It began with Ron Artest, a player who has undergone anger-management counseling and who last season alone was suspended six times. He went into the stands looking for blood Friday night, looking for the fan who threw the cup of beer at his head.
It ended with belligerent, crazed fans, at least some of whom were inebriated, pelting players from the visiting team with anything they could find. Already miffed they're paying more to see Ben Wallace than Isiah Thomas, these men came to the Palace of Auburn Hills to denigrate Artest and the Indiana Pacers more than celebrate their NBA champion Detroit Pistons. There are more than 100 of them at every arena in every city for every game now, many seated next to children.
During the madness, Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O'Neal attempted to cold-cock fans, displaying the most warped sense of loyalty to a teammate imaginable. A former NBA player reached by telephone yesterday called it the "being-down-for-your-boy mentality." He fears it is even more prevalent in the NBA now, part of the culture for many young players who feel more insulated from fans who skewer them on the Internet and on talk radio. After their family, their teammates and agents, these young men have no idea whom to trust.
It all converged to create the perfect storm Friday night in Detroit: The league's reigning hothead, Artest. The marginalized, angry fan, able to purchase alcohol in the fourth quarter. And a bunker-down mentality, fostered by coaches who quote Winston Churchill and defend their players' foul behavior most nights of the week.
The aftermath was almost as unbelievable as the video. Artest was suspended the remainder of the season yesterday by Commissioner David Stern, a 73-game total punishment that, if served, will go down as the longest in league history for fighting. After sitting out Saturday, Jackson got hit with a total of 30 games, O'Neal with 25 and Wallace, who shoved Artest with both hands in the face after a hard foul and who kept looking for a scrap even after the two were separated, was docked six games.
Most who have seen the video respond with shock and disbelief. But this has been coming for a while. Players and fans have been on a collision course for some time. And, frankly, it's surprising an ugly event of this magnitude didn't happen sooner. If you want the sad truth, some players actually respect what Artest, Jackson, and O'Neal did to those fans. It made them feel empowered in a way that every player who has ever been harassed wants to feel.
It's surprising John Starks did not bum-rush the man in Indianapolis, who stood behind the Knicks bench for much of the late 1990s, yelling, "Hey, psycho boy!"
It's surprising that Dennis Rodman, the Artest of his day, did not inspire such anger and violence between player and fan. The antics of players like Rodman and Artest are tolerated by their teams because they help them win. Better channeling that emotional fine line on the court than deal with it in counseling, those teams figure. Counseling gets no one to the playoffs.
We are to blame, too. The only relationships some players have with their fans are on the drive to the game. They turn on the radio and hear the vitriolic people who call them names. They hear the national "host" who incites them. Knowing tension and anger sell, broadcast executives find someone to fit their suits, Crossfire-style. They hire people who will take sides on sports issues the way people take sides on Roe v. Wade.
Fans, in turn, become more passionate. They love their teams more and hate their enemies more. And on Friday night in Auburn Hills, their enemy was Ron Artest.
"They say this is about scarring the NBA, but part of it is where society is heading," said Greg Anthony, the former NBA guard and now an ESPN analyst. "This whole talk radio and killing guys all the time on the airwaves spurs some of this emotion. The next thing you know, you got something so ugly and despicable, it's almost like some footage from rioting soccer stadiums in Europe."
Indeed, hooliganism has come to our shores. Walk onto the court or enter a stadium at your own risk.
Anthony was one of the more mature, thoughtful players of his generation. He also admitted last year that he carried a handgun to games during his time in New York. He said he did it for protection, because he could not be certain that all the unseemly people he had heard about would not harm him or his family. And, whatever one thinks of such judgment, that was 10 years ago.
Today, the fascination with guns among NBA players is growing. They are accessories to some players, like a new CD collection or wardrobe. These players are coached by men who make war analogies, and that mind-set becomes a culture of sport.
What happened Friday night was not just about a frightening, new NBA world. It was about a changing American sports landscape, a collision course between people who have nothing in common, who come to an arena where people now root against the bad guys more than they cheer the good guys, where the word "enemy" means something more than just a player who can beat the home team.
Pray that this one frightening night at the Palace of Auburn Hills isn't viewed years from now as a turning point from which we never recovered.