ATLANTA - NBA commissioner David Stern's itinerary called for him to make an appearance at an Atlanta Hawks playoff game last night. (We trust this reservation was not made last fall.) That gave him the occasion to praise the Hawks and their fans for Job-like patience over the last nine playoff-free years - and to deliver a warning to NBA players, two of whom, including Paul Pierce, were whacked with $25,000 fines yesterday for making what the league said were "menacing gestures."
Pierce made a hand sign (watch it on YouTube) toward the Atlanta bench (possibly Al Horford, who had been woofing at him) late in the fourth quarter of Saturday night's loss to the Hawks. Depending on which generation you're from, what Pierce did could result in a number of interpretations, among them "zero" and "OK." He held his index finger and thumb in a circle and, above that, his three other fingers together. He then turned and walked back to the Boston bench, accompanied by Brian Scalabrine, who was in civvies.
A menacing gesture? That was the NBA's view of it, as explained last night by league operations czar Stu Jackson.
"We don't want players motioning, taunting, gesturing to other players, which could potentially incite an altercation," Jackson said. "He hung around [instead of going to his bench]. It appeared to us he was trying to incite either Horford and/or the Atlanta bench. That's something that we're just not going to tolerate. There's no room in the game for it."
Pierce did not address the issue pregame and when it was brought up after Atlanta's 97-92 victory, he said only, "No comment," before walking away. Celtics hoops boss Danny Ainge took a similar approach, but he did say he would deal with it at the end of the season, an indication there might have been something amiss. Ainge also said Pierce makes a similar sign with both hands during pregame introductions, which is meant to signify "blood, sweat, and tears."
Stern wasn't buying it.
"I guess I would say that the league is sending a message that says, 'You're the best athletes in the world, play the game,' " Stern said. "And you know what? If you get baited, don't take the bait. And let's play. Let's show what you got, which happens to be the most extraordinarily gifted athletes playing a spectacular game. And we're not going to let it degenerate into something else. Period."
The Wizards' knucklehead guard, DeShawn Stevenson, also was fined $25,000, but he made two gestures, one of them with his hands and the other being a slash across the throat, which leaves little room for interpretation.
The "gestures" were thought by some to be gang-related, although neither Stern nor Jackson could say with any authority what exactly Pierce meant. "We don't know," Jackson said. Stern said the same thing.
"You analyze the situation, and on the basis of all available evidence and likelihood, you make your decision," Stern said. "And our decision was that it was two menacing gestures."
The fines were announced late yesterday afternoon, well after the Celtics had completed their shootaround but just before they arrived at Philips Arena.
The fines are part of a recent stretch of lowlights for the NBA - what former Miami coach Pat Riley likes to call "skirmishes" (and what Stern calls, "He did what?").
There was the DUI arrest of Denver's Carmelo Anthony, who later called his teammates and coaches quitters after a Game 3 loss at home to the Lakers. Then came Josh Howard's ill-timed remark that he liked to smoke marijuana in the summer, as did a number of his brethren. (Who ever could envision a guest going on Michael Irvin's radio show and sounding more clueless than the host?)
Stevenson and LeBron James have been jawing throughout (and even before) their playoff series, and Stevenson has been hit with a flagrant foul. Jason Kidd was ejected from Sunday night's game against the Hornets for nearly decapitating Jannero Pargo, though he will not be suspended for Game 5 of that series. The Celtics and the Hawks have been going back and forth verbally; Josh Smith started before the series, Mike Bibby called Celtics fans "fair-weather fans," and Horford was motor-mouthing throughout Game 3.
"We're used to a certain increased intensity, high tension [in the playoffs]," Stern said, "whether it was the old days when Phil Jackson of the Bulls and Pat Riley of the Knicks said whatever came into their minds, whether it was true or not, to motivate their team.
"We'd scramble. We don't distinguish. Jason Kidd's flagrant. DeShawn Stevenson's flagrant. A couple of menacing gestures. A silly statement to the media. Sort of all in a day's work."