Banned in the NBA

Around this time of year, I always start questioning whether I could have a future in politics.*

I have the charm, the wit, the dashing good looks, and obviously the humility. My grasp on current affairs is eclipsed only by my grasp on movie trivia. And, of course, I totally won a presidential debate staged in my sixth grade class — as Michael Dukakis, no less.

But those attack ads ... boy, they're enough to discourage anyone from running, no matter how skeleton-free you believe your closet to be. If you're photographed standing next to the wrong person, you're attacked as a criminal. If you mistakenly dialed a sex talk line, hung up, and then called the right number a minute later, you're attacked as a pervert. It's gotten to the point where you can't even write a fiction novel or your opponent will use passages from it to paint you as a misogynist.

Attack ads are controversial, twist words until they make good people sound positively evil. You know, like:

"Wyshynski uses words like CONTROVERSIAL, TWIST PEOPLE, and POSITIVELY EVIL. Is that really what America needs in a time of war?"

This column is going to be one that, taken out of context, will make me sound like either a complete racist or a defender of hate speech. But it's one that needs to be written.

"Wyshynski's CONTEXT? RACIST HATE SPEECH. Is that really what America needs in a time of energy crisis?"

See, there was this guy named Hooman Hamzehloui. He is — perhaps was — an Orlando Magic fan, a season ticket holder, and a sponsor of the team as a local realtor.

Last Thursday night at the TD Waterhouse Centre, Hamzehloui attended an exhibition game between the Magic and the visiting Houston Rockets, and was his usual heckling self — one of these guys who thinks a ticket guarantees you can say anything and everything in a crowd. At some point during the game, he directed his ire at Rockets center Dikembe Mutombo, who is originally from Africa. According to Hamzehloui, he called out, "Dikembe, you look like a big monkey" and made a few faces at him.

Mutombo did not take too kindly to this observation, and had to be restrained from going after the fan. Hamzehloui was promptly ejected from the arena, acting like a moron as he was escorted out.

Case closed? Hardly. The story got national play, and soon the two were engaged in a media war of words over Hamzehloui's alleged hate speech. Mutombo said in a statement, "He was insulting my races, my family, my integrity. I hope they don't allow him to come back. If I get fined, I will go straight into the stands next time and (mess) somebody up."

Hamzehloui was shocked to be labeled a racist, saying he has so many friends of different ethnicities that they sometimes call themselves the United Nations. (I wonder which one has dibs on Kyrgyzstan?)

(Doesn't this guy know you can only get away with calling a black athlete a "monkey" and then resting on your civil rights laurels if you work for "Monday Night Football?")

Hamzehloui threatened to get lawyered up: "I will not lose my right to watch the Magic. I love them way too much and we have a great team this year. Bring that on if you want, it is not happening big guy," he told WKMG Local 6 News.

But after the national outcry over the incident, Hamzehloui backed down, offering to donate money to a charity of Mutombo's choice if Dikembe authorized his return to the arena. He also claimed that he didn't realize "monkey" was considered a racial slur. Mutombo forgave him, but left the punishment up to the league.

On Monday, in a move noteworthy for its stunning stupidity, the NBA banned Hamzehloui from attending games in all league arenas this season.

"Wyshynski defends noted racist and hate-monger Hooman Hamzehloui, calling Dikembe Mutombo's protectors STUNNINGLY STUPID. Is that really what America needs in a time of gay marriage?"

Let's start with the obvious criticism: how does the NBA intend to enforce this? I can see Orlando posting photos at every gate and alerting security ... but the NBA doing this EVERY arena in the U.S. and in Toronto? For the entire season? What is this, "Minority Report?" (Pun intended, ‘natch.) Are they going to have fingerprint and retinal identification at every ticket booth? Will they electronically track his finances to ensure he doesn't use his credit card on StubHub? And (gasp!) what if he pays with cash?

But the real issue here isn't the ban, but the reason behind the ban, which is an alleged case of hate speech. Make that racial hate speech — hate speech happens at every single game at every single arena in every single sport. Players, coaches and referees are called homosexuals, mentally challenged, parts of the female anatomy, child molesters ... and that's just what I recall saying at my last Devils/Flyers game.

Sporting events can offer a master class in vile idiom; sitting in the upper deck is like listening to Chris Rock and Kevin Smith do a rewrite of a Quentin Tarantino script. It's all offensive, hateful nonsense that would earn your ass a beat-down if you said it to someone's face in a bar.

In a civil society, all of it should warrant an ejection and, in some cases, banishment. But that doesn't happen ... unless the planets align and the heckler's taunts match-up with the heckler's ethnicity, like three racially-charged cherries falling into place on a slot machine.

If you're going to ban Hooman Hamzehloui, then you should ban anyone who abuses players with the kind of rhetoric he's trafficked in as a self-proclaimed heckler, whether it presses a racial hot button or not. This isn't a game: there aren't fouls and flagrant fouls. One man's "monkey" is another man's "homo."

"Wyshynski compares HOMOSEXUALS with MONKEYS. Is that really what America needs in a time of John Kerry's disdain for our troops?"

So ban Hooman Hamzehloui in Orlando. The man nearly started a riot, which makes him just as guilty as John Green and Charlie Haddad — two fans who received banishment from the Palace of Auburn Hills after the Pistons/Pacers brawl two years ago. Green tossed the cup that set Ron Artest off; Haddad was Jermaine O'Neal's infamous punching bag.

But after searching through the archives, I couldn't find any evidence that Green and Haddad had been banned in every arena throughout the NBA after the Auburn Hills' brawl.

Let me repeat that: a man who called Dikembe Mutombo a monkey from the lower deck has evidently received a stricter punishment from the NBA than a fan that ran out on the court during a riot and engaged in a physical altercation with a player.

The Palace brawl was a catalyst for the NBA's new Fan Code of Conduct, which was used in the Hamzehloui matter. But nowhere in the Code does it indicate that racial epitaphs receive a harsher punishment than other offensive speech, or that banishment from all NBA cities is even an option in severe cases. It's less a code than a collection of vague suggestions.

But that's the NBA for you: a league where politics will always triumph over its own standards — and our common sense.

"I'm Greg Wyshynski, and I endorsed this column."

* It occurred to me a millisecond after I completed this sentence that anything and everything in this column — let alone the last nine years of "The Jester's Quart"— will be used against me in opposition research upon my inevitable entry into the political forum.**

**With that said, I would encourage my opponents to please ignore my April 7, 2006 article "My Fantasy Baseball Nightmare." Not because of any potential attack ad fodder in the piece, but because, looking back at it, I'm pretty sure I couldn't have written a more pedestrian, lackluster column if I was enrolled in an international contest that paid $10 million and a lap dance from Scarlett Johansson to the person who writes the most pedestrian, lackluster column. It sucked ... hard.

SportsFan MagazineGreg Wyshynski is the Features Editor for SportsFan Magazine in Washington, DC, and the Senior Sports Editor for The Connection Newspapers of Northern Virginia. His book is "Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History." His columns appear every Saturday on Sports Central. You can e-mail Greg at [email protected].

Comments and Conversation

November 5, 2006

Anthony Brancato:

Awesome article, Greg - and if Weird Al Yankovic has already read it he’s no doubt hard at work writing the lyrics to “Banned in the NBA,” as a parody of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”

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