MIAMI -- The Chicago Bulls have plenty to worry about heading into Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals. How do they resurrect their abysmal fourth-quarter offense? How do they stop the Miami Heat's newfound ruthlessness when it comes to closing out games?
But sometimes, sports are bigger than the games themselves. Sometimes, sports make us think about issues we'd rather not confront. You pay money or sit in front of your TV to watch sports and be entertained -- to get away from the mundane issues of life, and in some cases, to block out the complicated, sensitive entanglements we're involved in every day.
Sometimes, sports and life collide, as they did Sunday night in Game 3 between the Heat and the Bulls.
Joakim Noah was whistled for his second foul in the first quarter. He went to the bench. A loud, persistent, disrespectful heckler (and a drunken one, according to a teammate) wouldn't leave Noah alone. NBA players, who are seated within say-it-don't-spray-it proximity to fans 82 nights a year (plus, for the lucky ones, the playoffs), rarely lash out.
Noah did. He lost his composure. He did so profanely and disrespectfully, and used a bigoted slur for homosexuals. It was caught on camera and uploaded to YouTube within minutes.
No sooner had he checked his cell phone after the game did Noah realize what a huge mistake he'd made.
You know the rest. Noah apologized -- after the game, and again Monday -- and it wasn't one of those fake "if I offended anyone" apologies. It was genuine, and from the heart. Noah was fined $50,000 by the NBA -- the correct amount, because it's clear to me that a heat-of-the-moment rant directed at a heckler is worse than doing the same to a game official, which cost Kobe Bryant twice that amount for the same slur. Noah couldn't have been more contrite, expressing his willingness to accept the consequences of his actions.
Case closed. But not really.
This has to be a teaching moment for players across the NBA, and in sports. Another player cannot use that word on the court, on the bench -- anyplace where NBA business is being conducted. (The trustworthy soul in me wants to believe that such hateful speech would be off-limits at home, in the weight room, and at the club, too. But let's just police what we can and hope it carries over to the rest in time.)
At a time when the NBA is taking the lead in the public discourse on gays in sports, with the universal backing of Suns executive Rick Welts after he came out last week, this can't happen again. Players are creatures of habit, and the NBA has proved that habits can be reformed. Whether you agreed or disagreed with the dress code, NBA players somehow learned to appear in public dressed for work instead of for a pickup game at West 4th Street. It took some time, but the NBA managed to get players to curb their reactions to referees' calls, too. Call this the David Stern mind-control police if you want, but the game is presented in a much more positive light when every stoppage in play isn't punctuated by a tantrum.
Whether you agreed or disagreed with the 73-game suspension imposed on Ron Artest for the unconscionable act of going into the stands at the Palace, you can't argue with the results. The point was made, unequivocally, that the line between the court and the seats is one that is never to be crossed. Artest hasn't been mistake-free since the incident, but it's worth pointing out that he did receive the NBA's citizenship award this season.
Noah isn't going to be nominated for any humanitarian honors any time soon, but it's hard not to commend his handling of the aftermath. He did interview after interview at the team hotel Monday, answering every question and expressing remorse at every turn. He didn't duck, didn't make excuses. He admitted he was wrong -- and more importantly, understood why he was wrong.
"People who know me know I'm an open minded guy," Noah said. "I'm not here to hurt anybody's feelings."
Noah stayed around long enough to conduct a one-on-one interview with Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN.com, an out, gay sportswriter -- and a talented one at that -- in a profession rarely called upon to wrestle with life's weighty topics. Noah was raised in the melting pot of New York City's SoHo neighborhood. His father, of course, is former tennis star Yannick Noah. His mother's best friend was a gay man known to Noah as "mom."
When Arnovitz approached Noah Monday, these were the first words out of Noah's mouth: "I'm really sorry about what I said."
This is the Noah his friends and family know: respectful, contrite, self-aware, and better yet, accepting of people's differences. Not the guy everyone saw using hurtful, bigoted language on national TV Sunday night, and on YouTube forevermore.
"I'm pissed off at myself," Noah told Arnovitz, "because that's not who I am."
Noah will pay his fine, proceed with his promising basketball career, and try to put his true self forward from now on. He'll try to act more like the thoughtful, apologetic 26-year-old who comported himself in exactly the right manner Monday, and not like the hothead who forgot his roots and failed his upbringing in an instant that will follow him everywhere.
Which brings us to the final lesson, another teachable moment that should not be overlooked in this collision of life and sports that has interrupted the Eastern Conference finals -- though I'm glad it has, because the more light that is shone on bigotry, the more it will slink back to the shadows. NBA players aren't the only people required to learn from this. The paying customers have to change, too.
In the major team sports, NBA fans are seated closer to the action -- and to the players -- than in any other. On a nightly basis, players face repeated, disrespectful, and sometimes disgusting heckling from people who think paying for a ticket gives them the right to act like fools. The ticket does not give you the right to do that; read the fine print on the back. But forget the fine print for a moment, and just think about common sense.
Why would anyone shout obscenities -- and worse -- at a person he doesn't even know? Why would he expect the recipient of these vile attacks not to respond -- which they rarely do? Why does anyone expect that a person with a bigger paycheck than you should adhere to a different set of standards for conduct and decency?
Despite the disconnect in that logic, NBA players almost always take the high road. In the rare cases when they don't, any language pertaining to race and sexual/cultural orientation clearly should be off-limits. This is the hard lesson that Noah, who is bigger and better than the word he used, has relearned over the past 24 hours. But what about fans? Where is the line that you shouldn't cross? Why do you believe that it's your right to continue to cross it?
The vast majority of fans understand this. According to teammate Taj Gibson, the fans who were seated near Noah's heckler Sunday night realized it, too -- and tried to get him to knock it off. But the guy wouldn't stop. He wouldn't stop flexing his beer muscles and wouldn't curb his tongue, which Noah said launched something "disrespectful" his way about this mother.
"The guy just kept going," Gibson said. "I know the crowd looked at the guy, too, like, 'Come on man, leave him alone. It's over.' But the guy just kept going. ... It was the usual, but in those circumstances, it was heavy because he was really loud. And he was a big guy, too. He was intoxicated. When I saw him, I was surprised, because he just kept going and going. Normally a fan may say a couple of things and then sit down. But he just kept going and going, and it was Joakim the whole time."
Even after the incident, the guy kept going at Noah and other players on the Bulls' bench for the rest of the game, Gibson said. Why not ask that he be removed?
"I've seen guys removed for doing stuff like that," Gibson said. "But being from New York and playing in hostile environments like Rucker Park, Joakim knows better than to get a fan thrown out after spending so much money on a good ticket."
Noah has to be better than this, and based on his response to this self-inflicted controversy, he will. But the fans do not live in a cocoon that shields them from responsibility. There will continue to be those who think they're above it all, and they shouldn't be tolerated, either.
So how about this? The next time a heckler thinks his $300 ticket and beer receipts give him license to say whatever he wants to people he doesn't even know, take out your phone and aim it at him. Then, put him on YouTube and see how he likes it -- how his wife likes it, and how his boss likes it.
Shine the spotlight on the guy who thinks he's big enough to sit in the big-boy seats, but never has to follow the same rules or face the same consequences as the player seated a few feet away. Joakim Noah will learn from this and do better. But the question that also has to be asked is, will you?