Our collective System 1 – if you’ll allow me to briefly pervert Daniel Kanheman’s recent work – tells us the NBA has gone soft. Thanks to the aging Massa Stern – wildly brandishing fines and technicals for anything that hints at an emotional response – the behavior of our favorite athletes, our men, our warriors has been relegated to that of hush hush altar boys. When I feel my testosterone dissolve to an alarmingly low fuzz, I reach to the internet and watch old reels of Kevin McHale clotheslining Kurt Rambis, Shawn Kemp doing something clearly adult rated on Alton Lister, or Bill Laimbeer fighting anybody in a jersey. It is our job as humans to misremember the past. Or, perhaps not our job, but it is nearly unavoidable. And what we remember are those exchanges of unchecked emotion. We take them as indicators of the overall climate.
Watching the somewhat recently released “Winning Time” from ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, I was able to further my illusion that the NBA of yore was tougher, more unhinged. We went for blood as much as points.
Without a doubt, specific rules have been altered, modified, and seemingly arbitrarily enforced in recent years. Along with making the fining structure for technical fouls stricter, guidelines for the in-game assessment of technicals had been expanded broadly to cover “overt” player reactions. This isn’t new, the rulings implemented at the start of last year’s season, but it only adds to the concern that the product the fans receive is filtered, distilled.
The value of overreacting to a bad call or an on the court scuffle can be debated tirelessly: Incessant whining devalues the game and punching another being sets a terrible example for the children, but sports as theater, do we not need to be reminded we are watching athletes who are human and might act accordingly? Is it not moving to have the illusion that these men are playing for more than a paycheck?
That is partially what was so great about the brief interaction between Kevin Love and Louis Scola the other night. It was malicious, perhaps, and invites us to qualify dirty play and physical play, but it was a shade of Laimbeer – boys being boys. A week or so ago, Scola had chicken legged Love – a la every schoolyard basketball game – while attempting to save the ball from going out of bounds, only he tagged Love in his coin purse. A great play for entertainment’s sake, for it can easily be explained as innocuous but with Love sent to the ground clutching himself, the outcome allows us to assign villainy to it. Then the night in question, the Timberwolves and Rockets meet again, allowing us the opportunity to hope for Love’s revenge in that awful and shortsighted way that has us talking about “being a man,” etc. Midway through the third quarter, Scola takes a shot in the paint, and Love seemingly fouls him. Scola, in homage to his country’s national sport, flops to the ground only to receive silence from the refs. Minnesota recovers the ball, and in an effort to get back up court, Love “inadvertently” steps on Scola’s head.
You can watch the video, lord knows it’s linked everywhere. You can read Love’s apology, listen to Scola’s admirable dismissal of the play, and decide the level of menace in the face “stomping.” And know Stu Jackson, impresario of arbitrary suspensions and fines, has suspended Love for two games, so justice has been served. I just hope I’m not the only one finding an eerie sense of giddiness as the camera cuts from Love and Scola to the aging Kevin McHale.