- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 23, 2004

NEW YORK — David Stern would not want to be in charge of a league that needs barriers to separate fans from players. Nor would he follow the lead of European soccer and order games to be played in empty arenas.

The NBA commissioner is searching for more practical remedies to keep things civil in a sport in which the intimate setting — the highest-paying customers sit so close to the action they can smell the players’ sweat — is part of its appeal.

“The reality is that our society and our arenas exist based upon a social contract,” Stern said. “Everyone knows that if 20,000 fans decided to go on a rampage, we’d have a serious problem on our hands no matter what we did.”

Moving the NBA forward after the ugly brawl that spilled into the stands at Friday night’s Indiana-Detroit game, Stern’s challenge in the days and weeks ahead will be to re-establish the invisible barrier dividing players and fans.

He said the NBA will re-examine policies ranging from arena security to alcohol sales in response to one of the worst brawls in the league’s history.

“No matter what security procedures you have in place, you run a risk that a player can jump into the stands or that fans will behave in an anti-social basis,” Stern said.

No other major professional sport has customers sitting so close to its athletes, providing an atmosphere that’s cozy on most nights but combustible on others.

The close proximity of hecklers, whose comments often strike a nerve and sometimes cross a line, add a measure of volatility.

“That’s part of the game,” said Pistons assistant coach Gar Heard, a former player. “They had a guy here in Detroit when I was playing. He was probably one of the worst guys in the league. They had a guy in Washington who was also one of the worst.”

But most players in Heard’s day and in subsequent years knew there was a line never to be crossed — no matter how vicious the heckling became. Players didn’t always agree with the belief that a fan who paid his money was entitled to voice his opinion, but they lived with it.

On the rare occasions when situations spun out of control and objects were thrown at players, cooler heads almost always prevailed and kept events from spiraling dangerously out of control as they did at the now infamous Pacers-Pistons game.

“Normally in those situations, you have officials say, ‘You and you are gone. Get off the floor right now,’ and the thing goes away,” Pistons CEO Tom Wilson said. “For whatever reason, that didn’t happen, and the league will look into that. Then you had one guy do something stupid, and he hit the absolute wrong player, and all heck broke out.”

That something stupid was a fan’s decision to throw a cup at Ron Artest, the spark that set off the league’s most ignitible personality.

“Yes, I’ve had beer thrown on me, cups thrown at me. But as far as someone throwing something in my face, that has never happened,” Pacers president Larry Bird said.

In announcing the season-long suspension of Artest on Sunday night, Stern said he was not yet prepared to speak to the specific issues of security at the Pistons’ arena, but he defended the actions of the three referees while also repeatedly pointing a finger of blame at the behavior of some fans.

A journalist from Sweden asked Stern whether he would be open to employing some of the remedies often used in Europe, where fan violence is a more prevalent problem.

Stern also was asked whether he thought some sort of barrier could be constructed between the stands and the court.

“I would like it not to come to that,” he replied. “You know [basketball players] are called ‘cagers’ because the games use to be played behind cages. It would not be my plan to be commissioner of a league that … required players and fans to be separated. That would be an unacceptable result.”

Meanwhile, investigators interviewed nine people injured in the brawl, but no charges were imminent in the case, the county prosecutor said.

Police also were reviewing videotapes and interviewing witnesses from the melee.

If charges are filed, they probably would be for assault and battery, a misdemeanor that could bring a three-month jail sentence, said David Gorcyca, the Oakland (Mich.) County prosecutor. The only possible felony charge could be against the person who hurled a chair into the crowd.

Police Chief Doreen Olko said none of the people involved was seriously injured.

Also, Detroit’s Ben Wallace will not appeal the six-game suspension the NBA gave him for his involvement in the brawl.

“When things like that happen, you’ve got to protect the league,” Wallace said. “You can’t have guys going out reacting the way we did.”

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