Chaotic tableau of Staples Center skirmish dissected

On the night of Saturday, Oct. 19, the National Basketball Association witnessed a fight. It was more than a Zaza Pachulia–esque “Hold me back, bro” kind of fight. It was more than the generic “If you shove me one more time, we got a problem” altercation, the kind of scuffle that normally yields a couple of technical fouls and maybe a subtweet.

Saturday night’s fight one-upped even the most vicious form of recent NBA violence—the Draymond Green groin kick. Saturday night’s fight was an actual fight. And, while in observing the Rockets/Lakers scrap we can learn plenty about the players involved, we might even be able to ascertain something about ourselves, too.

The fight began after the Rockets’ James Harden drove to the basket in a way that anyone who has watched him for the past few years will recognize: He exploded past the first layer of defense, got back to his left hand, slowed his stride to brace for contact, absorbed the contact, flailed as if shot, recovered from the apparently brutal blow and finished the layup. All 110 pounds of the Lakers’ Brandon “The Human Zipper” Ingram ended up against the stanchion below the basket. A pretty normal sequence, all in all.

Ingram—the pride of Kinston, North Carolina, and the pupil of the NBA’s most infamous 21st-century tough guy, Jerry Stackhouse—did not think it was normal. His rage seemed to be initially focused on the referee Derrick Collins. As Ingram made his way toward Collins, pleading his case, Harden sauntered into his path. As Ingram approached Harden, eyes still still fixed on Collins, he gave a truly phenomenal get-the-heck-out-of-my-way shove to James Harden. It’s worth noting that Ingram has the wingspan of a full-grown pterodactyl, so by the time his arms uncoiled, Harden was off balance, several feet away, startled.

Another referee, Jason Phillips, saw Ingram shove Harden out of the way. Phillips immediately strode toward Ingram and assessed him a technical foul. This launched Ingram into a state of apoplexy. He got right in the face of Phillips, bearing down on him like the NBA’s most horrific incarnation of Slenderman. Noted NBA peacemaker Lance Stephenson rushed in, pulling Ingram away from Phillips.

From there, things get confusing, exciting, dangerous and telling. Chris Paul, the NBA’s version of a fire ant, made his way toward Phillips. (Paul, the president of the NBA Players’ Union, always takes on the role of pseudo-diplomat.) Rajon Rondo, a man who has made an illustrious career out of being cunning and enigmatic, also slid toward the referee.

As Rondo and Paul entered the fracas, Phillips moved to one side of LeBron James, Ingram and Rondo’s teammate. Now amidst a group of nine individuals (three referees and six players), Rondo and Paul stood on the other side of James. With the same sort of magnetism that draws two last-weekend lovers together at a college party, Rondo and Paul found each other.

By now, we know the partial truth of what transpired soon after Rondo and Paul came together: After exchanging seemingly mild words with Paul, Rondo subtly spit in the face of the Rockets’ guard. (Maybe it was an accident, maybe it was not. We may never know. I do not think that it was, for what it’s worth.)

Paul immediately retaliated to the spit. He put his right index finger quite literally in Rondo’s face. Specifically, in his right eye. Rondo reared back and struck Paul’s nose with his left fist. Rondo swung again. Paul countered with an uppercut. A slew of players—Eric Gordon, Carmelo Anthony, PJ Tucker and James—began to try and separate the two brawling guards.

Ingram, who had been standing with the dead-eyed Lonzo Ball at half court, charged in, stutter stepped and threw a punch over Rondo and Tucker towards Paul. The punch glanced off of Paul, and as Ingram reared up to strike again, Anthony and Gordon restrained him. James dragged Paul over toward the baseline as a host of security guards and assistant coaches contained Rondo.

Just over five seconds passed between when Rondo spit on Paul and when James dragged Paul to the baseline, ending the melee. In those five seconds, we saw a glimpse of how every individual involved reacts in times of intense turmoil. Maybe.

There’s a quotation, often attributed to the philosopher Plato, that I think quite usefully describes this phenomenon. The platitude, of which I am quite fond, goes something like this: “You can learn more about someone in an hour of play than in a lifetime of conversation.” This quotation is not always used in the most flattering of ways in reference to me, someone who is psychopathically competitive in any recreational sports activity. Nonetheless, I think there is real wisdom contained within these words.

So what should our takeaways from these fateful five seconds be? Perhaps that Paul and Rondo are two of the most abrasive players in the NBA; or that Brandon Ingram is both exceptionally volatile and deeply loyal; or that LeBron James almost always behaves in a way that transcends the impulsivity of sports; or that Carmelo Anthony is irrelevant; or that Eric Gordon exists most effectively on the fringes of a contentious moment; or that PJ Tucker loves to get in the middle of conflict; or that Lonzo Ball is inescapably reticent. Or, perhaps that all of these things are true.

But the supremacy of context, even in a moment as apparently unembellished and unconstrained as this one, can tell us a different, more complex story.

Perhaps we should be talking more about the fact that in 2009, the Boston Celtics’ Public Relations Department requested that reporters not ask Rondo any more questions about his feud with Paul, which apparently had begun when Rondo chided Paul for never winning anything (a decade later, this is still true). Perhaps we should be talking more about the fact that James Ennis—who wasn’t even on the floor when the real fight broke out—clotheslined Josh Hart in the minutes before the melee. Perhaps we should be talking about all of the unintended consequences that bringing LeBron James to the Lakers entails: intensity, pressure, anticipation and excitement. Perhaps we should be acknowledging that throughout the game, the Rockets seemed to be trying to rattle Ingram—pushing him and prodding him, poking him and provoking him.

Why stop there though? Perhaps we should be digging into the recent personal struggles of each player. Looking into their histories with violence. Deconstructing their families, their hometowns and their demography. Perhaps we should be conducting thorough psychoanalysis, and projecting what their behavior in this instance says about their future ability to foster healthy relationships.

Or, perhaps we should just stop.

Perhaps we should be quiet, admire the passion they put forth for the sake of their own fulfillment and our entertainment, and move on.

The Staples Center Skirmish could be remembered as a turning point in the Los Angeles Lakers’ season, or it could be remembered as evidence of the team’s inevitable instability. I hope it’s the latter, but if anything is true in sports, it’s that fandom allows our own underlying emotional state to bubble through and color our understanding of the vicarious thrill of competition. Just try not to spit on anybody.

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