- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 21, 2004

NEW YORK — Indiana’s Ron Artest, Jermaine O’Neal and Stephen Jackson and Detroit’s Ben Wallace were suspended indefinitely by the NBA yesterday for taking part in one of the ugliest brawls in U.S. sports history - a fight with fans that commissioner David Stern called “shocking, repulsive and inexcusable.”

League officials and police were examining videotapes of Friday night’s melee at the Palace of Auburn Hills and interviewing witnesses. The NBA issued a statement saying it was reviewing rules and security procedures “so that fans can continue to attend our games unthreatened by events such as the ones that occurred last night.”

Artest, O’Neal and Jackson - who all threw punches at spectators in the stands or on the court at the end of the nationally televised game - were to begin serving their suspensions last night, when Indiana played host to Orlando.

Wallace’s suspension will start at home tonight against Charlotte, the next game for the reigning NBA champion Pistons.

The exact length of the four players’ bans could be announced as early as today.

“I didn’t start it - I just played the game,” Wallace said before learning of his suspension. “The league is going to do whatever they feel needs to be done, and I don’t have no problems with that.”

Pacers players did not immediately comment, but team CEO Donnie Walsh issued a statement saying, “Responsibility for Friday night’s action can be shared by many.”

Pistons CEO Tom Wilson said the team plans to use “playoff-level security” starting with tonight’s game, doubling the number of armed police and increasing other arena security personnel by about 25 percent.

The brawl was particularly violent, with Artest and Jackson bolting into the stands near center court and throwing punches at fans after debris was tossed at the players. Later fans who came onto the court were punched in the face by Artest and O’Neal.

“We’ll put it all together, take it to the Oakland County prosecutor’s office and have them review it and they’ll decide if there are any charges,” Auburn Hills Deputy Chief Jim Mynsberge said.

The whole fiasco “could take weeks to decide,” according to Oakland County Prosecutor David Gorcyca.

G. William Hunter, executive director of the NBA Players’ Association, apologized to fans for the ruckus.

“We are in the process of consulting with our players, league officials and others in an effort to determine all of the facts,” Hunter said in a statement. “No one can condone the level of incitement and violence we all witnessed.”

The next game between Indiana and Detroit is Dec. 25 at Indianapolis. The rivals, who met in the Eastern Conference finals last season, won’t play each other in Auburn Hills, Mich., again until March 25.

Wallace began the fracas by delivering a hard, two-handed shove to Artest after Wallace was fouled on a drive to the basket with 45.9 seconds left. After the fight ended, the referees called off the remainder of the game. Pacers players were pelted with drinks, popcorn and other debris as they rushed to the locker room.

“This demonstrates why our players must not enter the stands, whatever the provocation or poisonous behavior of people attending the games,” Stern said in his statement. “Our investigation is ongoing, and I expect it to be completed by [tonight].”

The most recent example of an NBA player going into the stands and punching a fan came in February 1995, when Vernon Maxwell of the Houston Rockets pummeled a spectator in Portland. The league suspended him for 10 games and fined him $20,000.

Artest was suspended twice by the NBA last season, once for leaving the bench during a fracas at a Pacers-Celtics playoff game; the other for elbowing Portland’s Derek Anderson. During the 2002-03 season, Artest was suspended five times by the NBA and once by the Pacers for a total of 12 games.

Artest also grabbed a television camera and smashed it to the ground after a loss to the Knicks two years ago.

“People are putting all the burden on Artest, and I don’t think that’s fair,” Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy said. “He’s an easy target because of all the things he’s been through. But some fans have gotten to a point where they think they can do or say anything.”

The initial skirmish wasn’t all that bad, with Artest retreating to the scorer’s table and lying atop it after Wallace sent him reeling backward. But when a fan tossed a cup at Artest, he stormed into the stands, throwing punches as he climbed over seats.

“He was on top of me, pummeling me,” fan Mike Ryan of Clarkston said. “He asked me, ‘Did you do it?’ I said, ‘No, man. No!’”

Jackson joined Artest and threw punches at fans, who punched back. At one point, a chair was tossed into the fray.

Security personnel and ushers tried to break it up. Former Pistons player Rick Mahorn, who was seated courtside as a Detroit radio analyst, also stepped in.

“After the initial encounter on the court, the players were under control. As fans quickly became involved, the situation escalated,” Walsh said. “More specifically, the safety of everyone present was compromised, and that is of great concern for us.”

Two of the nine people treated for injuries were taken to a hospital, police said. Detectives planned to collect and analyze video footage, interview witnesses and examine medical records.

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