Melo's walking a dangerous line again

Maybe it was the phone call from a buddy Saturday night. Unable to reach me, he left a message saying, "Ah, you're probably out covering a fight somewhere. Heh heh."

Or maybe it was the radio report on my way to the airport Sunday morning, describing the previous night's events as "another black eye for the NBA."

It could've even been the long, foreboding delay, everyone wondering darkly about just how heavily NBA commissioner David Stern would come down on the participants in Saturday night's fracas at Madison Square Garden.

I'm not trying to be an ostrich and I don't believe I've been battered numb. I'm just not feeling the fight between the Nuggets and Knicks as the outrageous event that everyone, including the commissioner, is making it out to be.

It was a fight. Call it a brawl if you want, although I counted only two significant exchanges, Nate Robinson and J.R. Smith tumbling into the stands and Carmelo Anthony sucker punching Mardy Collins. Which doesn't qualify as a brawl in my lexicon.

The New York Times, as with most every media outlet, immediately referenced the Pacers-Pistons fans brawl, which would sit better with me if I heard and saw footage of Frank Francisco every time a basebrawl broke out -- Francisco, of course, being the Texas Rangers reliever who threw a chair into the stands at some Oakland A's fans back in 2004.

The same connect-the-dots logic means every update on the assault-weapon depot Tank Johnson of the NFL's Chicago Bears opened in his living room should be followed by clips of, oh, take your pick. Ray Lewis' trial? Rae Carruth's prison sentence being handed down?

And maybe there were highlights of Bill Romanowski hocking a loogie at 49ers wide receiver J.J. Stokes every time Terrell Owens' spittle gift to DeAngelo Hall is discussed, but I haven't seen it.

The only element from Saturday night that intrigues me is the whole Melo saga. Has any player this side of Rod Strickland ever so torched his own career, busted his butt to restore it and then summarily dropped it into the Hibachi again? I've known several players and coaches with a self-destructive gene that kept them from ever realizing their full potential -- Strickland, Don Nelson, Oliver Miller and Larry Brown immediately come to mind -- but Melo is taking it to a new level.

For those who haven't been keeping track, here's the rundown: First he wins an NCAA championship with Syracuse, earning the support of the bizarro faction that believes playing college ball is a sign of character or something. Those already tired of LeBron-mania climb on the Melo bandwagon his rookie year and exult when he takes the Nuggets to the playoffs and James falls short with the Cavs. The year is capped off by his selection to the 2004 Olympic team.

Only he sulks on the bench over his limited minutes, gives an inconsistent effort when he does play and grouses about coach Larry Brown. It's the first Team USA not to win gold at the Olympics with NBA players. All of which cancels the goodwill engendered by his rookie campaign.

The spiral continues. He reports to the Nuggets ridiculously out of shape. A bag of dope is found in his backpack when he boards the Nuggets' plane and he's discovered hanging with drug dealers brandishing guns on a "Stop Snitchin'" DVD.

A friend claims the weed and Melo walks the line, saying he doesn't endorse the DVD but refuses to turn his back on the crew he grew up with. His gentle looks and soft, articulate voice and vows of repentance convince more than a few critics to chalk it all up to youthful indiscretion.

Then Melo reasserts his basketball excellence. Coach George Karl has him cut out the long jumpers and make an effort on defense. The impact on the team is as profound as on Melo; the team's vets having been starved to see the young star made accountable. All of it produces a 32-8 closing for Denver and another playoff spot. Along the way, Melo wins MVP of the rookie-soph All-Star game in Denver. The bandwagon is out of the garage again.

By the end of last summer, it was also full. While the Nuggets didn't take a notable step forward last season, Melo did -- attacking the rim and working out of the post rather than settling for jumpers, shooting nearly 48 percent and reducing his turnovers. His performance on Team USA in the World Championship sealed his re-ascension, as some considered him the squad's best player over both LeBron and Dwyane Wade.

As the league's leading scorer with Allen Iverson out of commission, he seemed to be a lock for his first All-Star appearance. Now, his 15-game suspension means he'll have 14 games upon his return to convince the coaches to still put him on the squad.

Considering the coaches' history of using All-Star recognition to reward the league's stand-up talent, rather than just its best players, that could be a long shot.

The heartfelt apology and reference to his youth center in Baltimore only makes it that more wrenching. Having spent a little bit of time with Melo, I believe his remorse was genuine.

But at this point, it's hard to give him the never-will-do-it-again card. I'm all for the value of learning firsthand -- and anyone who grew up with me can attest I did my share -- but at some point you have to realize you're working with flawed instincts if they keep getting you into trouble.

That's what I think happened to Melo on Saturday night, based on a conversation I had with former Pacer Fred Jones after he served as a peacekeeper in the brawl in Detroit. Jones had misgivings about what he did, that maybe he should've been in there battling with his teammates, that someone might consider him soft for trying to be a calming influence rather than an instigator.

Melo appeared to have that change of heart in the midst of the skirmish. At first, he waded into the MSG fracas seemingly looking to extricate J.R. Smith. Then he backed off, saw Collins and something clicked.

Maybe it was a voice from the DVD. Maybe he was thinking his cred, as leader of the Nuggets or a homey from B'morgue, would be damaged if he didn't get involved. The subsequent backpedal probably erased whatever he gained in that department, but maybe he'd realized what he'd just done and was somehow trying to take it back.

For all the wannabe Steven Seagals who say he should've held his ground once he hit Collins, get back to me after you've thrown a punch in the middle of a basketball arena and are suddenly aware of thousands looking on with horrified faces, the ghost of your endorsements and carefully crafted image evaporating in the lights.

All that said, the fight at MSG is far less perplexing than the punishment handed down. Anthony's 15 games? A little strong, but OK.

Giving J.R. Smith and Nate Robinson the same penalty, 10 games? I don't get that at all.

Whatever Smith did, it was a reaction to a flagrant foul by Collins. Nate Robinson jumped into the fray and threw a punch, making him the fire starter. And Collins gets six games for a flagrant foul because of what transpired afterward? If there was ever a time Stern's abacus for suspensions seems more like one of those Magic 8-balls, this is it.

Then there's the absence of any sort of punishment for the two men who instigated it all, George Karl and Isiah Thomas. Was it really that hard to see this one coming? Karl and assistant Doug Moe are part of the ziplocked North Carolina basketball family, which also includes Larry Brown. Thomas smeared Brown while kicking him to the curb last summer. This, after Brown did everything in his power to underutilize the Thomas-built roster in hopes of leapfrogging Thomas in the chain of command under owner James Dolan.

Karl, a source says, has been telling his players all season how he wanted to embarrass Thomas on his home floor for his treatment of Brown. Thomas and Karl even exchanged words publicly about Brown's demise during summer league play.

Thomas, meanwhile, says Dolan's announcement that his coach/GM is gone without significant progress has him feeling more pressure than he has since escaping his impoverished childhood. So how did you expect him to respond to being punked on his home floor?

Karl's caterwauling about not trying to run up the score doesn't fly. Not when J.R. Smith is running out for gyroscoping reverse dunks and tissue-fragile Marcus Camby is still on the floor up by 19 with less than two minutes left. A team not looking to get fat milks the clock at that point.

You know what bothers me most? That I'm writing about this, rather than what I saw Sunday at Staples Center. I'd rather be mulling over the wondrously transformed Yao Ming, pounding his chest emphatically after a dunk and staring down Chris Kaman after a foul, finding that one extra stellar play to knock off the Clippers, the play that had eluded him in the two previous games in a last-second loss to Golden State and double-overtime loss to the Lakers.

Or offering more firsthand insight on Gilbert Arenas and Kobe Bryant, surrounded by a host of complementary pieces, and the thrilling overtime performance that ended with Arenas, a second-round pick, putting his name in the record books alongside Wilt.

Instead, the weekend's focus is on the culmination of a grudge match that, in the grand scheme of this season, or even the arc of power in the NBA, doesn't mean a thing.

In a way, I guess my buddy had it right. I may just have to slug him for that.