Just when you thought things couldn't get any worse for the New York Knicks, Raymond Felton shows up doing his best Plaxico Burress imitation (minus the championship ring, of course).
The New York Post reports that the struggling point guard was arrested Tuesday morning on three counts of criminal possession of a weapon. The illegal gun in question was reportedly turned in by a lawyer for Felton's estranged wife, Ariane Raymondo-Felton, who filed for divorce last week after less than two years of marriage. According to sources, Raymondo-Felton alleges that Felton pointed the gun at her in the latest of a series of verbal altercations between the couple.
The gun is a Belgian FNH 5.7 x 28 mm, an armor-piercing pistol developed by NATO that is used by military units worldwide and Mexican drug cartels, giving it the reputation of a "cop-killer" gun. In addition to the pistol, which contained a bullet in the chamber, Felton was allegedly also in possession of a fully loaded, 20-shot clip -- well exceeding the 10-round magazines currently legal under New York's state law.
Felton is charged with criminal possession of a weapon in the second, third and fourth degrees -- two felonies and a misdemeanor. The most serious charge carries a potential minimum sentence of three and a half years in prison. Given the state's strict gun control laws, which don’t require prosecutors to determine how one acquired a firearm, Sports Illustrated's Michael McCann notes that Felton's only defense is to somehow dispel possession of the gun, or try to plead guilty to a lesser charge (as Burress did).
While this incident carries implications far beyond the world of basketball, it also marks the first major test of Adam Silver less than a month after succeeding David Stern as commissioner. Silver's predecessor was notorious for the sometimes-opaque process by which he disciplined players. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Stern's legacy is his role in shifting the league's image, characterized as "cleaning up the game" by some and disparaged as "whitewashing" by others. In addition to heavy-handed punishments that appeared to unfairly target black players, Stern instituted policies such as the much-maligned dress code to combat the NBA's image as a league of thugs. Several players took issue with the association of hip-hop fashion and culture with street violence and scoffed at the commissioner's blatant attempt to reshape the athletes into those that would be more marketable to a broader audience. As Allen Iverson said at the time, "You can put a murderer in a suit and he's still a murderer."
It's in this context that Silver's decision on how to discipline Felton will set the tone for his tenure as commissioner. While the racial connotations of gun-related punishment are unavoidable, possession of this type of firearm in this particular state is simply unacceptable. A judge will decide Felton's immediate basketball fate -- determining if he's a flight risk and thus his ability to travel with the team to away games -- but the long-term basketball implications of his arrest rest in the hands of Silver and the Knicks front office. Silver must decide on an appropriate suspension, if any, given Stern's precedent of banning Gilbert Arenas for 50 games after he brought guns into the Washington Wizards' locker room in 2010. The Knicks, meanwhile, would be smart to parlay this incident into a way out from the remainder of their contract with Felton, who is owed $3.6 million this season and $3.7 million next season, with a player option for $4 million in 2015-16. While teams have certainly forgiven players for similar and even worse infractions, Felton's performance on the court doesn't justify any leniency by team officials. He's averaging a career-low 10.4 points per game and has lost the confidence of fans and media alike in his ability to run point for the Knicks.
For now, though, Felton should concentrate on getting his legal team in order. Any discussion of his future on the court will be moot if he ends up spending the next couple of years behind bars.
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