Four National Basketball Association players were suspended indefinitely yesterday following one of the ugliest brawls between professional athletes and fans in this country, a melee that NBA Commissioner David Stern described as "shocking, repulsive and inexcusable."
The fight was the latest and most violent in a recent string of incidents in which the formerly respected barrier between players and fans has been breached throughout professional sports.
"I've never seen anything like this," said former NBA player Greg Anthony, now a commentator for ESPN. "Player on player, yes. But fans going onto the court, going at it with players?
"I don't know, I think the culture of sport is really changing. You started to see it transpire in Europe with the soccer matches. There's so much hate and venom being tossed in society nowadays that sports is not immune to it."
Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O'Neal, all starters for the Indiana Pacers, exchanged blows with fans -- both in the stands and on the court -- during Friday night's incident at the Palace of Auburn Hills in a Detroit suburb. The fourth player suspended, Ben Wallace of the defending NBA champion Pistons, set events in motion when he shoved Artest with less than a minute left in the game. Artest later stormed into the stands after being struck in the face by a drink thrown by a fan.
"The events at last night's game were shocking, repulsive and inexcusable -- a humiliation for everyone associated with the NBA," Stern said in a prepared statement. "This demonstrates why our players must not enter the stands whatever the provocation or poisonous behavior of people attending the games."
The length of the players' suspensions will be determined when the NBA wraps up its investigation, possibly tonight. Both players and fans could face criminal charges as well. Auburn Hills police said yesterday they had identified most of the people involved using video footage but that the investigation could take weeks.
"Obviously, we know which Indiana players were in the stands, but it looked like there were a lot of fisticuffs being thrown other places, too," Oakland County Prosecutor David Gorcyca told the Associated Press yesterday. "The whole fiasco could take weeks to decide."
At least five people were treated for minor cuts and bruises at POH Medical Center in Pontiac, hospital spokesman Chris Allman said yesterday. All were released in good condition.
In other recent incidents, Texas Rangers relief pitcher Frank Francisco threw a chair into the stands during a Major League Baseball game in September, breaking a woman's nose, after he and others in the bullpen were heckled by Oakland Athletics fans. Also that month, Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Milton Bradley threw a plastic beer bottle at the feet of fans whom he thought had thrown the bottle at him. With his team in a tight playoff race, Bradley was suspended for the final five games of the season.
In 2002, a father and son jumped from the stands at Chicago's Comiskey Park and attacked Kansas City Royals first base coach Tom Gamboa. A year earlier, Tie Domi of the National Hockey League's Toronto Maple Leafs wrestled with a fan in the penalty box after dousing him with water.
In 1995, Vernon Maxwell of the NBA's Houston Rockets attacked a spectator in Portland, Ore. He was suspended 10 games and fined $20,000.
The violence has trickled down to the high school level. A cheerleader suffered a broken rib and a coach needed stitches in his head after a melee broke out in Metropolis, Ill., last February. Two people were injured after hundreds of fans stormed the court following a boys' basketball game last January in Columbus, Ohio, where police used pepper spray to subdue the crowd.
Detroit garnered national headlines in 1984 when riots broke out after the Tigers won the World Series. But the city's reputation for unruly fans had faded, and its celebration last June of the Pistons' championship was peaceful.
Pacers officials and players did not immediately comment yesterday. Tom Wilson, a Pistons spokesman, told the Associated Press that the team plans to double the number of armed police and increase other arena security personnel by about 25 percent.
The NBA will also review its security procedures "so that fans can continue to attend our games unthreatened by events such as the ones that occurred last night," according to Stern's statement.
The brawl began with the game winding down. With his team leading by 15 points and 45 seconds left, Artest, a 6-foot-7, 246-pound forward, fouled Wallace, a 6-9, 240-pound forward-center, in an attempt to keep him from scoring. Wallace, who later said he believed the foul was excessive, pushed Artest.
As players from both teams exchanged words and milled about the court, Artest laid down on the scorer's table, his hands crossed behind his head, and donned a pair of headphones he obtained from a radio or television crew sitting near him, according to Steve Kauffman, Wallace's agent. Kauffman said the sight of Artest lounging infuriated the crowd.
"I kept yelling at Ron to get his [butt] out of there," Kauffman said. "I told him to get into the locker room. . . . All he did was smile at me."
Wallace was seen on videotape throwing a towel or headband in the direction of Artest. Then a fan threw a full plastic cup, hitting Artest in the face.
Videotape of the incident then shows Artest leaping into the stands and hitting a spectator. The man was identified by the AP as Mike Ryan of Clarkston, Mich.
"He was on top of me, pummeling me," Ryan told the AP. "He asked me, 'Did you do it?' I said, 'No, man. No!' "
Ryan declined to be interviewed yesterday through his father, Pat Ryan. Asked whether his son was injured, the elder Ryan said that his son, who is 26, planned to seek medical help. Pat Ryan declined to detail the nature of his son's injuries.
"We've also contacted an attorney," said Pat Ryan.
Jackson, a 6-8, 218-pound guard-forward, also stormed into the crowd and exchanged blows with fans. A group of coaches and others, including injured Pacers guard Reggie Miller and former Piston Rick Mahorn, a Detroit radio analyst, tried to break up the ruckus.
Videotape also showed that while the Pacers players were being restrained in the stands, they were hit -- at times from behind -- by other fans.
Later, the fight spilled back onto the floor. Artest and O'Neal, a 6-11, 242-pound forward-center, were both seen striking fans who confronted them on the court. The Pacers were pelted with debris as they left the court with a 97-82 victory.
The three Pacers' suspensions began with last night's game against the Orlando Magic in Indianapolis. Wallace's suspension will begin tonight, when the Pistons host the Charlotte Bobcats.
"I didn't start it. I just played the game," Wallace said yesterday before learning of his suspension. "The league is going to do whatever they feel needs to be done, and I don't have no problems with that."
The brawl was the latest in a series of incidents involving Artest, one of the league's best defenders. Artest, 25, has been fined $87,500 and suspended a total of 15 games during his six seasons as an NBA player. He earns about $6 million a year. Last season, he pledged to behave and his tantrums disappeared.
"People are putting all the burden on Artest, and I don't think that's fair," Houston Coach Jeff Van Gundy told the AP. "He's an easy target because of all the things he's been through. But some fans have gotten to a point where they think they can do or say anything."
Staff writer Mike Wise contributed to this report.