When the career of Kobe Bryant was threatened by some of the most serious charges ever levied against an NBA player, David Stern was essentially helpless. He could only sweat and wait to see if the Colorado court system would take his megastar away.
When big names all over the league turned demanding a trade into a sport of its own over the summer, Stern was equally helpless. He couldn't do much more than seethe.
When Latrell Sprewell, at 34, suggested that a $9 million-a-season contract extension was unsatisfactory -- "I got my family to feed," Spree said -- it was the same, frustrating deal. Stern had no real recourse beyond a public rebuke.
Notice a difference Sunday?
The last thing Le Commish wants to do is feed all the tired, predictable generalities that were dredged up in the wake of Friday's debacle in Detroit. He's well aware that swinging his hammer -- hard -- at Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O'Neal gives fodder to all the clueless louts saying "they're all thugs."
In each of those recent NBA controversies mentioned above, Stern couldn't do much. He couldn't stand it, either.
The Malice of Auburn Hills scared Stern as much as anyone, but also forced him into making one of his loudest-ever statements about the behavior he expects from NBA players. Even, as he said Sunday, if it costs the league a few fans in the now.
"It was unanimous, one to nothing," Stern said. "It was my decision and I decided it."
It was Stern's decision to come down on Artest harder than anyone in the game's history, after Artest's decision to go into the crowd to chase down a drink-tosser escalated a brawl into a full-scale riot. It was Stern's call to punish Artest harder than Sprewell after his run-in with P.J. Carlesimo. Harder than the previous administration dealt with Kermit Washington slugging Rudy Tomjanovich.
It was likewise Stern's decision to suspend Jackson (30 games) and O'Neal (25 games) three times as long as he suspended Vernon Maxwell for punching a fan in 1995, even though Jackson and O'Neal -- unlike Artest -- don't have anything close to Artest's history of chaos-making.
An overreaction? To some, sure.
But a surprise? Definitely not in Artest's case.
The nature of the brawl was so unprecedented, Stern only could have shocked us with a conservative reaction. Surely you remember how he hit the Minnesota Timberwolves with an over-the-top array of fines and suspensions and docked draft picks after their illegal contract guarantees to Joe Smith. The goal then was the same now.
"The penalty had to be so severe," said one Western Conference executive, "that no one would ever consider going into the stands again."
Chances are that Artest doesn't see it yet, and might never see it this way, but Stern's severity could help Artest as much as it hurts him. Because, let's face it, the enabling, protective approach clearly wasn't working. Artest never stayed stable for long.
It wasn't just Artest's bosses doing the preaching, either. Going into this season, the league itself reached out to Artest by including him in its nationwide advertising campaign for the NBA's League Pass satellite package. It tried, like the Pacers, to extend itself to Artest in an attempt to draw him closer. Yet, Ronnie eventually recoiled, as usual.
Maybe now, through an enforced absence, Artest will come to miss the game he says he doesn't need and, more importantly, come to understand how destructive it was to the team environment to ask for a month off -- or a year off -- just days into the season.
Maybe this, finally, will be the spark that gets Artest to seek the help he needs to learn how to become a dependable teammate. Because it's not enough to be in the same sentence as Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan in the select club of stars who can dominate a game at both ends. Artest will never be the MVP he says he wants to be unless his teammates know he's going to be there every day.
There's a risk, potentially, that Artest will withdraw totally from the game now, supported by friends and associates who believe he got jobbed by Stern.
Of course, that was the last thing troubling Stern over the weekend. With the world watching and waiting to see how he'd handle this mess, he didn't disappoint. The hammer was back in his hands, at last, and he swung away.