I was in Milwaukee the December night that Charles Barkley rearranged a heckler's nose during a brief street fight that took place after the guy followed Barkley out of a bar and challenged him to show how tough he was.
This was before Twitter and Instagram, before Periscope and Meerkat. It was long before everyone carried a video camera in his or her pocket. Even a conscientious newspaper beat man, one painfully aware that Barkley required considerable monitoring, might not hear of such an incident until the next morning, when a hotel worker mentioned that the Milwaukee Police Department had come to collect Barkley before he checked out.
Times change. When Jahlil Okafor got into a street fight in Boston early Thanksgiving morning, a grainy cellphone video of the altercation was online for the whole world to see less than 12 hours later, and another, even more indicting of the Sixers rookie center, surfaced within a week.
Okafor's situation outside the Storyville Nightclub in Back Bay represented nothing new for professional athletes, or any celebrities, who find themselves at the intersection of Money and Fame. Interacting with the public is a dicey proposition. There are people out there who want to be friends in order to get some of that money, and whatever reflected fame can be gathered in your presence, and there are those who are jealous of both and want to bring you down to their level, which is usually a long way down.
At 19, Okafor is just learning these lessons, but that's no guarantee he will be able to avoid trouble in the future just because he experienced it in his past. Barkley was 28 at the time of the Milwaukee incident, for instance, and a veteran of not just the NBA but of late nights, bars, and interactions with the public. That didn't keep him out of the Milwaukee Lockup and Central Administration Building. (He was eventually found not guilty of the misdemeanor battery charge.)
It would be nice if Okafor took stock of the last couple of months and decided to stay off the streets, but that's not very likely, regardless of how much well-meaning advice he receives. It's also not fair to expect a young man to make himself into a hermit just because bad things can happen.
There are some expectations the 76ers should have for their young star, however, and it was a step in that direction when the team announced Wednesday that he had been suspended for two games.
The Sixers handled it in their normal passive-aggressive way, issuing a statement that didn't have a name on it. General manager and president of basketball operations Sam Hinkie not only didn't lend any insight to the decision, he didn't even lend quote marks. One of the centerpieces in his rebuilding project has twice been involved in late-night fights outside nightclubs, one in which a gun was held to his head; was pulled over doing 108 m.p.h. on the Ben Franklin Bridge; allegedly tried to enter a Center City tavern with false identification; and, apparently, has combined most or all of those incidents with underage drinking. You'd think Hinkie could at least stand up and say, "This will not be tolerated in our organization."
Instead, the nameless, faceless organization was merely "disappointed" by his actions. Let's be clear. Going 108 m.p.h. on the Ben Franklin and punching through a car window at someone who might (and did) have a handgun isn't "disappointing." Those are rock-headed, life-threatening acts. Hinkie should have said that.
The pattern with the Sixers, however, is to react too little and too late. That the suspension didn't take place until the second video became public is too coincidental to be coincidence. As it is, a two-game suspension that will last just four days is the barest of punishments.
Simply assigning a bodyguard to Okafor, if that even happens, isn't addressing the problem. He won't want a babysitter with him all the time. And what is a bodyguard supposed to do when Okafor wants to go into a nightclub or wants to get a beer at a bar? That "solution" presents as many problems as it solves, because then the team couldn't claim it didn't know where he was or what he was doing.
The smartest act would be for Okafor to take things into his own hands and look out for himself. There are too many weapons on the street, too many tough guys, and too many late nights fueled by alcohol and testosterone. Those are dangerous combinations, and Okafor is already lucky. That probably won't happen, though, because 19-year-olds are convinced of their own immortality.
The second smartest act would be for the Sixers to be the grown-ups. That's a drag, and the kids won't always be happy, but there have to be real consequences for messing up. If Wednesday's suspension was a warning in that direction, then the team did the right thing.
If it was merely the least the Sixers could get away with doing and everyone knows it, including Okafor, then there will be more anonymous announcements still to come. Twitter, Instagram, and the millions of videographers out there will make sure of it.