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THERE ARE countless scenarios under which the ugly outburst at the Palace of Auburn Hills could have been avoided. Pistons center Ben Wallace could have refrained from retaliating for a hard foul by Pacers forward Ron Artest with a violent shove to Artest's neck. The cup hurled by a fan that struck Artest in the chest could have missed its mark. And, of course, Artest could have chosen, upon being drenched by the cup's contents, not to storm into the stands, thereby precipitating a melee that included Indiana guard Stephen Jackson's wilding through the lower mezzanine, Detroit fans' getting decked after charging onto the court and a metal chair's flying head-high into a clutch of Pacers players.
Then again--and this is the scary part--maybe Artest didn't have that choice. All too often he appears to be basketball's version of the Incredible Hulk, morphing into a destructive alter ego and then having no memory of the transformation afterward. According to one source who tried to pull him away from the fans last Friday, Artest had a "wild and crazy look" in his eye and was growling and muttering as he left the court. Not long after, however, he was back to his normal, confoundingly genial self. Pacers radio announcer Mark Boyle, who made a futile attempt to tackle Artest as he charged into the stands, later encountered Artest as Boyle headed into the Indiana locker room with blood running from his temple and nose. "What happened to you?" Artest asked. Amazed, Boyle responded, "You ran me over, Ronnie, remember?" Artest, as always, apologized. "He had no idea," says Boyle.
In suspending Artest, 25, for the remainder of the season (including the playoffs) for what he described as actions that "wildly exceeded the professionalism and self-control" standards of the league, commissioner David Stern acknowledged that he had considered Artest's history of suspensions, 15 games missed in a seven-year career. In addition Artest was ordered to undergo anger counseling in 2002 after harassment and criminal contempt charges brought by the mother of two of his children were dropped; he smashed video monitors at Madison Square Garden in '03; and he recently made a bizarre request for time off because he was exhausted from, among other things, promoting a group on his music label and recording his own album. According to a source close to the team, his antics had worn so thin with many Indiana players that three days before the fight they complained en masse to management that he had become too much of a distraction. On Sunday, in a statement made through the players' association, Artest expressed regret for his behavior but said he found the punishment from Stern unfair; by missing 73 games he will forfeit $5 million of his $6.2 million salary.
The other two Pacers hit with hefty suspensions, Jackson (30 games) and forward Jermaine O'Neal (25), lack Artest's history. The 26-year-old Jackson, however, is known around the league as a hothead, and his behavior on Friday night may have been the most disturbing of all. From untucking his shirt to be better prepared to fight guard Lindsey Hunter--who declined Jackson's summons--to his dash into the stands not to grab Artest but to take a swing at a fan, he looked like a man itching for a fight. Even New Jersey Nets center Alonzo Mourning, who was quick to defend Artest, said, " Jackson is another story because his actions were way too uncalled for."
O'Neal, 26, was suspended for rushing across the court and dropping a fan with a vicious straight right hand. A team leader and solid citizen, he was an unlikely source of such violence. So, too, was the only Piston to receive a significant suspension: Wallace, who got six games. Big Ben's excessive reaction to Artest's foul in the last minute of the game was, in the words of Hunter, "totally out of character."
The players' suspensions aside, nine people involved in the fracas were treated for minor injuries; five of them were taken to the hospital, where they were treated and released. The Auburn Hills police investigation is expected to take two to three weeks to complete, after which Oakland County prosecutors will decide whether to file criminal charges, which could range from misdemeanor assault and battery for those who threw punches to felony assault for the fan who hurled the chair. On Monday the police said that they had identified the man who tossed the cup at Artest and that it was not the fan whom Artest initially went after. The father of that fan, Mike Ryan, said on Sunday that his son is considering legal action. No doubt others will follow.
Then, too, there are the basketball ramifications to consider. Indiana will be able to put Artest, Jackson and O'Neal on the suspended list and sign three players to take their places, but unless one of those three is Karl Malone and another Michael Jordan--neither of whom is likely to join the Pacers--it is going to be a long, rough stretch for a team that was in position to win the Eastern Conference. (The question of what will happen to the $11 million in salary that the Pacers will not have to pay Artest, Jackson and O'Neal has yet to be resolved.) And while all the Indiana players are appealing their suspensions, the same small, bespectacled man who dealt them out is expected to hear those appeals, making any changes, shall we say, dubious.
The irony of all this is that the player who incited the riot--Artest--is precisely the sort of Bad Boy whom Detroit boosters have come to appreciate. He even switched his number this year to 91 as an homage to Dennis Rodman, the former Pistons provocateur. "He'd be the fans' favorite, I guarantee it," says Indiana rookie center David Harrison. "You hate him when he's not on your team, you love him when he is."
But now, because of a wrongheaded split-second decision, Artest will spend the next five months without any team at all. -- Chris Ballard