This four-word phrase is the common defense used to justify suspending Amare Stoudamire and Boris Diaw one game following the incident at the end of Game 4 of the Spurs-Suns series. The argument is that the law may be stupid, but it's there, and it needs to be followed strictly. It's been followed in the past, and it's unfortunate that the Suns suffer incredibly from it, but it still needs to be followed.
Here's the problem. It's still not really being followed.
Just read the text of the law (emphasis mine).
1. It's debatable whether this was even an altercation. There were no punches thrown. Nobody was undercutting anyone. Neither coach was grabbing onto the leg of his center trying to get them to stop fighting. Nobody was throwing a punch and then backing up. Nobody was going into the stands. Those were altercations.
But in this example, it was a hard foul and a bit of talking, nothing more. Raja Bell and Horry were in each other's faces, and an elbow may have been thrown, but they were separated right away. The NBA League Office had to have an incredibly liberal definition of an "altercation" in order to justify these suspensions.
2. I'd like to know how Amare and Diaw were not in the "immediate vicinity" of the bench. The "altercation" took place just barely on the Spurs side of the halfcourt line. Amare started to run, but before he even got anywhere near the scorers table, he was held back. It's a similar story for Diaw. They were a good 20 feet away from anything that happened! If we use the example of that Knicks-Heat brawl, the Knick players were all near or across halfcourt. Some were even underneath the opposite basket trying to stop the fight. It was clear in that case that they were not in the "immediate vicinity" of their bench.
The other thing is that if we're going to apply the same liberal definition to "immediate vicinity" and "altercation," then Tim Duncan should have been suspended as well for venturing onto the court during a second-quarter altercation. A diarist over at the brother site Bright Side of the Sun has the video evidence.
Duncan was also barely on the court, true. But the same could be said for Amare and Diaw. If you're going to apply the rule strictly, it's only right to apply it strictly in both cases. Either suspend all three, or don't suspend any of them. Suspending just the Suns players, however, is incredibly unfair.
Hopefully, that puts the "letter of the law" argument to rest. The rule isn't as steadfast in writing as it seems. The league office had to have an incredibly liberal definition of an "altercation" and the "immediate vicinity" of the bench to justify the suspensions.