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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

It's time to fold on the NBA's gambling subculture


Two pieces of advice come to mind, one for Tony Allen and one for every other player in the NBA. For the masses: Don't mess with Tony Allen. For Allen: Don't clown around in the pregame huddle before the Memphis Grizzlies' next game, throwing faux haymakers and pretending to knock teammates out.

Do that, and this really would be history repeating itself. It was nearly a year ago to the day when Gilbert Arenas displayed his infamous finger guns in the huddle before a game in Philadelphia, shedding new light on the arrogance and self-absorption of a few knuckleheads whose hubris, ignorance and bad decisions conspire to ruin a sport for everyone else.

A year after Arenas embarrassed himself, his organization, and late Wizards owner Abe Pollin -- while simultaneously exposing everyone who tries to hide the permissive gambling culture in the NBA -- here we are again. Watching Arenas get suspended for 50 games without pay, lose millions of dollars and his status as a loveable entertainer, and get reduced to a shell of the fascinating athlete he once was apparently wasn't enough of a teaching moment for Allen and O.J. Mayo, who scuffled on the Grizzlies' charter flight from Los Angeles on Monday over a gambling debt. Surprise, surprise, it was the same high-stakes card game -- bourre (pronounced boo-ray) -- in which Arenas and Javaris Crittenton engaged when employed by the Wizards, prompting Arenas' ill-fated prank of displaying handguns in the locker room with an invitation for Crittenton to "pick one."

Allen, who according to sources was subjected to constant mockery by Mayo over a debt Mayo owed, wasn't in a joking mood and didn't give his victim a choice of which fist he was going to hit him with first. While sources said Allen was doing everything he could to back down and defuse the situation, Mayo continued to mouth off at him -- demonstrating what one executive called "a gross lack of judgment on O.J.'s part."

"Most people don't quite get the denominations at stake or the testosterone that's at stake," said the executive, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss another team's business. "Tony Allen is one of the very few guys in the league I would greatly urge every NBA player not to [expletive] with."

The injuries inflicted were significant enough for Mayo to miss the Grizzlies' game Tuesday night against the Thunder under the chuckle-inducing guise of bronchitis. The predictable reaction came Wednesday, when the Grizzlies banned all gambling on team flights, effective immediately.

Is that the answer? Of the 23 teams that responded to a survey by CBSSports.com Wednesday as to their policies on gambling and card games on team flights, only two said they're forbidden -- and one of them was the Grizzlies, who obviously just joined this very exclusive club. A common response was that playing cards for money is allowed on flights, but no cash can be displayed at any time. Three teams said they allow gambling but limit the stakes, while another one said it's allowed -- but not after a loss.

NBA gambling guidelines require players to obey local, state and federal laws but don't expressly prohibit anything short of wagering on NBA games.

One team said it banned gambling on team charters in the wake of the Arenas incident, but lifted the ban this season. Another said players voluntarily stopped playing after Arenas but gradually went back to their old ways. One team, reflecting the entitlement culture of sports, declined to divulge its policy, calling it "private information." If you were to guess that this team has, at one time or another, requested and/or benefited from taxpayer funds with respect to the arena it plays in or hopes to play in, you would be right.

Five teams said they don't have a ban on gambling, but stipulated that they don't currently have a regular group of card players. But one team official, who declined to be identified due to the sensitive nature of the information, said he recently saw a player lose $20,000 playing cards on a single flight. It's easy to understand why tempers could flare, especially when players of vastly different incomes are engaged in high-stakes games.

"When you've got somebody making $20 million vs. somebody making $300,000," one former player said, "that's like a sword vs. a nuclear bomb."

Anecdotal evidence and interviews with team officials and former players Wednesday suggested that it's typical for a team to have a small but regular group of card players who pass the time on flights all over the country with games of various stakes. Blowups like the one between Allen and Mayo are rare, but there are -- and have been for decades -- incidents the public never finds out about.

"There's always that mysterious DNP in the middle of February when the guy isn't around for a couple of days," one of the team executives said.

Everyone knows the story of Charles Oakley hitting Tyrone Hill in the head with a basketball over non-payment of a reported $54,000 gambling debt, or of Jerry Stackhouse slugging Christian Laettner, or of Vernon Maxwell allegedly hitting Carl Herrera with a weight plate. You'll be hard-pressed to find a former NBA player who hasn't witnessed a fight between teammates over money or women or both. In today's Twitter and Facebook society, it's just harder to keep those incidents "in house," where our arrogant sports teams like to tell us they belong.

"These guys think things like this won't happen involving them," one team official said. "But it's going to happen more and more because their fuses are short, they don't like people telling them anything, and they think they're all little gangsters. But at end of day, they're just basketball players."

In the case of the Grizzlies, what happened on the plane didn't stay on the plane, as team officials obviously were hoping it would. Whether or not you believe the Grizzlies' assertion that Mayo had bronchitis, league sources said Wednesday that team officials did inform NBA security of the incident before CBSSports.com and then Yahoo! Sports reported it Tuesday night. Beyond the Grizzlies' in-flight gambling ban, there was no word Wednesday on what, if any, disciplinary action would be coming from the team or the league.

Even in the wake of the Arenas fiasco, commissioner David Stern continued his standing policy of having such activities under the jurisdiction of the teams, not the league. This was hardly surprising, considering that Stern actually loosened some gambling restrictions on referees after Tim Donaghy was found to have wagered on NBA games he officiated and provided information to gamblers with ties to organized crime.

But the indisputable fact that many more incidents like Allen's TKO of Mayo -- and worse -- have unfolded without public scrutiny over the years is no excuse to allow this subculture to continue unchecked. A league-wide ban of gambling on team property, including planes and hotel rooms paid for by the teams? Probably over the top, unenforceable, and subject to a lengthy fight with the National Basketball Players Association at a time when owners and players have plenty of other issues to fight about.

But here's an idea that might be more practical and might also send the kind of message that some of these athletes, cloaked in what they perceive as the boys-will-be-boys locker-room sanctity, regardless of the time zone or altitude, obviously require.

Approximately one-third of NBA teams own chartered jets to fly players from coast to coast, according to league sources. The other two-thirds, nearly 20 teams, share a fleet of jets through the NBA's chartered plane program. Those teams share the planes and the cost and get first-class travel accommodations for their 41 road games a year. While it would seem to be a stretch to impose rules on owners' private property, why couldn't Stern issue a policy on Thursday banning gambling on all planes belonging to the NBA charter program?

Both the Wizards and Grizzlies were using NBA charters when their respective players embarrassed themselves and their sport in gambling disputes; two people familiar with those teams' policies said they both participate in the league charter program.

Such a partial ban would send a strong message. Would it solve the problem? Not completely. You can't police the players wherever they go, and several teams said it was their responsibility to draft and acquire players who understand that laws and common sense still apply at 37,000 feet. But to some degree, as long as there are cards and money in the NBA, there will be gambling -- and the potentially ugly repercussions that go with it.

"Throughout history, two things are undefeated: [women] and greed," one of the executives said. "They both have an amazing record, home and away. And there's usually retribution when one of those two are violated in some way."

Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com

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