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Fight Night in the NBA - Lessons from the NHL

By Nathan P. Square

I’m a sports fan, although basketball is not very high on my list of sports viewing priorities.  I mean, I enjoy playing the game, but watching the game has not been a very popular viewing option for me.  I am amongst the many people involved in advocating limiting the length of a game to two minutes.  Isn’t that where games are won anyways – in the last two minutes?  Those two minutes, as exciting as they can be, are always filled with brain-bashingly annoying stoppages of play, which essentially limits the game to a free-throw shooting competition.  So it’s obvious from my statement that (i) I don’t really know that much about and (ii) nor do I fully appreciate the game of basketball. 

So what does it for me – that’s easy.  As a Canadian, I grew up with the game of hockey.  If you don’t know Canada, it is a nation that lives, breathes, and worships hockey, and its professional organization, the National Hockey League (NHL).  We feel that hockey is the greatest game in the world as no other game features such a unique combination of grit, toughness, skill, finesse, and all-round physical talent.  But alas, the National Hockey League owners and players are embroiled in a bitter conflict that has led to a lockout.  Consequently the NHL season is most likely loss for the season.         

To make up for the continual gloom and constant sadness from a lost hockey season, I have focused my sports fanaticism towards the NBA.  This was an easier step since I am fortunate to inhabit the only Canadian city that supports an NBA franchise – the Toronto Raptors.  Although they began their season strong they are sucking it up as predicted.  And being only 10 games into the season, my attempt to actually be a fan of this team and the game as a whole started to waiver.  That is, until the events that occurred on Friday, November 19th. 

On that fateful night, I saw an occurrence in a sporting event that had me glued to my television set.  As you probably guessed, the incident occurred during the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons – when the Pacer’s Ron Artest charged into the stands going after a fan who had threw a full cup of a beverage onto him, when he was lying down on the scorer’s table.  What resulted was a surreal spectacle of a brawl between Piston fans and the Pacers, well, three Pacers – Artest, Stephen Jackson, and Jermaine O’Neal.  We saw Artest go after the fan punching him relentlessly (later showed to be the wrong guy who threw the beverage), we saw Jackson punching away at any confronting fan in video-game fashion, and we saw O’Neal come out of nowhere to sucker punch a fan on the floor, knocking him unconscious.  It was out-of-control, it was despicable, it was unwarranted, and most of all, it was extremely entertaining. 

Yes I do realize that the “entertainment” sentiment is not a popular stance amongst the game’s purists who demand the highest behavioral standards from their professionals.  I also realize that it is the wrong thing to say for educators, parents, and other individuals who work with young children who look up to these “professionals” as role models.  But how can you deny that it wasn’t entertaining: Yeah I know you were just as glued to the screen as I was, marveling at the sheer primitive nature that was being exhibited across the continent.  It reminded me of hockey. 

Its’ been days since the fight night, or what has been dubbed, The Malice at Auburn Hills, and its still being talked about all over the place.  Everybody has seen it and everybody has an opinion on it.  This dubious incident has led to a wider recognition of the NBA than the NBA will want to admit too.  They have a duty to condemn the act, as right they should, but at the same time, NBA executives must be licking their chops at the publicity generated from it.  And as entertainment executives note, “Good or bad – publicity is publicity!”  Even when publicity is bad, “controversy sells”.  This particularly holds true for the entertainment industry – and make no mistake, professional sports is part of this lucrative industry.       

This incident conjures images of something similar that occurred in the NHL.  As a young 10 year-old lad in 1979, I also saw highlights of an infamous event that has been labeled the NHL’s, Ugliest Hockey Brawl.  In a game between the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers at Madison Square Gardens, the Bruins were celebrating a 4-3 victory before Ranger goalie, John Davidson, skated up to the Bruins to accuse their left-winger, Al Secord, for sucker-punching the Ranger’s forward, Ulf Nilsson.  As the argument escalated and tensions were rising, the Bruin’s Stan Jonathon was struck by a thrown object from the stands.  Also, a stick-wielding fan confronted the Bruin’s Terry O’Reilly.  This was when all hell broke loose.   

Several Boston players including O’Reilly, Secord, Mike Milbury, and Peter McNab, jumped into the stands and started fighting with irate fans.  The highlight captured on film was when Milbury removed a fan's shoe and beat him with it.  The Bruins went to their dressing room in a hail of garbage and Garden police struggled to keep the fans from reaching the ice. 

Ensuing the ruckus, the NHL reacted by suspending O'Reilly for eight games and Milbury for two.  There was commotion all over the Canada about the integrity of the game and the rising rebellious nature of players, much like there is today about the NBA.  Hockey analysts predicted that the unsavory incident would severely impact on the league’s appeal and its popularity will wane.  What happened?  The NHL’s became more popular as more people became interested, particularly our American neighbors, who had not previously witnessed a brawl of this epic proportions.  Of course, the NHL was also fortunate to have the greatest hockey player ever, Wayne Gretzky, play the following season.  His greatness allowed many people, fans and executives alike, to quickly forget about this incident and focus at the game at hand.

Relating that today, the instigators of the brawl received strict punishment – Artest suspended for 73 games, Jackson for 30, and O’Neal for 25.  This will be punishment enough for the team, who will lose the services of their three top scorers.  The punishment is a significant increase from the suspensions received by the Bruin instigators of 1979.  Fan interest has increased, and in many cases, new fans have been stimulated.  I myself will go on supporting the Raptors, but will more feverishly look forward to the next Pacer-Piston game.  Not necessarily hoping for another brawl, but knowing that their next game will be played with more passion, grit, and determination, reminiscent of the NHL.         

The Malice At Auburn Hills will be forgotten as the months and years go by.  And just like the time following 1979, the NBA will be as popular as it ever was.  Not because of the brawl, but because of an athlete with greatness running in his veins akin to Wayne Gretzky.  They say this kid, Lebron James, is something to look forward too. 

I just might stay and see what happens.    


Name: Nathan P. Square

Age: 35

Location: Toronto, Canada

Occupation: Vice President of Customer Relations

Favorite Team: Toronto Raptors

Favorite Former Player: Larry Bird

Favorite Current Player: Chris Bosh, Toronto Raptors

Most Hated Team: New York Knicks

Most Hated Player: Vince Carter, Toronto Raptors 

Prediction for Eastern Champs: Miami Heat 

Prediction for Western Champs: Minnesota Timberwolves

Prediction for NBA Champs:  Miami Heat