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Carmelo Anthony's sucker punch at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night didn't just strike Mardy Collins' face. It also struck at Anthony's own image, which had undergone a fabulous facelift in the past year and a half.

After a spectacular performance at last summer's world championships – during which he was lauded for his leadership and class – and a brilliant start to this season as the NBA's leading scorer, Anthony appeared to have matured and taken a major step forward in a career that began somewhat tumultuously. But Saturday's punch – which transformed what was a quickly dying NBA fight into a brawl – brought back questions of Anthony's character and raised doubt about his ability to be one of the NBA's pillars of success.

We know Melo is a phenomenal player – there's no doubting that. But can he be the megastar the league prides itself on? Not just a physical talent, but a Dwyane Wade, Michael Jordan type? The kind that David Stern can point to and say, "That's our guy," and sell him to the public?

Fights come with the territory in basketball. Most of the best players in the history of the game have been involved in them. Larry Bird went at it with Dr. J, Michael Jordan grabbed Reggie Miller by the throat in a game and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar punched Kent Benson years ago. Shaquille O'Neal went after Charles Barkley during a game in Houston late in Barkley's career. The game is extremely emotional and intense, and the players are so competitive that altercations are inevitable.

Let's face it: That's what we love about the NBA – heated competition between some of the world's best athletes. Sometimes, however, the action can be so fierce that things get out of hand. And when they do, players have to understand that there's a line that can't be crossed – particularly these days, two years after the Pacers-Pistons brawl that shocked the sports world and hurt the NBA's image.

Anthony crossed that line.

The fight between Collins, Nate Robinson (who also crossed the line, by the way) and J.R. Smith had been broken up and tensions were easing. Anthony's sucker punch of Collins reignited the fire and bedlam ensued. Carmelo should absolutely have come to the aid of Smith, who was the victim of a dirty foul by Collins but not by punching the Knicks player.

There is an art to defending a teammate who has been flagrantly fouled. Get in your opponent's face, point at him, gesture at him, threaten him – and then let security and teammates pull you back. That way, you defend your team's honor without doing any major damage. It requires composure, which is difficult to display in the heat of the battle, but it's absolutely necessary, particularly for a star player.

Anthony's mistake cost him 15 games – the length of the suspension the NBA handed down Monday. It also cost the Nuggets their second-leading scorer: Smith, who'll miss 10 games, which is a longer suspension than he probably would have gotten had the fight been broken up earlier. That means Denver, which had enjoyed a good start to the season and looked like a strong postseason contender, will have to really scramble to keep its head above water.

Anthony – like all NBA players – had to know that Stern would come down extremely hard on anyone throwing punches. Most people figured Anthony would get a seven- or eight-game suspension, but Stern doubled that. The league's image is paramount, and it took such a beating after the brawl at The Palace that Stern will do everything necessary to halt fighting. (Never mind that nobody seems to be concerned about hockey's image, where a fight like the Anthony/Collins one occurs nightly and is cheered – but that's a different story.)

Stern's punishment – which included seven player suspensions and $500,000 fines for both the Knicks and Nuggets – is a clear message to players and teams around the league: Don't mess with the NBA's image. The problem for Anthony, of course, is that not only did he taint the league's image, but he tarnished his own, too. It's as if he climbed all the way up the ladder, only to fall just as he was getting to his destination.

And now he has to start climbing all over again.