NEW YORK - Doling out some of the harshest penalties ever issued by the NBA, Commissioner David Stern banned nine players for a combined 143 games following a brawl in Michigan that embarrassed fans, players and officials alike.
The penalties were levied Sunday on players from the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons. The most severe was on Indiana forward Ron Artest, who is out for the rest of the season.
"The line is drawn, and my guess is that won't happen again - certainly not by anybody who wants to be associated with our league," Stern said Sunday at a news conference at Madison Square Garden.
While coming down hard on the players, Stern also announced the league would review several procedures, from in-game security to alcohol sales, in order to establish a safer arena environment.
"There is an element out there that thinks they can take certain liberties. That didn't used to be the case," Stern said. "We have to really begin anew to determine what that covenant of civil behavior in our arenas is going to be all about."
Pushing and shoving among players at Friday's game escalated into one of the worst fights in U.S. professional sports history when a fan threw a drink at Artest and he jumped into the stands, throwing punches.
Nine people were treated for injuries, and police are investigating possible criminal charges. Oakland County (Mich.) Prosecutor David Gorcyca said authorities talked to a man by telephone who acknowledged he was the fan seen throwing a cup. The man failed to show up for an in-person interview, but police said Monday they expect to talk to him once he has an attorney
"He, I think, precipitated the whole event that transpired in the spectator section," Gorcyca told WXYZ-TV. "I think he's going to be facing some criminal charges."
Indiana's Stephen Jackson was suspended for 30 games and Jermaine O'Neal for 25. Both players also threw punches at fans in the stands or on the court at the end of the nationally televised game at Auburn Hills, Mich.
Detroit's Ben Wallace - whose shove of Artest after a foul led to the five-minute fracas - drew a six-game ban, while Pacers guard Anthony Johnson got five games. Four others drew one-game suspensions.
All the suspensions are without pay. Artest will lose approximately $5 million in salary, while O'Neal's suspension will cost him nearly 25 percent of his $14.8 million salary for the current season.
Reaction to the suspensions came quickly: Players union director Billy Hunter said the penalties were unduly harsh and vowed an appeal Monday. Artest issued a contrite statement in which he also questioned the length of his suspension. And O'Neal's agent released an angry missive accusing the league of singling out O'Neal without taking into concern the fear for their own safety that the players were feeling.
Pacers co-owner Herb Simon said he did not condone the fight, but "we do consider the action taken Sunday by the National Basketball Association to be unprecedented and inappropriate based on the circumstances."
Stern said that Friday night's fracas represented "the worst" of the 20,000 to 25,000 games he has presided over in his more than two decades as commissioner. "To watch the out-of-control fans in the stands was disgusting, but it doesn't excuse our players going into the stands," Stern said.
For Detroit's game Sunday against the Charlotte Bobcats - its first outing since the fracas - the team doubled the number of armed police to about 20 in the arena and increased other arena security personnel by about 25 percent.
When both the Pistons and Bobcats went to the locker room and returned to the court, they were escorted by police - one officer in front of each team, and one behind.
Unarmed personnel in blue and red shirts were sprinkled throughout the arena in suburban Detroit. Those assigned to stand near the court turned their back on the game to watch the fans in the stands.
Pistons CEO Tom Wilson said there's a good chance that tickets would be revoked from any season-ticket holder who was involved in the fight. He also hoped the franchise sent a message about how serious it was about preventing safety problems in the future.
"That's why we ratcheted up our security," Wilson said. "If you were sitting at home or you were here watching what happened the other night, you might have thought, 'Can I take my wife there? Can I take my kids there? Is that a safe environment?'"
The most recent example of an NBA player going into the stands and punching a fan came in 1995, when Vernon Maxwell of the Houston Rockets pummeled a spectator in Portland, Ore. The league suspended him for 10 games and fined him $20,000.
Among the harshest non-drug-related penalties in NBA history was a one-year suspension of Latrell Sprewell - later reduced to 68 games - for choking Golden State Warriors coach P.J. Carlesimo at practice.
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