A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

A Parable of Noah and Solomon

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Joakim Noah

Image via Wikipedia

And so it came to be that not long after the foul word used by the man they call Kobe, Noah himself did use the same word. From on high, the Association gave the decree to punish Noah as had been done before to Kobe. But from the crowd came an cry after it became known that the penalty for Noah would be only one half that of what Kobe was made to suffer. In response, the man in the high castle known only as Stu spoketh to his people:

He was provoked, and he used a statement to a fan that passed by him. So it’s different circumstances. We’ll continue to evaluate each one of these incidents separately and make a determination. But we felt in this case a higher fine wasn’t warranted.

Wise Stu

(Okay I’ll drop the bad Biblical language now) The comeback to this statement by the league that struck me came from Jeff Van Gundy on ESPN’s telecast of Game 4 between the Mavericks and Thunder: “They should have explained that in the initial fine of Kobe Bryant.

Obviously, if the league had laid out precisely how much every kind of fine was to start with, and then followed those rules, they’d have a bit more credibility when faced with criticisms of bias.

Personally?  Let me give my Huzzah to Stu Jackson and the NBA on this one as it shows them performing with a wisdom they didn’t show previously.

A bad memory

I’d like to point to an example from a few years ago in the NBA, where the decision made by Stu Jackson on punishments had ridiculous consequences.

Most of you are probably aware, but let me recount for you how it all went down:

2007, Game 4 of the series between the San Antonio Spurs and the Phoenix Suns. They are considered the two best teams in the league, facing each other early due to the quirks of the NBA. The Suns have pulled ahead for good in this game thus evening the series at 2-2 with 2 of the 3 games left to be played in Phoenix. As Steve Nash brings the ball up the court he tries to avoid getting fouled which would simply delay the ending of the game further. Robert Horry responds by throwing his body into Nash to make sure he gets called for a foul (and probably to vent some frustration). Nash goes flying, his teammates on the floor erupt and a brawl is narrowly averted.

It turned out however that the big consequence of this event was something viewers didn’t see at the time. Suns’ Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw, upon seeing their teammate tossed like a ragdoll, sprung to their feet and ran onto the court. They went back to their seats quickly and without major incident, but that didn’t change the fact that they’d broken a rule: No bench player can step on the court during an altercation such as this, and if they do, they get suspended for the next game.

They were suspended for the next game, which the Suns then lost at home to no one’s surprise. They returned for Game 6 in San Antonio, but the Spurs won again, as they typically do at their home. The NBA rule essentially moved home court advantage over to San Antonio, and with that advantage they won the series. After that the rest of the playoffs were a cake walk for them: They only lost 1 game in the last two rounds.

Foolish Stu

Image via Wikipedia

Needless to say, there was quite a bit of controversy surrounding the decision to enforce the rule. Here is what Jackson said at the time:

The rule is the rule, it’s not a matter of fairness. It’s a matter of correctness. The purpose of the rule is to prevent the escalation of these types of incidents and in turn protect the health and safety of our players and diminish the chance of serious injury [for] our players.

You were wondering where Solomon would come into this weren’t you? The Biblical King Solomon was a judge of renowned wisdom of course. I bring him for y’all to consider:

Why do we need judges generally?

And specifically, why does the NBA need to have an Executive Vice President like Jackson to make a ruling?

The answer:

Any fool can interpret a law or rule correctly. We need a wise mind like Solomon to render judgments because enforcing a rule correctly without applying understanding of the context and effects is worth nothing if fairness isn’t achieved.

As Jackson stated, the purpose of the rule was to prevent escalation, and that purpose worked. When the players realized what they had done, they went back to the bench because of the rule. All the literal enforcement of the rule did was send the message that once you’ve taken a step toward the melee, you might as well keep going because the league will now punish you even if you cause no harm. This makes no sense.

Worse, by interpreting the rule literally, Jackson made it manipulatable. The Spurs benefited from this specifically because one of their role players started the incident. The results certainly do not discourage future behavior along these lines from occurring.

I was appalled when I heard Jackson’s response. I had expected the NBA to follow their rules literally, but I had not expected they’d provide a rationale that makes clear that Jackson had seemingly no idea what the purpose of putting someone in his station was to begin with.

There are too many eventualities. Use your own judgement tempered by experience.

Do you see then why I’m happy with Jackson’s decision Joakim Noah‘s fine? The NBA should not have rules like: “$50K for saying the word ‘faggot’, and another $50K for saying it to a referee”.

Noah’s conduct wasn’t as bad as Bryant’s because of a situation more complicated than who he was talking to. He said it in response to a heckling fan disparaging Noah’s mother, while Bryant said it to a referee just doing his job. Had he shouted it to the crowd in general as a taunt after a victory (“You’re all faggots!”) it would have required a treatment by the league.

There are too many eventualities in any complex system to rely only on a set of rules. Those who interpret the rules must feel they have the power to apply their own common sense. This of course means setting them up for criticism when others disagree with their decisions, and the possibility of them losing their jobs if enough of the right people disagree with the decision. However, this type of implementation is the only kind that can possibly work well, and so organizations need to have the courage and wisdom to push forward with it despite the risks.

2 Responses

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  1. The NBA giveth, and the NBA taketh away. Blessed be the name of the NBA… Amen…

    But you’re right, in that the law has never been something to be applied without passing through a series of filters which tease out circumstance, provocation, gravity of the offence, deterrent and (finally) a bit of common sense. In this case, it sounds like it was applied with a bit of common sense.

    Personally, I like a points system where the penalty (which shouldn’t really be financial, given the “I’ll check in the pockets of my other jacket, that should cover it” ability of most NBA players). This means you can use gradations in a transparent way, and whilst there can be arguments about classification, it still makes the process APPEAR a bit less arbitrary.


    May 25, 2011 at 8:48 pm

    • Well, there’s truth that the desire for gradation has some good consequences. We don’t rely solely on judges. We build our infrastructure of law over time, and judges work within the existing framework, which in theory gives judges less power over time. This is arguably a good thing, but not always.

      What’s important to me is that whenever a judge sees issues with a literal implementation of the law, he has some degree of freedom in his interpretation. If he doesn’t have that, he really adds no value to the process.

      Matt Johnson

      May 28, 2011 at 5:08 pm

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