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Sunday, November 21, 2004

The NBA Suspensions

The NBA acted swiftly and strongly today, suspending Ron Artest for the season, Stephen Jackson for 30 games, Jermaine O'Neal for 25, and Ben Wallace for six. You don't have to be a brain surgeon to realize that the league wanted to send a strong message to the players that they have to remain calm at all times, even when provoked, and let the stadium personnel and local authorities take charge.

And send a strong message they did. That Artest got suspended without pay for the remainder of the season isn't a total shock, as the guy has had a history of flagrant fouls and anger problems. (Ironically, Friday night's foul against Wallace wasn't that bad, all things considered, although it was a bit silly given that the Pacers had a key road game in the bag). Artest's actions were uncalled for, period. I, for one, am not sure that I can give him credit for attempting to cool off after the initial fracas, given that his chosen method of doing so wasn't to head into the locker room or to a neutral corner, such as the end of his own bench, but to lie down on the scorer's table. Whether or not Artest was rubbing it in the home team's face, he certainly didn't deserve to have a drink sent through the air like a missile, landing on his chest. No player deserves that, ever.

But then he lost control. Totally. He charged into the stands, looking for the fan who committed the sin. Stephen Jackson followed, and the two players skirmished with fans. They returned to the court, Artest hit a fan who was wearing a Pistons jersey, and, as the fan was getting up off the floor, O'Neal ran over and cold-cocked the fan, sending him backwards into another fan. If that hadn't happened, and that fan had hit the floor, you might be talking coma, because O'Neal hit that fan hard, with the full force of his sprint to the spot where he launched the punch behind the blow. Fortunately, no one got seriously hurt.

Except the Pacers' chances, not only for a championship, but perhaps for the playoffs. With Artest gone for the year, they lose 17 ppg at the 2G (at least) plus one of the premier shutdown defenders in the NBA. Losing Jackson, they lose another double-digit scorer. Finally, in losing O'Neal, they lose their best player, and one of the top 10 or so players in the league. The next 25-30 games will not be pretty.

I haven't read enough to break down why each player got the suspensions he did, but presumably Artest's was not only because he was the primary instigator in an ugly spectacle, but also because either he's a repeat offender or because the NBA office wanted to give him a lifetime achievement award (which is six of one and half dozen of the other), and not the type that he was looking to get. Jackson got the ultimate equivalent of the third-man-in-on-the-fight rule, basically because he exacerbated a bad situation. Had he chased after Artest to pull him off of people, he would be getting plaudits from the NBA and the Pacers' front office. Instead, he'll miss a third of the season.

Message to the first-man in -- go complain to your coach, go to the end of the bench, give the 12th man some exercise by letting him hold you back, but, whatever you do, head away from the controversy. Message to the wingman -- don't help your teammate go in for the punch, but restrain him, get him to a place where he can cool off. But if you join in the fisticuffs, you'll get a big penalty.

The sad part of it for Jackson is that he had a difficult time in his hoops career, not going to college, bouncing around, finally making good with the Spurs a few years ago, then blowing his free agent status by holding out for too much money and signing for less in Atlanta, only to surface in a key role for a very good team in Indiana, now, once again, suffering a setback and sitting out a good part of the season. Up, down, up and then down again. It's a shame.

And then there's Jermaine O'Neal. One of the NBA's poster guys, really, a really good guy who is a contributor to the community, one of the kids who came to the league straight out of HS and did very well, and he just lost his cool. There's no other way to explain it. His actions look the worst on the film, and luckily the fan didn't end up in the ER. On the one hand, I'm sure the NBA didn't want to lose one of its biggest stars for more than a few games. On the other hand, O'Neal is lucky that he's not sitting out the entire year. Given the lingering spectre of Kermit Washington's punch to the face of Rudy Tomjanovich, O'Neal should be thankful that the fan didn't get hurt and that he didn't get a bigger punishment.

That said, I'm sure the fan will end up filing a personal injury suit against O'Neal and the other deep pockets out there. Memo to the NBA players: under tort law, just because someone is trespassing doesn't enable you to pummel them, no matter how obnoxious they are. My guess is that the PI attorneys who have billboards on Detroit highways will find some of those fans quickly, as will the criminal defense guys who have the big ads in the yellow pages. Because some of the fans will get charged. And the NBA will make sure of that, as they will to beef up security in the one league where the fans are extremely close the players without the benefit of plexiglas. Because Friday night could have gotten much uglier, and many innocent people could have gotten hurt.

Lost in all of this is that those who don't know him well enough would have thought that Rasheed Wallace would have been in the middle of the fracas. To a degree, he was -- but solely as a peacemaker. Wallace, a wonderful teammate to anyone who has ever played with him, directed his anger at the referees earlier in his career, but never toward opponents. He, and the rest of the players who tried to calm things down, did the right thing on Friday night.

I suppose that the NBA's suspensions will be a significant deterrent for players to stay out of the stands from now into the future, and that's all well and good.

But that deterrent, absent strict measures for fans who sit close to the action, might have the opposite effect of what is intended. Absent better security, fans who sit closer to the benches might be emboldened, and might be more obnoxious, knowing full well that if a player even takes one step toward the stands, that player will be putting his career in jeopardy.

NBA Commissioner David Stern is nothing if not thorough. I am certain that before this matter concludes, teams will be strongly encouraged to exercise their discretion on unruly fans and kick them out of the building, perhaps for a long time. While that should be a solid preventive measure, it still wouldn't have prevented what happened on Friday night, which was combustion, plain and simple. But perhaps a half dozen or so security personnel -- trained security personnel -- behind each bench might also be in the works.

Which leads to an interesting question -- what happens when Detroit visits Indiana next -- on Christmas day?

SI reported a few years ago that the players viewed the Pacers' fans as the most abusive in the NBA. Now they're faced watching an undermanned team against an archrival that now has to be the odds-on favorite to win the East. How will they behave?

Because the sporting world will be watching. And like it or not, they'll have to be on their best behavior. Boo, boo loudly, be creative, turn your backs when the Pistons are introduced, take some cues from Duke fans, fine, but keep your hands -- and your refreshments -- to yourselves.

Finally, a memo to the commentators, the diehard fans, those who lament that the NBA hasn't been the same since Michael Jordan, let alone Isiah Thomas, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson: this too shall pass.

Right back to the NHL when that league reconvenes.


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