Pacers Dealt Historic Punishment

(Updated Nov. 21 at 10:45 p.m.)
By Conrad Brunner | Nov. 21, 2004

An unprecedented incident brought historic punishment, with the Pacers bearing the full weight of NBA Commissioner David Stern's wrath.

Stern issued nine suspensions totaling 143 games as a result of the melee that erupted at the end of the Pacers' 97-82 victory in Detroit on Friday night. Five of the suspensions, totaling 134 games, were doled out to the Pacers.

Ron Artest, who bolted into the stands after being hit by a beverage cup and engaged several fans, was suspended for the rest of the season.

Stephen Jackson, who followed Artest into the fray, was suspended for 30 games.

Jermaine O'Neal, who became involved in an altercation with a fan on the court, was suspended for 25 games.

In addition, Anthony Johnson was suspended five games and Reggie Miller one game. Because those players are on the injured list, their suspensions will not be served until after they are activated. The other suspensions began with Saturday night's 86-83 loss to Orlando.

Detroit's Ben Wallace, whose two-handed shove to Artest's throat with 45.9 seconds left started the chain of events that devolved into utter chaos, was suspended six games. Elden Campbell, Derrick Campbell and Chauncey Billups were suspended one game each for leaving the bench.

Pacers co-owner Herb Simon objected to the severity of the punishment in a statement released by the team Sunday night.

“While we do not condone some of the actions of the players involved, we do consider the action taken Sunday by the National Basketball Association to be unprecedented and inappropriate based on the circumstances," he said. "We believe that there was a rush to judgment and not enough opportunity for all sides to be heard. We will vigorously support our players in any available appeal process in order to have these penalties reviewed and reduced. We owe that much to our players, our fans and our community.”

Artest's punishment is the most severe in league history, surpassing the 68-game suspension issued to Latrell Sprewell, then with Golden State, after he assaulted coach P.J. Carlesimo. Jackson's ranks third, ahead of Kermit Washington, who as given 26 games in 1977 for his devastating punch that crushed the face of Rudy Tomjanovich. O'Neal's suspension ranks fifth.

"We have to make the point that there are boundaries in our game," Stern said in a press conference Sunday evening. "And one of those boundaries, which has always been but is hereby announced to be immutable, is the boundary that separates the fans from the court. Players cannot lose control and go into the stands. There's a corollary, which is we have to hold fans accountable for their anti-social behavior, as well. Exactly how that will be done is something we will undertake to study and implement."

The suspensions strip the Pacers of two All-Stars and their top three scorers. The team had just six healthy players available for the Orlando game and will have no more than eight available Tuesday night against Boston. Assuming Artest, O'Neal and Jackson are placed on the suspended list, the Pacers could sign players to temporarily occupy those roster spots.

Stern acknowledged Artest's troubled past did influence his punishment.

"You know, I can tell you that I couldn't factor out his previous history," Stern said, "and if it had been perhaps another person who had a different track record here, might it have been different? I can't say for sure but it's a fair point to make that it might have been.

"Ron has not been unwilling to seek to control his emotions and to exercise a kind of self-restraint and self-control and to seek assistance to do that. But unfortunately, whatever assistance he has received to this point did not keep him from doing something that was unforgivable on Friday night."

Jackson's punishment was for joining Artest in the stands. O'Neal's suspension, Stern said, could've been more severe.

"Mr. Jackson was well into the stands certainly, and anyone who watched any television this weekend understood that he wasn't going in as a peacemaker," he said. "Jermaine, I think it's fair to say, exceeded any bounds of potential peacemaking with the altercation with the fan in which he was involved. And his penalty actually would've been harsher had he succeeded in getting into the stands, which he tried to do but was restrained from. How much harsher? I can't say. I can't suggest to you there's an exact science to this."

O'Neal's agent, Arn Tellem, issued a strong statement in defense of his client and said he will appeal the decision.

"No one can condone what happened in Auburn Hills. But no one can justify the NBA’s rush to judgment regarding Jermaine O’Neal," Tellem said. "The facts are undisputed: Jermaine O'Neal never left the court during the entire incident.

"Without any consideration of the danger created by fans running wildly and aggressively on the court, without any consideration of the players' fear for their own safety while they were under attack, without review of the security failures of both the NBA and the Palace, and without any consideration of past player disciplinary rulings, the NBA has singled out Jermaine O’Neal in an arbitrary and capricious way. We will vigorously contest the NBA’s outrageous decision and demand that his side of the story be heard."

Though Stern did not announce any punishment for the Pistons organization for its role in the incident – the levels of crowd control and enforcement have been questioned -- he did say the situation was still under review and that the league would develop a new plan for dealing with those issues.

“There are other issues that the NBA must urgently focus on at this time," he said. "First, we must redefine the bounds of acceptable conduct for fans attending our games and resolve to permanently exclude those who overstep those bounds. Participants in and around the court must be assured complete protection from unacceptable fan behavior.

"Second, we must re-examine the adequacy of our current security procedures in Detroit and our other 28 arenas. The actions at Friday’s game, though unprecedented, must now be factored into all efforts to guarantee the well-being of our fans.

"Third, we must develop and implement new NBA rules to assure that the unavoidable confrontations likely to occur in the heat of competition are not allowed to escalate to the level we witnessed on Friday even prior to the egregious behavior by individuals in the stands.”

In other words, this case is far from closed.

"I would say now the entire league is put on notice based upon this unprecedented fiasco," Stern said. "And we're on notice and we have the responsibility come up with an intelligent response to it.

"We’ve got here the beginning of our work and not the end of it."