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usual suspects

Long ago, Usual Suspects was at a press conference covering Alan Eagleson, the hockey impresario turned convicted fraudster, on the event of Eagleson's retirement as executive director of the NHL Players' Association.

At the point where Eagleson's media bloviators stopped tossing softballs about his patriotism, we piped up. Mr. Eagleson, we said, since your name is synonymous with Canada and the flag, why then did you insist on your salary and pension being paid in U.S. dollars? Eagleson's answer was a snappy, "When did you stop beating your wife?"

When we protested that we had never done so, Eagleson replied, "But we've heard you do." Eagleson went on to repeat the accusation the next day on CFRB Radio, with accompanying laughs.

We were reminded of that moment Wednesday, when NBA commissioner David Stern summoned up the same infelicitous phrase in an argument with Jim Rome. Rome, one of sports talk radio's provocateurs, had started off a testy exchange with Stern on his program by dredging up the tinfoil-hat notion of the NBA rigging the draft lottery to make sure New Orleans, a team it owned at that moment, got the first pick.

"Was the fix in for the lottery?" asked Rome, trying to be puckish. Most days, Stern rebuts such paranoia with light sarcasm and heavy legalese. Wednesday was not one of those days. "Shame on you for asking," Stern said.

When Rome pressed that, because the NBA owned the Hornets, it was a legitimate question, Stern got nasty.

"Have you stopped beating your wife yet?" Stern asked (twice). When Rome again pressed on the optics of the league's team getting the top pick, Stern retorted that had Michael Jordan's Charlotte Bobcats won the lottery, conspiracy bugs would have accused him of directing the top pick "to my friend Michael." When that didn't satisfy Rome, Stern went all ad hominem on Rome.

"It was cheap copy, and you do things for cheap thrills," Stern said. "It's a cheap trick. … You've been successful in making a career of it."

At which point it was Rome's turn to get touchy. "I take great offence to that. Making a career of what?"

To which Stern used his best patrician voice in saying, "After years of taking on the world, Jim Rome is pouting. I love it."

Stern dared him to hang up, which a rattled Rome declared he wouldn't do. Leaving Stern to end the nastiness with: "I have to go call someone important now. Stephen A. Smith [of ESPN] is up next." End of interview.

If you think media interviewing is a blood sport, then Rome definitely was gored in the exchange with Stern. (Making Rome a sympathetic figure takes some doing.)

In some respects, Rome opened the can of whoop-up on himself with the musing about a fixed lottery. After the game-fixing allegations from disgraced referee Tim Donaghy, would the NBA actually risk being exposed for rigging the draft? It was insulting, and Stern was understandably miffed.

If Rome wanted to (respectfully) ask the question, he could have asked Stern about the optics of the Hornets being owned by the league with all that implies in the wake of Donaghy. But a careless question drew a careless answer from a man who probably feels he's above suffering fools at this stage in his career.

Which doesn't forgive Stern. Were he not a legend in the business, he might have committed a fireable offence with his louche "Have you stopped beating your wife yet?" The taunts about Rome's wonky reputation were no less professional. The gratuitous reference to Smith, the quintessential rumour monger in U.S. media, was unacceptable, too.

While Rome's act was par for the course, Stern did himself and his league no favours with his uncharacteristic sulk. In the wake of Donaghy, the abrogated Chris Paul trade and the spectre of the former Seattle SuperSonics winning the NBA title in their carpetbagging home of Oklahoma City, a little humility was called for.

For those of us who've considered Stern the best sports commissioner since Pete Rozelle, it was an avert-your-eyes performance.

Perhaps it's time the league invited applications for the commissioner's job in the near future. Unless, of course, Rome's interview with Stern was itself staged …

Miller Time

Listening to Stern rip Rome was perhaps the ideal preparation for a U.S. Open weekend with Johnny Miller. The 1973 Open champ has no filter on his musings. Without irony, Miller alluded to the Tiger Woods/Phil Mickelson/ Bubba Watson group by saying, "I don't mean to brag, but that's like 1975 with [Jack] Nicklaus, [Lee] Trevino and myself."

Describing Mickelson's course generalship at Olympic in San Francisco (which local product Miller has played all his life), Miller ripped Lefty. "It is almost like you could say where I don't want to hit the ball, and that's where Phil hits it." Then when Mickelson put his opening tee shot in a tree, Miller said, "You talk about waking up with a quadruple latte. … I've never had one."

And in case anyone missed his affiliation with Olympic, Miller mused while watching amateur Andy Zhang that he was the first merit member of Olympic at age 14. it's going to be a good weekend.