It’s rare that I call out individual players with anything more than snarky semi-criticism. These are just sports, and every play and every player must be taken with a bit of a sense of humor. Every society on every continent has evolved some form of athletic competition, for entertainment and for status. But only in this country do people get paid millions to throw a ball through a hoop while teachers fight tooth and nail to keep their meager paychecks from going even lower.
When a situation is ridiculous, the only appropriate response is to ridicule.
But there was nothing ridiculous in the flagrant-2 fouls that got Lakers power forward Lamar Odom and center Andrew Bynum ejected in the fourth quarter of their season-ending blowout loss to the Dallas Mavericks Sunday afternoon.
Let’s start with Odom’s hit on Mavericks power forward Dirk Novitzki. Though not by any means acceptable, this play certainly seemed at least understandable. The Lakers were getting blown out and were about to be swept out of the playoffs for the first time since 1999. There was a little bit of contact, Odom lost his cool and lashed out at Novitzki. It’s o.k., Lamar: who among hasn’t wanted to punch a German in the face?
Had Odom’s incident been the only one, he would’ve been criticized for poor play and it would’ve ended there. But then we get Bynum’s hit on Mavericks point guard Jose Juan Barea. At that point, it gets ugly.
Bynum’s hit was a bevy of bad adjectives. Disgusting. Calculated. Malicious. Juvenile. An elbow straight to the gut of a defenseless player that you dwarf by a full foot and 110 pounds. Bynum’s hit showed him to be a gutless bully picking on the smallest kid on the court because he’s the least likely to fight back (though that doesn’t always work, as this kid showed).
At least Odom went after Dallas’s star. Bynum just wanted to hurt somebody. And with two such hits in one game, a new dimension to the mentality of the Lakers has been revealed. Many have called coach Phil Jackson the “zen master” of basketball, projecting an unceasingly calm and confident demeanor. Jackson never panics, never gets emotional, and his team has fed off that in cultivating a constant aura of professionalism.
That’s what Jackson wants us all to think, anyway. But did these Lakers look calm Sunday? Did they look confident they could get back in the game or the series? Did they show professionalism, maturity or grace in defeat?
No. They punched people in the back of the head and elbowed them in the gut mid-shot. Jackson has taught these Lakers how to win, but did he ever bother to teach them how lose?
After the game, Bynum was unapologetic.
“We were getting embarrassed, they were breaking us down,” Bynum said. “So I just fouled somebody.” No, you didn’t. Just fouling is grabbing a player on a fast-break to prevent a layup. Just fouling is glancing your arm off a player’s head while going for the block. Just fouling is getting caught in an up-fake and contacting the player as you come down from the jump. You threw an elbow to the ribcage of a defenseless player. You didn’t try to disrupt the shot; you tried to hurt someone.
Odom’s comments – “I didn’t mean anything by it” – after the game were a bit more believable. I don’t think he meant to hurt Novitzki, who was fine after the play (Barea, meanwhile, lay on the floor for several minutes after Bynum’s hit). But the Lakers sent a horrible message to young athletes: if you’re losing badly, if you’re “embarrassed” by another team, dirty play is fine. If they’re beating you by playing by the rules, go ahead and break those rules (or just the other players).
David Stern and the NBA must take a good, hard look at these incidents. Anything less than a stringent penalty will send a terrible message to the NBA, its fans, and potential players everywhere.