What Joe DeRosa did at halftime Tuesday night wasn't egregious. It wasn't close to a federal offense, even in David Stern's court of law.
A fan in the first row behind the scorer's table was heckling DeRosa, an 18-year veteran NBA referee. DeRosa didn't like it, so he tossed the basketball at the fan. The fan caught it and fired it back. DeRosa motioned for the fan to be ejected. That was it. Nobody got hurt.
No harm, no foul. Right? The Eastern Conference finals between the Magic and Celtics would continue without incident.
Not quite. The NBA did the right thing Thursday when it suspended DeRosa for one game without pay over the incident.
Was the punishment too harsh? Too draconian? Not at all, and here's why: The NBA has zero tolerance for player behavior when it comes to interacting with fans. Players are simply not allowed to physically engage fans in any way for obvious reasons -- the 2004 Palace brawl chief among them.
One of the best things about the NBA is how close the fans are to the action. When media seats used to be courtside in every arena, one of the most enjoyable aspects of sitting there was the verbal sparring between hecklers and players, and oftentimes, hecklers and refs. In many cases, the players and refs respected the hecklers who brought some creative material to their courtside seats.
But under no circumstances can a player lose his cool to the point where he physically engages a heckler -- even from a distance by, say, throwing a ball at somebody. If a player did that, he'd be suspended without a doubt. And the NBA shouldn't have different standards for referees.
DeRosa's suspension speaks to that very need for consistency and was well deserved. Especially in light of the fallout from the Tim Donaghy scandal, what's good for the players has to be good for the refs, too.
Nobody in any job in America takes as much abuse, or has a greater responsibility to maintain his composure, than an NBA ref. It's certainly understandable why DeRosa lost his cool. He's human. But he still had to be punished. And in this case, the punishment fit the crime.