When I learned that Ron Artest had been suspended for the rest of the NBA season, my initial reaction was that David Stern had gone too far. The commissioner seemed to have overreacted, in the heat of the moment, like the players in Friday night's brawl.
But given time to reflect, I realized that Stern had administered a just and necessary punishment. Stern is one of the best commissioners of his time. He always understood when his sport was facing a crisis, and when it needed to redefine itself with the American public.
That fight in Detroit has left Stern with one of the worst crises of his quarter-century as commissioner. It is a watershed moment in the NBA's history, a critical time for a league that has become increasingly disconnected from its traditional fan base. It is bigger than Artest, or the Indiana Pacers, or any single player.
By handing down an unprecedented suspension, Stern has sent a message to the public: He gets it. He knows people are turning away from the NBA and he's not going to sit still any longer and tolerate thuggish behavior.
The very image of the NBA is at stake, as it was in the early 1980s when Stern took over a struggling league. The country had turned off to the league back then, too. The players were perceived as undisciplined and overpaid. The NBA Finals were actually shown on tape delay.
Stern ushered in two key changes: One, instituting the first salary cap in sports. Two, convincing the players they needed to be ambassadors for the sport. They needed to present a more dignified front for the upper-middle class fan base.
The players bought into it. Julius Erving, Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan -- they carried themselves like men and the league flourished for well over a decade. But slowly, they gave way to a generation of angry, preening manchildren with little respect for fundamentals, or fundamental decency.
Even before the brawl, Artest had become the greatest symbol of what's wrong with the modern NBA. He is angry and volatile, ready to explode at any perceived affront to his manhood, like some punk in the streets. Two years ago, he missed 12 games for a variety of suspensions.
Two weeks ago, Artest was suspended by the Pacers because he wanted time off to promote a rap album. It made him even more of a sporting pariah, a ready target for fan abuse. Fans detest him. Opposing players resent his cheap-shot tactics.
Yes, he initially walked away from a confrontation with Detroit's Ben Wallace. But lying on his back on the scorer's table was an invitation to trouble, the act of a disturbed man. It was no surprise that a fan threw a cup of beer at him. But there's no justification for any athlete going into the stands to confront a fan.
This isn't to say the fans weren't at fault. The NBA needs to examine security in the arenas. The players have a vested interest in security. Maybe the players association should devote a percentage of salaries toward beefing up security.
But the biggest issue is the game. I'm a fan of the NBA. I covered it in the glorious 1980s, when it was all about the basketball. Now, sadly, it's about the anger and self-aggrandizing behavior.
It's not just the NBA. All sports are suffering from the decline of civility. One day after the Pacers-Pistons melee, Lou Holtz's final game was marred by a brawl between Clemson and South Carolina.
Sports are supposed to reflect the best of our culture. Nowadays, they're a mirror to our worst impulses. The players are angry, and the fans are angry, too. It's a sad commentary on our society when sports fans feel entitled to abuse players, as part of the price of a ticket. Stern is sick of the NBA being a window on the worst of our culture. Good for him.
Artest? His album comes out today. He'll have lots of time to promote it now.