The biggest whiner I've ever known on a basketball court is my friend "Tiny." Tiny stands at six-feet-nine inches before he laces up his size 20 shoes, and weighs in somewhere north of 300 pounds. Not much is fat.
Near the basket, Tiny has his way with everything. If he misses, he can generally keep getting the rebound until he scores. It doesn't matter whether he's matched up against a bunch of guys over 30, as in our old pick-up games; or in the Shelby Park League, against much younger, springier players who are 6-6 or 6-7; or at one of his other rec-center haunts, where he's known as Bubbadog.
If he ever got really mad, I'm reasonably sure Tiny could knock down a building. I saw him get moderately irritated once, when a bunch of young ballers kept calling him lazy and sorry. With at least two of them hanging onto him, Tiny went up and dunked the ball with both hands, which set off so much hooting and hollering from the railbirds that people came running in from outside to see what the jolt was about.
Fortunately for us, Tiny doesn't focus on throwing his weight around because he's in love with his outside shot and because he hates to get fouled. Fouling Tiny is like trying to stop a tank with a hammer. Nonetheless, he could feel a mosquito alighting on his armand would call a foul if it occurred while he was shooting.
In pick-up basketball etiquette, it's considered a faux pas to stop the game to call even a minor foul, much less a princess-and-the-pea foul. But Tiny always insists on his rights. "Just because I'm big doesn't mean y'all can foul me," he'll say. "I got feelings, too."
So finely tuned is Tiny's sense of touch that he'll call fouls that the alleged foulers are not aware of. This always provoked a shrill exchange when my friend Chiffonda was playing.
"Foul," Tiny would call matter-of-factly.
"Who fouled you?" Chiffonda would demand.
"You know you got me."
"I never touched you!"
"You were ridin' me like a jockey!"
By this time their voices were at least a full octave higher than when the argument started, and it would continue for a couple of minutes until Tiny's call was honored. It would go on like this every day, with Tiny inviting Chiffonda to "come get your whuppin" on the court and Chiffonda invariably chomping into the bait.
One day, in an attempt to eliminate the delays caused by Tiny's foul calls, Chiffonda and I hit upon a strategy. We made Tiny an offer he couldn't refuse. If he could go an entire year without whining in our games, we would buy him dinner at Outback.
There's something you need to understand about Tiny. He puts everything in food metaphors. He must think about food a lot.
When Tiny emphatically swats away a shot, he's apt to exclaim something like "Mashed potatoes and gravy!" Sometimes he'll want to put stakes on a game of one-on-one. The stakes are always a five-piece fish dinner at Captain D's. During one of their on-court arguments, he called Chiffonda "Chicken McNugget Head."
So, as we had calculated, Tiny's ears pricked up when he heard our offer. "A whole steak?" he asked, his eyes getting bigger.
"Baked potato, too?"
"Baked potato, too."
"Bloomin' onion, too?"
"And a salad?"
Tiny readily accepted our offer. For several months, he tried very hard not to whine. Occasionally he would slip and catch himself. But it got harder and harder and, by the seventh month, Tiny was back to whining regularly.
We gave him the dinner anyway. We handed out flyers at the gym inviting everyone to "an evening of whining and dining." At the banquet, we let Tiny in on our secret. "What you don't realize," we told him, "is that even two months without you whining was worth a steak dinner. We got five months of gravy."
I recount this experience as an object lesson for the NBA in dealing with two of its loudest complainers, Mssrs. Ron Artest and Latrell Sprewell.
Last week, just six games into the season, Artest suggested that the Indiana Pacers, for whom he is the leading scorer, give him a month off. Sounding more serenely self-absorbed than Leon, the football-star character of the Budweiser TV spots, Artest noted that he was physically and mentallyinsert your own joke hereexhausted from the arduous task of producing a rap record.
"(I wanted to) take some games off, just to get back together, maybe stay home for a little bit, rest a little bit and come back," said Artest, whose proposal apparently didn't include foregoing part of his $8 million salary.
Instead, Pacers coach Rick Carlisle benched Artest for two games, with no wages garnished, for "compromising the integrity of the team."
"I don't know what that means," Artest said when asked about Carlisle's quote. "They probably expected a little more. They expected me to play every game."
Earlier this month, Artest went into the end zone seats and sulked after being pulled from a game, then left for the locker room. Two years ago, he was fined heavily for destroying courtside video monitors. He's been suspended more than once.
Sprewell, who knows all about victimhood himself (he was once "provoked" into choking his coach), made the papers recently when he suggested that he might give less than full effort this year since the Minnesota Timberwolves weren't moving expeditiously enough to extend his contract, which pays $14.6 million per annum.
"Why would I want to help them win a title?" carped Spree. "They're not doing anything for me. I've got a lot at risk here. I've got my family to feed." (At least he doesn't have to buy groceries for Tiny.)
Punishment doesn't seem to get the attention of these guys. Nor do NBA teams and fans seem prepared to take decisive action. In fact, one Indianapolis sports talk show host reckoned that 80 percent of his callers supported Artest over team management.
In the face of such obvious challenges, perhaps it's time for the league to build into all NBA contracts what I'd call the "Tiny Clause." No matter how astronomical the negotiated sum, each contract would have only $100,000 guaranteed. For each of the five full regular-season months they made it without "sprewellian artesting," the player would get 20 percent of his salary$2.9 million and some walking-around money in Latrell's case. If the stick doesn't work, perhaps a carrot will.
Of course, no one expects Artest and Sprewell to be untrue to themselves for a whole year. That's the beauty of the Tiny Clause. NBA teams will save some money. And if the fellas can shut up for longer than one month, we're all in bonus territory.