Counterpunch to Commish

More on the brawl: New York's bad apples

So David Stern imposes his will to slowly, surely reshape the NBA, with collared shirts and ticky-tack technical fouls on players for belaboring calls ruling the league's days and nights. The commissioner scrubs and scrubs, desperate to cleanse the league of the stain from The Palace at Auburn Hills two years ago. If nothing else, these orders of dress codes and indiscriminate T's were populist offerings to a disillusioned public.

And yet for all of the commissioner's surface touch of his players' appearance and behavior, it turns out to be worthless when all hell breaks loose at Madison Square Garden, a Saturday night at the fights leaving the worst of the NBA to wash over the world again.

Whatever the reason, these are the NBA nights that stay with people. There's superstar Carmelo Anthony looking like the worst kind of flailing fool, sucker-punching and running under the bright lights of Broadway.

The rules are different in the NBA, where boorish behavior gets treated differently than the rest of sports. These images stay with the public, shaping stereotypes of those beneath the headbands and tattoos. Albert Haynesworth can smash his cleat-clad foot into the unmasked face of a Dallas Cowboy and baseball can empty benches with beanball brawls, but those acts are never made to stand up for the entirety of the sport.

Basketball has a different burden, born out of Ron Artest's treatment of a wayward soft drink cup as though it had been a jagged piece of glass. The rules for Stern's sport were forever transformed that night in the suburban Detroit stands, when the NBA lost its compass, lost its way.

Two years later, the New York Knicks and Denver Nuggets were the worst kind of posers, all false bravado and fake tough-guy posturing.

On every level, this was an embarrassment. Everything started with New York's Mardy Collins clocking Denver's J.R. Smith on a breakaway in the final moments, a rookie hit job that had the resemblance of a coach's order. From there, the NBA could've lived with Nate Robinson wrestling Smith into the beautiful people in the Garden's front row, but everything changed when Anthony – one of the faces of the league – turned the court into an unruly mess with a right-cross upside Collins' head.

Anthony should be suspended a minimum of eight games for that, a glancing blow that could've turned Collins into Rudy Tomjanovich had it connected with the ferocity with which it was unleashed. The top scorer in the league and an MVP candidate, Anthony dissolved into knucklehead tendencies, escalating a sorry scene into something far more dangerous.

Mostly, this melee had no basketball nobility in its roots. No redeeming value. When this kind of thing happened in the past with tough, physical basketball, people weren't so fast to brand the whole NBA for it. That'll be the case on Saturday night, though.

The Knicks and Nuggets don't defend. They preen. They pose. They talk tough games, but they play finesse basketball. Isiah Thomas and his Knicks were puffing their chests, pretending as though they had upheld some kind of code. From the cheap-shot foul to the bellyaching over Denver running up the score, they were an embarrassment. They don't defend the paint, don't defend the Garden, and they need to understand that grabbing Nuggets players around the neck doesn't defend the franchise's honor. They started a humiliating night for the NBA, even if Denver emboldened it.

Strange as it sounds, when it was Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning trading haymakers in the 1998 playoffs, there was no lingering damage to the NBA. They didn't throw sucker punches and start backpedaling, the way Carmelo did. L.J. and 'Zo, they had a history. They had reasons. They held hatred in the hearts, inspiring intrigue in the rivalry of the Knicks and Heat.

For good reason, those fights didn't label the league as a thug's game, because the people had the good basketball sense to see its context within the spillover of serious basketball. Just like the brawl at the Palace two years ago, though, this was garbage at the Garden. Yes, J.R. Smith had a right to get into Collins' face for dragging him down, but the rest of it insulted everyone's sensibilities. For the Knicks, it's a sorry testament of Thomas' regime when the team's enforcer is 5-foot-6 Nate Robinson. As it turned out, the Garden hadn't seen this kind of midget mayhem since Vince McMahon had Sky Low-Low working the WWF undercard.

Even so, no one in Olympic Tower should be laughing today. Barnum and Bailey snuck into the Garden, its elephants leaving a mess on the floor. These teams, they don't play tough enough to dare fight on the floor. What they did was leave the rest of the NBA with the residue of Auburn Hills, the kind of video clip that lives on in the 24-hour news cycle.

Hit play, over and over, and watch the commissioner's vision for cleaning up the NBA's image go directly into the crapper. Midget wrestling and a superstar swinging for a suspension at the Garden, the kind of pro basketball night that stays with the public, that comes back to haunt this league once again.