NBA Playoffs Get Rough and Tumble on the Court

NPR's Tony Cox talks with New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden about the rough play in the NBA playoffs. Is the league worried about its image? Plus, the two discuss how NBA head coach Byron Scott turned things around for New Orleans Hornets.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is News & Notes. It's time for sports, with NPR's Tony Cox. Hey, Tony.

TONY COX: Hey, Farai.

CHIDEYA: So let me guess. It's playoff time in the NBA, and it is getting rough on the court.

COX: Boy, you got that right. You know, fans expect it to get rough in the playoffs, but this is something new. The Boston Celtics and the Atlanta Hawks, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards have been woofing at each other, throwing elbows, committing flagrant fouls and even throwing up - listen to this - what some are calling gang signs. Here to talk more about it is New York Times sports columnist Bill Rhoden. Hey, Bill.

Mr. BILL RHODEN (Sports Columnist, The New York Times): The great Tony Cox, how you doing today?

COX: I'm doing great, man. You know, that Boston series has been particularly contentious, with Kevin Garnett involved in a questionable skirmish, and teammate Paul Pierce being fined 25,000 dollars for that menacing hand gesture, which he says was not a gang sign. What in the world is going on?

Mr. RHODEN: Tony, it's playoff time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RHODEN: That's why the NBA playoffs, I think, are probably the greatest playoffs in all pro sports. You know, by the time you're at that fifth game, you hate each other, you know, you can - you know what people had eaten for breakfast, and it's getting really rough and ready. And, you know, Paul Pierce, I mean, gang signs. I mean, the kind of money this guy's making, he'd have to - I think the only gang sign he's seen is something he's seen on television. But this, I mean is...

COX: Well I don't know. You know, he's from Englewood, you know. And I'm sure he knows what the gang sign looks like. Whether or not he was throwing it up or not. But what do you think?

Mr. RHODEN: Television.

COX: It's just weird. Wasn't that just bizarre?

Mr. RHODEN: It was a little bizarre. But I mean, I just think that these playoffs, all of them, Boston-Atlanta, you know. Atlanta took them to school down in Atlanta. Just gave no respect. And as brutal as that series is, Tony, when you go over to the Washington-Cavaliers series, that's even rougher. Because...

COX: Before you go to that one, I have another question about Boston. Then we'll go to Washington next. And that's this. Because some are saying that commissioner David Stern has a double standard. You know, Garnett not fined or suspended for his altercation. Neither were two players who left the bench during that altercation. Now that's unlike last year, when two Phoenix players were suspended for the very same thing against San Antonio, weren't they?

Mr. RHODEN: Yeah, yes, exactly. And I think that's exactly - this is the commissioner's equivalent of the make-up call. Because he took so much heat, the NBA took so much heat on what happened last year when Phoenix, their key players, were suspended before a critical game. I think that you look at this, and the bottom line is that people want to see the stars play. You know, people don't want to see Kevin Garnett in street clothes. And so I think that something short of some egregious yoking (ph), you're not going to see what you saw last year. Because, frankly, this is a star league. It's a league of make-up calls, and you're just not going to - and I agree with it. I don't think that you need to throw out players in playoffs unless it's really, really, really something...

COX: Something egregious, right?

Mr. RHODEN: Very, very egregious. Very flagrant. I don't think that that rose to that level.

COX: Let's talk about Washington and Cleveland, since you brought it up. DeShaun Stevenson, Brendon Haywood have been really rough on LeBron James. Stevenson was fined 25,000 big ones for making a throat-slashing gesture with his finger. Here's two questions for you, Bill Rhoden. Are these dirty plays, or are these guys just doing their jobs, and LeBron James is being protected because he's a superstar?

Mr. RHODEN: Well, to anwer your first thing, they're just - they're doing their job at playoff time. And rather than be protected, Tony, I mean, LeBron is getting no respect. I mean, he's not getting the Jordan treatment. The players are talking trash, they're hitting him, they're really beating him up. And the officials aren't really protecting him a lot. I mean, not like they would protect Michael. And I think that...

COX: But he's not Michael yet.

Mr. RHODEN: He's not Michael. Oh, and that's why he's not being protected like Michael.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RHODEN: You know, he's got about six championships to go yet. And I think that - to the extent - I don't want to see anybody get hurt, Tony, but I really like this. I like the idea, because we're in such a culture where people are rewarded before they even do anything. I think it's cool that everybody, from the players, they said, listen, LeBron, the hype is fine, but we're going to make a distinction between the commercial hype and how you earn it on the court. And right now, LeBron is not - particularly if you use Michael Jordan and Magic and those guys, and Bird, as a standard - he hasn't earned it yet.

COX: He hasn't earned it. All right, let's talk about somebody who did earn something, that some people feel - I think you're one them - that he should have earned a long time ago. We're going to talk about coaching because, while NBA coaches who lose are getting fired - Avery Johnson got the ax in Dallas this week - Byron Scott of the New Orleans Hornets got his first ever Coach of the Year honor. What about that?

Mr. RHODEN: So well deserved. You know, I've seen - Byron is always one of those people - you know, some people do a little and get a lot of credit. You know, you may work with some of them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RHODEN: Some people do a lot and never get recognized. And Byron is always - you know, when he was a player, he played with those great Laker teams, with Magic and Kareem, and Worthy. And he was a pivotal part. He came to New Jersey, there was Jason Kidd, led a New Jersey franchise to two consecutive NBA finals.

COX: True. That's right. He did.

Mr. RHODEN: Yeah. And then he was fired the next, you know, he was fired the next day - the next year when Jason Kidd, of all people, led an insurrection. So that makes this particularly delicious, because not only does he finally get the Coach of the Year Award, everybody realizes that, but also he kind of gets it on the back of Jason Kidd. You know, who...

COX: Yeah. That's true. He does.

Mr. RHODEN: This is wonderful. It really is wonderful.

COX: Our time is running short, but I want to mention one other thing before we get out of here. And talking about coaches, here comes Larry Brown again. This time in Charlotte, where the Bobcats haven't done so well under the leadership of owner Bob Johnson and team "pres," Michael Johnson - uh, Michael Jordan. What's up there?

Mr. RHODEN: Well, you know, you look at Bob, and BET, and I think, you know, he likes sports, but I think he bought this franchise as a business investment as he does with everything. And the only thing about this, you got to win, you know? And you can complain about not getting support and that kind of stuff. But you have to win. You know, people aren't going to just come because, you know, oh, this is a, you know, minority owner, and we're going to come. And that's not the way it works. You got to spend money, and you got to win. And they have not done either yet. So, you know, you have to win, Bob.

COX: We'll have to wait and see whether the great Michael Jordan can finally bring some winning ways to Charlotte. As always, Bill Rhoden, it's a pleasure to talk to you.

Mr. RHODEN: Tony, as always, the pleasure is mine.

COX: We'll talk again.

Mr. RHODEN: OK.

CHIDEYA: That was NPR's Tony Cox joining me here at NPR West and New York Times sports columnist William C. Rhoden. Rhoden is also the author of "Third and a Mile: The Trials and Triumphs of the Black Quarterback," and he joined us at our studios in New York. COST: $00.00

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