game; according to police reports, he grabbed his wife's neck and arm during a dispute over a laptop computer.

The Knicks lost the Dallas game after Thomas was ejected, and then lost the next game, against New Orleans, which Thomas sat out during his one-game suspension. The Knicks had been on a winning streak, and all this only pointed up how valuable Kurt is. He'll probably get a contract extension. Time enough for anger management when he retires.

I hate picking on Kurt in a sports world filled with more serious headcases -- you know 'em -- but it may just be time to think about this connection between violence and achievement in sports. Healthy aggression is fine -- you need it to crack the line or stand up to a 95-mile-per-hour fastball, just as you need it in everyday life to make a cold sale or buck an impersonal bureaucracy. Perhaps, like combat troops needing to be re-socialized when they rotate home, athletes should be given some understanding when they don't leave all their game rage in the arena.

We're all aware of the debate around the anecdotal increase of violent episodes by athletes -- on and off the field. Some say it's because of better -- or at least more aggressive -- reporting. Others see athletes being scapegoated for the violent behavior throughout society. Still others point to the increase of underclass athletes entering big-time sports; there is a racial component to that view which certainly needs more investigation and no glib acceptance or dismissal.

The problem is compounded by the sometimes shaky psyches of these older men in charge. The Knicks' principle beastmaster is Isiah Thomas, not exactly a role model for his pet pitbull Kurt. Isiah was an Original Bad Boy on a Detroit Pistons' team of bad boys. He's under a lot of pressure right now to prove that his previous lack of success as coach and administrator was no predictor.

But there is one piece in all this that has puzzled me for several years now, and still sends me on fruitless odysseys to Shrinkland. With all the psychological testing that has become standard among professional and now college teams, why aren't the bad boys weeded out? Could it be possible that teams are actually looking for bad boys? Could it be that there are some genetic hard wires shared by superior athletes and those with certain psycho-social disorders that the tests pick up? Maybe they test specifically for bad boys.

When I ask people who might know -- the sports psychologists who administer the tests -- I get stonewalled. When I ask people who might have some insight -- psychiatrists who treat athletes but don't have access to team records -- I get "Vereee interesting," but no smoking guns.

This is speculation based on non-scientific observation, but coaches and owners seem to love those needy, swaggering, vulnerable tough guys who can be manipulated into the explosions of ferocity that win games -- if they don't foul out or go to jail first. We're not talking supernatural superstar here -- Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Wayne Gretzky came from planets where fury was integrated into the athletic expression. We're talking about psychos whose rages leaked out and around their talents -- Pete Rose, Mike Tyson, Lawrence Taylor. Some psychos were consumed by their rages before they could find the extent of their talent -- Lawrence Phillips is a good example of that.

Phillips was protected without being helped, particularly at Nebraska. Coach Tom Osborne would dismiss questions about playing the enormously gifted and enormously troubled running back with a sly threat: Would you prefer Lawrence under my control or out in your world? That didn't much help Phillips' girlfriend, who he dragged by her hair down some stairs, or the people he assaulted as he bounced through and out of pro football.

Was Osborne really trying to save that soul or was he just using the body? That may not be such an either/or question. There is something of a beastmaster streak in coaches and owners, that admirable and deplorable love that older men have for bad boys they think they can control. They love that dark wildness, that sense of abandon that coaches think they can channel into athletic victory. If a coach thinks he is the only beastmaster in the world who has command over this jock pit bull, he will love the bad boy so much he will wink when he acts up and bail him out when he falls. This can lead to salvation and to real trouble.

The problem is compounded by the sometimes shaky psyches of these older men in charge. The Knicks' principle beastmaster is Isiah Thomas, not exactly a role model for his pet pitbull Kurt. Isiah was an Original Bad Boy on a Detroit Pistons' team of bad boys. He's under a lot of pressure right now to prove that his previous lack of success as coach and administrator was no predictor.

Of course, he's not the only Big Bad Boy. The nasty streak in Bob Knight, George Steinbrenner, Don King, among others, is not just an interesting aspect of their personalities but the fuel that powers their engines. These are men who seem to take a sensual pleasure in their rage, beyond even its power to intimidate.

These are smart men who can sense, without needing psychological tests, which young athletes have what was once called the killer instinct, and even how to tease it out of them and let them know its appreciated. For me, all of this is still a work in progress. Among the things I don't know is what impact a Kurt Thomas head-butting has on fans, although I suspect it's probably not a great moral lesson for youngsters at risk of growing up to be bad boys.