Among basketball players, throwing elbows can be viewed as a tactical skill, dirty play or reckless assault.
Sacramento Kings forward Thomas Robinson was rightly suspended without pay for two games for the elbow he threw last week that decked Detroit’s Jonas Jerebko. The 6-foot-10, 238-pound Robinson was lucky he didn’t seriously injure Jerebko. That kind of impulsive violence gets people sent to prison in the real world.
On a more sporting level, I got an elbow to the face last week during a B league game at my athletic club in Sacramento. It was a hard shot that caught me just above the eye. I was guarding a younger, faster player about my size and working hard to keep him from driving past me. The game was close and we needed a win to have a shot at getting into the playoffs.
The elbow was just a blur in the action. Neither I nor my opponent stopped playing. The ref didn’t call a foul. I immediately wondered whether the elbow was accidental or intentional. That’s a big deal in the game of basketball. An intentional elbow makes a statement. You learn that early as a player.
When I was about 12, I finally got a chance to play on the big guys’ court at Braddock Park back in New York. I was guarding a short, wiry guy about 22. The first time he got the ball, he faked, threw a hard elbow into my gut and drove to the basket as I stood there gasping for breath.
I got no sympathy – nor did I deserve any. The elbow was a mildly dirty tactic in the arsenal of a smart player. When I got to high school, my basketball coach gave lessons in how to bend your elbows to protect the ball, how to turn your upper body after grabbing a rebound, how to keep your elbows close to your sides when driving. Your elbows tell your opponents how close they dare get to you. They say what kind of player you are. A righteous elbow can earn you a lot of street cred.
I remember seeing the great Bill Bradley, when he was playing for Princeton, throw a hard elbow at a big defender who was hanging all over his back. Bradley got called for a foul, but the crowd at Madison Square Garden roared with approval. Bradley had shown he was no Ivy League wimp.
Throwing elbows, however, is one of those grey areas in sports. Push it too far and you go from being a tough, smart player to being a dirty one. Take it another step and you become a thug who should be charged with assault.
The elbow my opponent threw last week, even if intentional, was legitimate by my standards. I was trying to slow him down by bodying up on him. I wasn’t giving him any room to accelerate. The refs were allowing rough play.
If my opponent whacked me to get a little driving room, that seemed fair enough. Who was I to complain? I had deliberately hit the guy guarding me with an elbow to the chest because he kept grabbing me when I moved without the ball. The refs ignored it. I felt I needed to up the ante to protect my game.
By contrast, the Kings’ Robinson threw his elbow in an upward motion toward Jerebko’s head. I watched the video clip repeatedly and felt I was witnessing one of those terrible scenes in which a person loses self-control for a split-second and causes irreparable harm.
The rookie took responsibility for his “mistake,” issued an apology and claimed “it won’t happen again.”
Let’s hope so.