(I worked as a Sports Editor from late 2004 until the summer of 2006. This is one of the many columns I was able to save that were originally published in The Sun-Times of Heber Springs, Arkansas.)
There was some great basketball played last Friday night. From preps to pros, many remarkable things happened that are worth talking about.
But whenever someone asked me if I saw the basketball game Friday, I didn’t have to ask which one they were referring to. The Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons basketbrawl game had everyone talking last weekend, fans, and non-fans alike.
Clemson football coach Tommy Bowden even blamed the fights that broke out in the South Carolina game on the NBA.
Bowden said that it couldn’t help but spill over, because his team had been watching it for “24 hours”. Considering that the Tigers and Gamecocks played in the early afternoon Saturday, that must have been quite a feat.
It would have been more like 12 hours, and that’s only if Clemson hadn’t slept all of Friday night and skipped workouts just to watch replays of the brawl.
I think the real reason for the fisticuffs in Lou Holtz’s last game, was the fact that Clemson and South Carolina is one of the most heated rivalries in college football.
If you’re not familiar (and I don’t see how you couldn’t be, unless you just got back from Asteroid M), I’ll summarize: The Pistons hosed the Pacers for a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference championship.
The teams played a physical game that Indiana was winning comfortably with 40 seconds remaining. Ben Wallace of Detroit went in for a layup and was fouled hard by Ron Artest. Wallace took exception and shoved Artest in the face with both hands.
Artest backed away and the teams got involved with some jawing and pushing. Artest laid down on the scorer’s table and just after Wallace threw a towel at him, one of the Piston fans sitting courtside threw a beer.
Artest jumped up, ran into the crowd and bedlam ensued. Artest was joined in the stands by fellow pacer Stephen Jackson and both were throwing punches. Chairs were flying, fans were running onto the court and almost every beverage sold that night wound up being thrown at the Pacers.
It was appalling. One of the most enduring scenes to me in the whole mess was a shot of a young boy crying, with a look of bewilderment and fear on his face.
Afterwards, I told anyone who bothered to ask me that I felt the brunt of the responsibility should fall on Ben Wallace’s sizeable afro. If he would have just taken Artest’s foul like a man, and shot his free throws, all of this could have been diverted.
Instead, he took exception to a foul that wouldn’t have bothered him if Indiana wasn’t beating them so soundly and started a near riot. His shove to Artest’s face incited an already unruly crowd, and his towel throwing tantrum started a game of copycat.
Fans who had been two fisting beers they bought for $15, found the liquid courage they needed to take on some professional athletes. They just didn’t count on Ron-Ron going on a rampage.
I knew that fines, suspensions, criminal investigations, and lawsuits would come after the carnage had been sorted out. The league put out a news release on Saturday saying that the players had been suspended “indefinitely”.
I was at home Sunday afternoon, enjoying the match-up of Eli Manning and Michael Vick, when Fox went to a game break, and JB informed me that Artest had been suspended for the remainder of the season.
My exact response to my three dogs was, “What?!”, and I sat down to write this column. (I know it’s almost a week later, but hey, we’re a bi-weekly and Thanksgiving was Thursday, give me a break!)
I in no way thought Ron-Ron should get off completely. There is no excuse for running into the stands, but I thought that there was enough blame to go around so no one player would have to bear the brunt of it.
Other Pacers were suspended (Jermaine O’Neal 25 games, Stephen Jackson 30 games) and Ben Wallace got a measly six game suspension for starting the whole mess.
Of course, Artest should have gotten a stiffer penalty, maybe a little more than the other participants. I think a perfect punishment for Artest would have been a suspension until the All-Star break, a fine and community service work for the league.
But Commissioner David Stern didn’t feel that way. In a news conference Stern said that in determining the length of suspension, he did take into account Artest’s past behavior and that the league had to do something against “lowered expectations”.
Sounds to me like Artest is a bit of a scapegoat.
Stern and the boys need to take a closer look at beer sales in the arenas, as well as security for the only sport that allows its fans to be so close to players who are already highly charged.
This isn’t the first time a player has ran into the stands and attacked a fan. Vernon Maxwell, a temperamental former guard for the Houston Rockets, was suspended in 1995 for punching a Portland fan.
His suspension was 20 games and a $20,000 fine. Latrell Spreewell didn’t have to miss the entire season when he choked his coach for no good reason, and after Kermit Washington nearly killed Rudy Tomjanovich with a sucker punch in 1977, he missed only 26 games.
This suspension alters the balance of power in the Eastern Conference. With Artest gone, and O’Neal missing nearly a fourth of the season, the Pacers will be hard pressed to live up to the expectations of making the Finals, much less qualifying for the playoffs.
The Pistons on the other hand, will emerge stronger. Sunday night they won their first of the six games without Big Ben, and their number one competitor for the Eastern crown had their legs cut out from under them by Samurai Stern.
Hopefully, the NBA will learn some valuable lessons and become stronger also.
One thing is for sure, the TV ratings will go up. Now on Christmas Day, NBA fans not only get to unwrap Kobe v. Shaq, but the next time the Pistons and Pacers lock horns will be that very same day.
I hope they know there’s no fighting on Christmas, or else Santa Stern will wallop them with a bag of ashes and season killing suspensions.