It is true, of course, that one disgusting game should not diminish the long and legendary career of Phil Jackson. It is true, of course, that one meltdown -- no matter how complete and degrading -- should not make anyone forget how great the Los Angeles Lakers have been the last three years, and really throughout the career of Kobe Bryant. It is true, of course, that random acts of frustrated violence perpetrated by Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum should not take anything away from the brilliance of Bryant or the urbane nature of Pau Gasol or the wonderful class of Derek Fisher.
That said: Is anyone else wondering why the heck the sports world isn't a bit more outraged by the freak show that happened in Dallas on Sunday? The Lakers -- the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers -- lost by 36 to get swept by Dallas. They exhibited no pride whatsoever. They quit.
There is nothing whatsoever to admire about quitters, but it is also not especially interesting. Quitting is pretty common thing in sports. The Lakers probably understood pretty early in this series that they were outmanned by the Mavericks, that Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd -- two of the best players in NBA history to never win a championship -- were intensely focused and driven, that the Mavs were deeper and more athletic and, frankly, more determined to win. It takes a deep commitment to give anything close to the max in a doomed effort, and the Lakers as a team saw their doom and were unwilling to fight to the end. Hey, they've won their championships. Quit happens.
But what doesn't often happen, at least not so openly, is for a quitting team to go rogue before our very eyes. Usually, quitting is by its nature a passive act. That is to say that if you can't find the energy and enthusiasm to give an effort in a clinching game, you probably won't find the effort to take a series of cheap shots either. But the Lakers found that cheap-shot energy. Lamar Odom plainly sent a flying elbow at Dirk Nowitzki and got himself ejected. Then, barely a minute later, Andrew Bynum threw his own elbow -- even MORE flagrantly, if that's possible -- at a driving and defenseless J.J. Barea. Bynum got tossed out of the game too, though he managed to take off his shirt before exiting. So he had that going for him.
And, of course, Ron Artest got himself suspended for clotheslining Barea at the end of Game 2. The Lakers really covered themselves in glory.
We' will want to say again (because it's apparently the thing to say) that this shameful and abominable exit should not diminish from Phil Jackson's long and breathtaking career ... but it sure doesn't leave a happy echo. No champion in memory has gone out with such a lack of class. No great team in memory had so little respect for their coach that they sent him off in such a disgraceful fashion. And what made this meltdown even more remarkable was the casual way that Odom and Bynum admitted after the game that, yeah, they kind of lost their heads and kind of did something naughty. Really? That's it? Would you accept that if your nine-year-old told you that? How about your six-year-old?
"It's a little embarrassing," Odom told reporters afterward. "I'm a little embarrassed by it."
Here's a tip for Lamar for the next time something like this happens: Try not to use the word "little" twice when talking about how you cold-cocked someone because you were getting humiliated. At least Odom felt that slight embarrassment, Bynum said that the only embarrassment he felt was that Barea was schooling his team. "So I fouled the guy," he said, as if it made perfect sense.
Even Jackson himself sounded pretty blase about the whole thing: "It was unnecessary," he said of the cheap shots, "but I know they were frustrated." How about that defense from the great man? Hey, they were frustrated. Well, OK, whoa, I didn't take into consideration that they were frustrated. That certainly changes everything.
The NBA is a violent league. That is easy to miss on TV -- just like the size of the players and their amazing athleticism is easy to miss. The players pound each other. Hard fouls are close to battery. Playoff hard fouls are like assault and battery. And even in this setting, the Odom and Bynum fouls were hideous. The whole "role model" card gets played way too often, and sometimes I think the expectations we place on our athletes can be unfair. But "Do not just punch a player when he's driving the lane" -- I don't think it's unfair to ask players to stick to that one.
I don't know how leagues do their suspensions. I don't know what charts they use. But it sure seems to me me that there aren't too many worse things you can do in sports than purposely try to hurt your opponent because you are mad they're winning. That seems to me to break fundamental rules that go way beyond so many other sports-centric things we argue about like steroids and filming opponents sidelines and so on. You can't walk up to somebody and slug them because they beat you to the cab. You can't reach across the table and club the person who isn't offering what you deem a fair price on your house. Well, you CAN, but could find yourself in court. Sports isn't like real life. But there are real life limits in sports too.
The Lakers exit was pretty stunning just as a sports story. Coming into the series, the Lakers had their reputation as a team that rises to the moment, and the Mavs, to be blunt, had their reputation as a team that has not. But Dallas utterly outclassed Los Angeles. And the Lakers handled that about as poorly as it is possible to handle it. They disgraced themselves, their team, their league and their coach. They managed to go from champions to the very opposite of the word in four short games.
A friend says he hopes Bynum gets some kind of massive, attention-grabbing suspension but he probably won't. No he probably will get a two-gamer or something, and the world will move on. Heck, it seems like the world has already moved on. But Phil Jackson retires now, and if he stays retired then he cannot change that his final game represented the very worst of sports. Does it diminish the amazing career? No. But the amazing career also doesn't lift up the lousy final chapter.