INDIANAPOLIS - The Indiana Pacers' leadership voiced their support for Ron Artest and the other players suspended after the brawl with Detroit Pistons fans and apologized for their role in one of the most violent exchanges between players and fans in U.S. sports history.
Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh called the melee at the end of Friday night's game at Detroit a low point for pro sports and the franchise during a news conference on Monday.
"We apologize for our part in it," Walsh said.
NBA commissioner David Stern suspended Artest for the rest of the season and gave four other Pacers shorter bans, including Stephen Jackson (30 games) and Jermaine O'Neal (25 games).
Artest bolted into the stands after being hit by a cup thrown by a fan, touching off a brawl in which players exchanged punches with fans, who also doused the Pacers with drinks, popcorn, a chair and other debris.
Jackson joined Artest in the stands, swinging wildly, while O'Neal remained on the floor and punched a fan who came onto the court.
"I apologize for the events of last Friday," O'Neal said in a statement. "Like everyone, as I watched from the court, I was distressed and shocked to see the situation spiral out of control. When a number of belligerent fans began to charge onto the court, and it was clear that there was no security in place, I feared for my own safety and for the safety of my teammates. I regret what happened last Friday, and I promise to work as hard as I can to help restore respect for NBA basketball."
Anthony Johnson, who was suspended for five games, thought the punishment he received was undeserved.
"I sincerely feel the penalty is excessive," Johnson said. "I never went into the stands; I never left the court area. People certainly can see what the conditions on the floor were like. The chaos speaks for itself."
Once considered NBA title contenders, now the Pacers are preparing to spend a significant amount of the season without their three best players, in addition to several injured players including Johnson and starters Reggie Miller and Jeff Foster.
Coach Rick Carlisle said the lengths of the suspensions were a "very tough pill to swallow."
"It is a very, very tough penalty," Carlisle said. "It is tougher than I think most people expected."
But that hasn't stopped the Pacers from believing they can be a contender in the Eastern Conference. They lost to the Pistons in last season's conference finals.
"We intend to compete and to win at a high level," Walsh said.
The Pacers said they could not comment directly on the Detroit fans or security at the Palace.
"Right now, we have to move from this to the business of winning games," Carlisle said. "Our overall goals for this season have not changed. We will continue to strive to compete and contend at a championship level and that's exactly what we're going to do."
Although Walsh said he's not sure whether the Pacers can appeal Stern's ruling, Pacers president Larry Bird said he supports Artest, who has a troubled past littered with suspensions.
"The three players that are out, we will be supporting them 100 percent," Bird said. "We'll keep in contact with them and let them know that we're here for them and we're going to do whatever it takes to help them get back as soon as possible."
The Pacers can appeal Stern's ruling to the board of governors, but no team has ever used that option. They also cannot get salary cap relief to sign other players.
Bird declined to comment on the severity of the suspensions and sidestepped a question on whether as a player he would have responded differently than Artest.
"I've never been in that situation," Bird said. "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."
Carlisle hopes that a closer look at the players as people and their community involvement would result in the suspensions' being reduced.
"We are disappointed with the announcements yesterday," Carlisle said. "The excessive, negative portrayals over the last few days of our players are not consistent with what we know of them as a team... as people, players and as fathers."