The National Basketball Association, reacting quickly to stem the damage from its latest high-profile controversy, yesterday issued some of the most severe penalties in league history to the players involved in a violent clash with spectators at a game in Auburn Hills, Mich., Friday night.
Indiana Pacers forward Ron Artest was suspended for the rest of the season, the longest non-drug related suspension assessed by the league. In all, he will sit out 73 of 82 games and forfeit more than $5 million in salary. Teammate Stephen Jackson received a 30-game suspension and teammate Jermaine O'Neal was banned for 25 games. The players, Indiana's top three scorers, fought with fans in the stands after Artest was hit by a cup thrown by a spectator.
Pacers forward Ron Artest is led off the court by team consultant Chuck Person after a brawl near the end of Friday night's game against the Pistons. Artest, who jumped into the stands after a fan, should face a lengthy suspension.
(Clarence Tabb Jr. -- Detroit Free Press Via AP)
The NBA has endured a series of public relations setbacks, most prominently the Kobe Bryant rape trial this summer. In the last month alone, a player, Latrell Sprewell of the Minnesota Timberwolves, complained publicly during contract talks about being unable to feed his family on $14 million a year, and Artest asked to skip a month of games so he could better promote music that he helped produce.
NBA Commissioner David Stern had already been stressing to owners the need to improve the league's image, according to a league source who requested anonymity. Combined with a long string of drug and drunk driving arrests and domestic abuse charges, the incidents are sullying the NBA's reputation with many fans, and are threatening the league's standing with corporate America, according to David Carter, a principal at the Sports Business Group marketing firm, based in Los Angeles.
"Corporate America now more than ever has plenty of options to partner with," Carter said. "If they believe what they've seen the last two years regarding player behavior is chronic, and that the NBA's brand is eroding and veering towards boxing, they will likely say 'We've got other options and we don't want to have our brand affiliated or potentially damaged by a league with chronic issues.' "
In addition, questions have been raised about the effectiveness of security at the Palace of Auburn Hills in suburban Detroit, and whether the NBA has for too long courted players with a history of rule breaking. Artest had been suspended 15 games in his career for various transgressions.
For these reasons, Carter said Stern needed to react swiftly and decisively to Friday's incident.
In addition to the suspensions without pay imposed on Artest, O'Neal and Jackson, the Detroit Pistons' Ben Wallace was suspended six games. His shove of Artest, after Artest fouled him with 45 seconds left in the game, precipitated the melee.
The league also suspended Indiana guard Anthony Johnson for five games and Detroit forwards Elden Campbell and Derrick Coleman and guard Chauncey Billups as well as Indiana's Reggie Miller for one game -- all for leaving the bench.
"The actions of the players involved wildly exceeded the professionalism and self-control that should fairly be expected from NBA players," Stern said in a prepared statement.
At least nine people were injured; the three Pacers, and some of the spectators, face possible criminal action. David Gorcyca, the Oakland County prosecutor, said he will meet with his staff today to decide whether to wait and file charges against all the individuals at once, or to file them as soon as his staff determines an individual has broken the law. Gorcyca said authorities have identified many of the fans as well as all the players involved.
"The penalties issued today deal only with one aspect of this incident -- that of player misconduct," Stern said. "There are other issues that the NBA must urgently focus on at this time. First, we must redefine the bounds of acceptable conduct for fans attending our games and resolve to permanently exclude those who overstep those bounds."
Artest's punishment is five games longer than the previous record: a 68-game suspension given to Sprewell for choking then-Golden State coach P.J. Carlesimo in 1997.
Last night, Artest issued a statement expressing regret over the incident but saying the punishment issued by Stern is unfair.