On November 26, 2003, the Phoenix Suns were in the process of whooping the Dallas Mavericks’ asses. It was a rare occurence as the 2003-2004 season would go down as the 5th worst (3rd at the time) season in Suns history. Mike D’antoni was still an assistant coach. It would be another 8 games before he replaced Frank Johnson as head coach. It would be another 20 games before Phoenix closed the door on the Stephon Marbury/Penny Hardaway era, sending both to New York (along with Cezary Trybanksi) for a pupu platter of veterans and draft picks. It would be a nearly a full season before Steve Nash defected from the Mavs to join Shawn Marion, Joe Johnson, Amare Stoudemire and Leandro Barbosa in Phoenix.
It was the darkest hour before the Seven Seconds or Less dawn. But there were bright spots. In his fourth season out of UNLV, Shawn Marion was coming off his first All-Star appearance. Amare Stoudemire had just completed his Rookie of the Year campaign.
And then there was Zarko Cabarkapa. Cabarkapa was a 22 year-old rookie from Serbia. Selected 17th overall in the NBA Draft — right before David West — the young power forward was showing promise as the first man off the bench. Between him and 28th pick Leandro Barbosa, Bryan Colangelo had apparently picked a couple of winners in the 2003 draft. This particular bright spot in the Suns’ future was about to become embroiled in a narrative he would most definitely like to be excluded from.
As mentioned before, the Suns were beating the stuffing out of the Dallas Mavericks. In his first NBA start, Cabarkapa was putting up an impressive 17 points and 9 rebounds. It was the fourth quarter and the Phoenix Suns had a 112-88 lead at the 3:01 mark. This game was over in every sense except the literal one. But the next 3 seconds would change the lives of two NBA players forever.
At 3:01, future hall-of-famer (fight me) Amare Stoudemire forced a steal from Mavericks guard Marquis Daniel. The ball found its way to Zarko Cabarkapa who found himself alone on the break for what should have been an easy and uneventful slam dunk. Until Danny Forston decided he was having none of it.
Fortson was a 6-foot 7-inch power forward/center from the University of Cincinnati. An effective role player, in his seventh NBA season, he was probably most famous for his trademark pigtail hair-do. That was about to change.
At the 2:58 mark in the game, Cabarkapa left his feet thinking he had an easy bucket. And in any other game, he probably would have. As he approached the basket in mid-air, Danny Fortson, lacking defensive position and wholly unable to predict the firestorm he was about to unleash on the NBA, gave him a healthy shove. Cabarkapa was helpless in mid-air. When he hit the ground, he landed awkwardly on one arm, breaking his wrist.
Cabarkapa was replaced in the game by Tom Gugliotta. Danny Fortson was assessed a flagrant two and ejected from the game. And Suns’ owner Jerry Colangelo was apoplectic at the loss of one of his young stars to a dirty play.
It’s a tragedy of NBA history that I am unable to find a clip of this incident online. You might be thinking, “Maybe it was an accident” or “How bad could it have been?” I could spend 100 or so words assuring you that this play was about as dirty and cheap as they come without involving a dickpunch. I’m sure other fans who remember the play will do so in the comments. However, even if they don’t, here’s all you need to know about how awful that play was: it was such a bad play that Dallas Mavericks’ head coach Don Nelson apologized for it immediately after the game. From the Arizona Republic:
I’d like to apologize to the Phoenix Suns organization on that play by Danny Fortson. I don’t condone those types of things. It was just a bad basketball play that shouldn’t have happened, and I will talk to Danny about it.
This spontaneous apology might have had something to do with Colangelo’s immediate threats of league action. Jerry Colangelo was on the sideline and in the ear of Mavericks’ coach Don Nelson immediately after the game. Frank Johnson told The Arizona Republic:
Jerry came and told me he went and talked with coach (Don) Nelson and said he is going to go at him (Fortson) from a league standpoint with everything he’s got.
For his part, Danny Fortson was apologetic:
It was just a bad play. It was awful. I didn’t mean to hurt the guy.
That wasn’t good enough for Jerry Colangelo. He made it clear that what he thought of Fortson’s play. From ESPN.com:
"Whether it's a fine or a suspension, it's not enough for him. He should be put down for every day that he (Cabarkapa) is out. I'll do everything in my power to see that happens. With the game over, there was no need for that.
He’s a thug.
In the fall of 2003, NBA commissioner David Stern was just getting warmed up on his way to “cleaning up” the NBA. He was a couple of years away from implementing a dress code and hadn’t yet experienced the NBA’s nadir of in-game violence: the November 2004 Detroit Pistons - Indiana Pacers brawl, aka the Malice at the Palace (see this excellent Grantland piece for more details).
Perhaps after that infamous fight, Colangelo, an NBA heavyweight, would have gotten his wish for a sturdier suspension. However, Stern and NBA VP Stu Jackson suspended Fortson for 3 games.
Colangelo was displeased. After the announcement of the suspension he renewed his call for a stiffer sentence and even threatened legal action against Fortson:
To put on a Dallas game and see him in uniform playing while our guy is down for the next six to eight weeks, that’s unthinkable in my mind. It just isn’t right and we’re going to try and get it fixed.
NY Post columnist and professional bomb thrower Peter Vecsey also went in on Fortson and the NBA:
AS LONG as thugged out players are permitted to recklessly endanger the limbs and lives of helpless opponents without being suitably punished, David Stern’s puffed-up campaign to eradicate violence from the NBA is a charade.
There’s only one foolproof method to prevent vacant lots like Danny Fortson from randomly mugging defenseless rivals like Zarko Cabarkapa: Suspend his meaningless mass for as long as it takes the broken right wrist of the Suns rookie to heal completely.
Does a neck have to be broken for Stern to realize the catastrophic ramifications of such an unseemly assault? Must someone wind up paralyzed before the commissioner cracks down hardcore?
What’s he saying? Attempted murder is no problem; you have to murder somebody on one of my courts before I’ll outlaw the brazen disregard for the safety of the susceptible.
Fortson filed a defamation lawsuit against both Jerry Colangelo and Peter Vecsey. He accused them of ruining his reputation and career as an NBA player. In 2005, after being traded to the Seattle Supersonics he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:
"My reputation has been destroyed by Jerry Colangelo and Peter Vecsey from the New York Post, as simple as that," Fortson said. "Ever since they went out and talked about me, my life sucks and my career and I blame them."
Fortson lost his lawsuit in 2006 and would retire from the NBA shortly thereafter.
What about Zarko?
For his part, Zarko Cabarkapa was heartbroken about the incident. His promising and nascent NBA career had just come to a screeching if temporary halt.
From the Arizona Republic:
Cabarkapa was in tears in the Suns' dressing room, but later composed himself and said through a translator, "I can't comprehend it. I don't know exactly what happened. I just know I was trying to drive to the basket and Fortson pushed me."
Tears! How often do you hear of professional athletes crying over anything, much less an injury? And yet, he didn’t hold a grudge against Fortson. From an interview with HoopsHype.com last year:
Are you angry about what happened with Fortson? Were you angry or bitter about it (the Fortson incident) at some point?
ZC: No, there is no place for anger in sports. Fouls, whether intentional or not as well as injuries, are an integral part of sport. Of course, I was not pleased I was out for two months after a good start of my NBA career, but you must learn to find methods to fight the roadblocks on the way if you want to succeed.
Fortson said he sent a letter of apology. Did you get it?
ZC: He sent a letter of apology right after the game. Even later, when we played against each other, we talked about it. As I said, these things happen in sports. Of course, such situations should be reduced to a minimum but when it happens, it is important to deal with it in a constructive way and move forward.
Zarko ended up missing seven weeks of action, returning in a January 9th loss to the Sacramento Kings. He was unable to recapture the magic of his first start, failing to match either his point or rebound totals for the remainder of the season.
In the offseason, the Suns aggressively pursued and acquired the Mavericks’ Steve Nash. You know that story. Unfortunately for Zarko Cabarkapa, there was no room for him in the Suns’ plans. On January 3, 2005, he was traded to the Golden State Warriors for a pair of second round draft picks, one of which would eventually be used to acquire Goran Dragić.
Cabarkapa played a season and a half for the Warriors before back injuries unrelated to the Fortson incident forced him into retirement. He’s now Director of the Adriatic Basketball League in Europe.