05/10/08 - 09:00pm
David Stern, here's a suggestion for the $25,000 soon to flow your way from the bank account of Paul Pierce, the Boston Celtic accused by your league of making a'menacing gesture' -- interpretation: gang sign -- at an opponent in a recent playoff game.
Take that cash and earmark it for the L.A. park Pierce has helped rescue from gangs. Or for the construction of a Boys and Girls Club in Inglewood that he's helping build. Or for the surgical wing that has the All-Star forward's name on it because he has given so much.
It's an odd mix, Pierce caught up in Stern's drive for a post-Auburn Hills, NBA image makeover. So far as we can tell, the Celtics' vet is one of the game's good guys. He has never given up on the place where he is from. In his case, that place is Los Angeles, South L.A. and Inglewood to be exact, particularly the sprawl of good neighborhoods held hostage by violent knuckleheads.
I'm neither convinced Stern's punishment was fair nor meted out smartly, and not convinced he made an example of the right guy.
Make no mistake, I'm on board with the commissioner's intent. He's trying to steer his league's image as far from the pathologies of urban America as possible. When it comes to gangs, he should. In the inner city, the gang problem is a disease, an epidemic, a nearly intractable public health crisis that is steadily eliminating a significant swath of our society.
Call me old fashioned, but I've got no problem with Stern demanding that NBA players start dressing more like executives and less like rappers, no problem with him cracking down on macho, taunting hand signs.
Our kids look up to these guys as if they were gods, watching and mimicking every move they make. For the kids who come from stable homes and safe neighborhoods, mimicking the dress and the 'menacing gestures' Stern so dislikes is innocuous. A harmless placebo.
But for others, for the kids who live among chaos and numbing poverty, mimicking those moves and that dress can be a poison pill. It can literally lead to death.
This is no game. Image -- including dress and posturing -- means much. It's a part of culture. If we can begin changing a culture that contributes to a fatal disease, NBA, have at it.
Yet I also think Paul Pierce was wronged.
If I'm his advisor, or if I've got the ear of any NBA player who tosses up signs that in any way can be construed as those a hoodlum would flash, I'd certainly make a two-word demand: can it.
But in this case, the NBA is making a judgment call on Pierce's intent, and that intent is unclear. The gesture in question looked much like an 'OK' sign, his outstretched fingers tracing a B. It could have been a B for the Piru Bloods, an Inglewood gang. Then again, there are people all over the Celtics' hometown who use the sign, the B signifying pride in Boston.
And Pierce himself says he didn't mean the sign to have a gang connotation. The B, he said, is for his team's motto: Blood, Sweat and Tears. Maybe he's lying, maybe it's a rationalization, but backing him up are close observers of the team and several other Celtics.
The Celtics, they say, have been flashing this sign all season long and nobody has been called for a foul, nobody given a fine. Why now?
It would have been better if the NBA had handled this matter behind the scenes, Stern giving Pierce and his team a good warning. There's no indication that happened.
Because Stern made this a public punishment, Pierce has been unfairly branded a thug in certain corners of the madding crowd. It's a bitter truth for many black and Latino athletes. If they come from a place such as Inglewood, a diverse city with a gang problem, they suffer guilt by association. That simple-minded line of thinking is nearly as toxic to our society as the disease of gang violence itself.
Thing of it is, Paul Pierce is hardly a guy caught up in street madness.
Ask, as I did this week, the CEO of the Tufts New England Medical Center. She'll tell you how Pierce sits on the hospital's advisory board, how his name graces a surgical wing at her hospital because he's given bushels of money, how caring he is to the children who end up there.
Speak to the director of the Santa Monica Boys and Girls Club. He'll rave about the tens of thousands of dollars Pierce spent to refurbish the gym there, about the Celtic's patient work with kids, and about how Pierce has given $1 million in seed money for construction of a new club in Inglewood.
Drive down to a rough neighborhood near USC and find Richardson Park, a tree-shaded oasis adopted by one of Pierce's charities last year. First the charity (also headed by the Golden State Warriors' Baron Davis) cleaned up the place. Now it pays for weekly aerobics and art classes and helps fund the salary of a community organizer who oversees the day to day.
Instead of hoodlums, Richardson Park teems today with grandparents, mothers and fathers and happy kids.
Mr. Stern, now that you've clumsily made an example of Paul Pierce, I suggest you send that $25,000 to one of his charities. It would help do a lot of good.