To shush Steph or not to shush, that is the question

Beloved NBA superstar and marquee player of the Golden State Warriors Stephen Curry is known for his record-breaking three-point shots and the fact that he can score result-altering, clutch, buzzer-beating points and make it look like it’s as easy as his signature shoulder shimmy. 

He’s also known for his mouthpiece. Curry is known for chewing incessantly on his mouthpiece or having it hanging halfway out of his mouth during games and even during penalty free throws. The compulsive act clearly works for him – he’s ranked number four in NBA history for three-point field goal percentage.

Ironically, it was his mouthpiece that landed him in trouble this past week. The two-time Most Valuable Player lost his cool when the officiating referee for the Warriors versus Memphis Grizzlies game didn’t call what he felt was a foul on him and subsequently tossed his mouthpiece in the direction of the ref. Cue the outrage.

This act earned Curry a technical foul, an ejection from the game and later a $50 000 fine (the highest amount a player can be fined for this offence currently) from the league. More outrage. Naturally, in the spirit of Warrior brotherhood, teammate and Finals MVP Kevin Durant was also ejected for talking back at the ref in Curry’s defence and other teammate Andre Igoudala was also fined $15 000 for yelling. Warrior Draymond Green, no stranger to ejections himself, managed to escape trouble this time.

It seems what many basketball fans and commentators alike took issue with is the fact that Curry was not suspended for his actions especially considering this was not his first mouthpiece-throwing offence. In the high-pressure game six of the 2016 NBA Finals series between Golden State and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the ref called Curry for fouling and he became irate and threw his mouthpiece (which hit a fan), earning him a technical foul and an ejection. In that instance, his actions could well have warranted a suspension but because of the intensity of the finals series, he was not suspended. This was a more than reasonable decision as he, the best shooter of his team, being absent from the final game of the series would have been a controversy the NBA would never live down.

Thus an opportune time to discipline Curry, many feel, would have been after this second déjà vu Mouthpiecegate moment. Because if the league “let it slide” when he threw his mouthpiece and it hit a fan and again when he threw it in the direction of a ref, then clearly the league is committed to coddling Curry at all costs. Favouritism, if you will, because he is not only the face and franchise player of the Warriors but also – wait for it – of the NBA.

Because heaven forbid if another player, perhaps one who possessed a more “threatening” stature than Curry’s demure frame or didn’t have as much likeability, was overly demonstrative towards an official – would they get the same treatment?

Let’s look at history. In 1993, NBA champion and All-Star Chicago Bull Scottie Pippen was called for a double dribble, threw the ball at the ref (instead of handing it to him) in a shot that could have hit the ref had it not been blocked and was ejected from the game.

In a more egregious instance, NBA champion and All-Star Bull Dennis Rodman headbutted a ref in 1996 and was ejected, suspended for six games without pay and fined $20 000.

Philadelphia 76ers All-Star and MVP Allen Iverson threw a ball in the direction of the ref in 2005, earning himself a technical foul. Later in the game, Iverson cheekily faked giving that ref the ball and instead gave it to another ref.

The Miami Heat’s Udonis Haslem threw his mouthpiece at a ref in 2006 and earned himself a one-game suspension during the playoffs. Coach Pat Riley at the time was quoted saying that “the ejection was more than enough of a penalty”.

James Posey of the then New Orleans Hornets, in 2009, threw a ball at a ref’s feet and was ejected and suspended for one game with no pay.

Boston Celtic Rajon Rondo also threw a ball at a ref and got doubled technicaled, ejected and suspended for two games in 2012.

More recently, in 2016, C.J. McCollum threw a ball at a ref and received a technical foul and was not suspended but did earn a suspension for leaving the bench during an altercation. Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder, earlier this year, threw a ball that landed on a ref’s head and got him a technical foul. It was heavily debated whether the hit was intentional or not.

Curry maintains that his incident was unintentional and merely out of frustration. “I didn’t throw my mouthpiece at the ref. I got better aim than that,” he was quoted saying after a recent game. His coach, Steve Kerr, said that he perhaps “should have been suspended for eight or 10 games” in a sarcastic comment. Both responses don’t do much to dispel critics’ belief that the Warriors are the teacher’s pets of the league. Many even feel that the decision not to suspend Curry speaks to the “docile” character that the NBA likes to see in its players.

Basketball is different to, say, football in that it only has five players and this leaves the door wide open for the NBA to be heavily driven by star players and as a result, narratives of favouritism leaning towards some players above others. With that in mind, then, let’s say the NBA did somewhat shield Curry by not suspending him. Is Curry then still a crybaby that should have been sat down, or is the league just exercising their prerogative to protect the darling of the NBA? Maybe it was just a standard decision that had nothing to do with player double standards. Maybe.

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Refiloe Seiboko
Refiloe Seiboko
Subeditor at Mail & Guardian

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