Remember the broken window theory? The disorder-breeds-crime, so-nip-it-in-the-bud urban policing philosophy that brought us zero tolerance and New York's triumphant War on Squeegee Guys? In cracking down on players carping at referees (i.e., Rasheed Wallace) and team owners carrying on like nap-time-deprived toddlers (i.e., Mark Cuban), the NBA seems to be following the same punitive logic: Today's Sheed hissy fit is tomorrow's Brawl at the Palace II. The line must be drawn HERE! Yet lost amid Kommissar Stern's fines and suspensions -- not to mention his strongly worded suggestion that players leave their Tec-9s at home, pretty, pretty please -- is a looming crisis. A hidden danger that threatens to undermine professional basketball as we know it.
I speak, of course, of the Taco Bell unlimited card.
Maybe you missed it: As part of a recent promotional arrangement with the fast-food juggernaut, Phoenix Suns guard Raja Bell received a photo identification card, similar to a driver's license, that pretty much gives him carte blanche at any Taco Bell in the state of Arizona. From Mexican pizza to seven-layer burritos, Bell can order whatever he wants, whenever he wants, in any quantity he sees fit.
"It's basically a VIP card," says Will Bortz, a Taco Bell spokesman. "There's no limit. If Raja comes in and wants to feed 20 people, he can. He's a partner of ours. And everybody loves to get a free lunch, right?"
Right. And therein lies the hazard. Bell is a good guy, a hardworking pro, a responsible citizen. When Bortz says he can see Bell using the card to feed kids from local Boys and Girls Clubs, he isn't just spouting PR pabulum.
Problem is, other players aren't nearly as circumspect when it comes to chowing down.
Sean May. Shaquille O'Neal. The amazing, expanding Boris Diaw. What do they have in common? Simple -- without a job that requires them to run up and down a basketball court for a few hours every day, they'd be flabby tubs of jiggly goo. As such, the last thing they need is an extra Gordita. Or two. Or two dozen.
To put things another way: picture Shawn Kemp. Not the spindly Kemp who swung around the rim like a flubber-shoed dunkosaur during the opening "Jam Session" montage of "NBA Inside Stuff'." Uh-uh. Try the portly, ground-bound, chesnut-cheeked Kemp of post-lockout vintage.
Now picture Kemp with one of these cards. Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in XXXXXXL shorts? Only if he shows a little restraint.
Perhaps you think I'm a hoops Cassandra, braying about a crisis that will never come to pass. After all, pro players make millions. Taco Bell is relatively inexpensive. The Ike Austins of the world already effectively have carte blanche. This much is true. But it's also missing the point, failing to account for human nature. If game shows have taught us anything -- beyond the absolute inadvisability of looking to Regis Philbin for sartorial inspiration -- it's that free stuff is infinitely more alluring than stuff you have to pay for.
Buy a Geo Metro? Er, no thanks. Win a Geo Metro in the Showcase Showdown? Sweet. I'll take two! Food works the same way. Think about it: When was the last time you refused a slice of office birthday cake, even though you were already stuffed from lunch and/or don't like cake in the first place?
Oh, and all of the above goes double when marijuana is involved.
Sit down. Grab your desk. The following may come as a shock: NBA players have a passing familiarity with the good herb. And the herb can prompt some dumb decisions. Like carrying your tinfoil wrapped stash through an airport metal detector. Or handing police your basketball card instead of your driver's license. Or eating too much Taco Bell. Waaaay too much Taco Bell.
Remember that scene in the first "Star Wars" prequel when Yoda discusses the path to the "dark side"? Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. Had Yoda been totally baked -- a distinct possibility, come to think of it -- his musings would have sounded more like this:
Bud leads to smoke. Smoke leads to the munchies. The munchies lead to Taco Bell. Hungry, am I.
"When it comes to munchies," concurs Bobby Black, a senior columnist for High Times magazine, "Taco Bell is in the upper echelon."
Fact: Stoners and Taco Bell have a special, symbiotic relationship, like the United States and England. Bortz will never admit this -- in fact, I expect a perturbed phone call as soon as he reads this column -- but that doesn't make it any less true. Ever notice how Taco Bell commercials always end with OPEN LATE? That's code. Code for WELCOME STONERS.
(Not convinced? Check out the surrealist Web site for Taco Bell's "Fourth Meal" ad campaign, which features graphics and mini-games that only someone in an altered state could love. Or even find halfway amusing.)
Anyway, do the math: NBA munchies + Taco Bell unlimited card = a league of Oliver Millers, a player who once rigged the Suns' team scale in order to cheat on his mandatory weigh-ins. This, in turn, would be an unmitigated disaster -- bad for the recent revival of run-and-gun basketball, worse for players with creaky knees, truly tragic for mop guys struggling to keep the hardwood dry.
Again, you may think I'm over-reacting. Couldn't a baked athlete simply ask for Taco Bell's healthier "fresco style" fare? Sure. But who has time to think about low-fat salad dressing when you're busy trying to decipher the kooky stuff on the back of a dollar bill? Indeed, a stoned baller is far more likely to order some of Black's faves, loaded up with extra everything: Double Decker Taco Supremes (380 calories each), Meximelts (290 calories each), grilled steak soft tacos (280 calories each). Over time, those Scooby snacks add up -- and if original "Baywatch" babe Erika Eleniak can end up on "Celebrity Fit Club," then anyone can pack on unwanted pounds.
Well, maybe not Shawn Bradley. But still.
The encouraging news? Bell's card is one-of-a-kind. The depressing news? Taco Bell can easily issue more. According to Bortz, regional managers already have similar cards, which may become part of a national promotion. And that's not all.
"Here at corporate, we have these things called Taco Bell Bucks," he says. "They're good at any Taco Bell. I carry them everywhere. All my neighbors love me."
Bell Bucks. Egads. Perhaps it's only a matter of time before Eddy Curry -- or possibly Damon Stoudamire -- asks to be paid exclusively in complementary meal tickets. Perhaps not. Either way, the NBA simply can't afford to find out. It needs to fix this broken window, right now, before the entire building collapses, brought down by the sheer collective weight of its suddenly super-sized rosters.
For the good of the game, Stern and Co. got Cuban to sit still. They forced Tim Duncan to put on a sport coat. They even made players adopt a new basketball that everyone hates, with the notable exception of PETA. Surely they can ban the Taco Bell unlimited card, which is nearly as worrisome as players wearing shorts hanging too far below the kneecap.
After that, I hope the league office will consider cracking down on the Knicks. Something really ought to be done there, too.
Patrick Hruby is a columnist for Page 2. Sound off to Page 2 here.