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Commissioner Stern stands firm in bid to restore image

by Peter Vecsey

NEW YORK — Unlike David Stern, who’s clever enough to sift through and digest the countless number of confrontations, machinations, nuances and interrogations relevant to the scariest NBA scene he confesses to have ever witnessed and impart a ground-breaking decision within 36 hours, my investigation regarding Friday night’s sickening fight isn’t nearly completed.

In fact, the momentous majority-of-one historic ruling by the commissioner only serves to extend, expand and complicate it.

By suspending a passel of Pacers a total of 134 games Stern, essentially, put one of the league’s most loyal franchises and a clear-cut title contender (see road kills against the Timberwolves and Pistons despite being acutely undermanned) into suspended contamination.

What’s a pharaoh to do? Extreme wrongdoing dictates extreme measures. I understand that. Public disgrace demands public floggings, acts of contrition and prompt acceptance of responsibility (much obliged, David) in the face of public outrage and media condemnation.

Justice must be done. And it needed to be done rapidly before the lawsuits (Ron Artest was served with one civil complaint yesterday, I’m informed) and indictments (the Oakland, Michigan prosecutor would prefer to let things die in light of only two minor injuries, say sources) had a chance to pile up. I understand that, too.

At the same time, the league’s image must also be resuscitated. Advertisers and audiences must be reassured of the product and their safety. The excruciating collision between perception and reality must be untangled unfalteringly and conditions upgraded to ensure they never meet head-on again.

If that means forcefully turning against the players and feeding an extra Pacer or two to mass hysteria (while instigator Ben Wallace basically gets off scot-free with a 6-game sentence; I wonder, was his brother’s beating of peacemaker Fred Jones factored into the judgment?), who’s about to argue Stern’s position in this Screech Owl climate other than the Players’ Association and its union members?

If that means an entire organization must pay through the gills for the sins of several of its favorite sons that’s the price, it appears, for degrading the whole league and subjecting its constituency to derision and denouncement.

Almost everybody agrees Artest deserves most of what he got (does his season ban include the playoffs?) for man-handling fans in the stands, inciting a riot, dragging teammates down with him and submarining his franchise; I don’t care how many times during his career he’s been hit with debris or heard his name taken in vain.

Almost everyone also agrees Stephen Jackson earned the wrath of Stern by trailing Artest into the crowd and finding that fight he was itching so long for on the court. Still, a 30-game sentence seems mighty merciless. Last time a crazed player (Vernon Maxwell) veered into the stands to accost a fanatic he got 10 games. Tripling that amount for a guy not known as a desperado or having repeated run-ins with authority makes me suspect Stern caved in to his own emotions as well as public pressure. In all fairness, had Jackson gone into the stands alone and taken on a single tormentor his time in stir would be half of what he got. That pack mentality will get you bonus games every time.

Jermaine O’Neal’s 25-game punishment, on the surface, is just plain preposterous. Obviously, I don’t come close to getting this one. Why such a ruthless stance for somebody who didn’t go into the stands, though we’re told he tried, for what purpose nobody will ever know? What was taken into account?

Was O’Neal suspended for nailing that one deranged stump who came onto the court with his low-life drunken homie to confront (not comfort) Artest and paid the appropriate price? First compliments of Artest, then Anthony Johnson who slipped and fell and finally from O’Neal who came across the court to protect Johnson and slid (he might’ve killed the guy otherwise) just before delivering the knockout punch?

If players are stringently forbidden to break and enter into the stands (thank goodness this was Auburn Hills and not Joe Louis Arena; Artest and Jackson would’ve been swallowed up, never to be seen again) it has to work both ways. Once the fans come on the court they’re fair game to be beaten to a pulp by players or security. Lord knows nothing happens to them (probation for everybody) once the legal system springs in to inaction.

Who knows their insanity quotient? Who knows what they might be packing? If they’re crazy enough to challenge oversized professional athletes on their turf they’re crazy enough to take terror to its limit. O’Neal, whose account and description of events remain unheard by the league on advise of counsel, had every right to cold-cock the miscreant it says here. He should’ve been commended not suspended.

Why is it the other way around? More significantly, how come Johnson got five games for hitting the miscreant and O’Neal got 25 for the same act? They both nailed him once.

From what I can gather, it’s all of the above; trying to get into the stands and fast breaking across court to hit the guy as he was getting up. In addition, he cuffed a red-shirted security guard who was trying to restrain him and tossed him over the scorer’s table.

How, pray tell, was O’Neal supposed to know that some guy wearing a red (or blue) shirt is security? Especially in his frenetic state of mind when people and things are coming at him from all angles? He’s not; that’s the point. That’s why such free-for-alls (with fans and foe) are so inhumanly dangerous.

That’s why they must not happen again. That’s why Stern’s verdicts were so ruthlessly unsympathetic. That’s why his message is so clear: Take part in a barroom-like brawl and you get the group surcharge, not the group discount.