The NBA is facing serious, serious issues, problems bigger than fan arrests and player suspensions can repair. A season that began with Latrell Sprewell suggesting he would be hard-pressed to feed his family on $10 million a year, then continued with Ron Artest wanting to take a month off from playing to promote his upcoming CD degenerated into the unspeakable Friday night in Detroit.

No, it's not the first time professional athletes and fans have battled in the stands in this country. But the prolonged, fist-swinging, chair-slinging, bottle-throwing episode that rolled from the court to the stands back to the court, and finally to the tunnel leading to the locker room, is probably the ugliest, most violent episode players and fans have been involved in. And it leaves the NBA facing the question of what in the world to do about several Pacers players who charged into the stands, the deteriorating relationship between players and paying customers, and the increasing perception that the league is full of young, underachieving, unprofessional, richer-than-ever, thug divas unable to maintain the level of play established by the previous generation's stars.

Of course, the immediate concern for Commissioner David Stern, plus every league and club executive, has to be this fight, this sorry spectacle that basketball Hall of Famer Bill Walton, working the game for ESPN, called "the lowest point for me in 30 years with the NBA."

The Pacers' Artest, though he was attacked by a beer-throwing fan without provocation, has to be suspended severely for going into the stands. Stephen Jackson, though he claims he was going to the aid of a teammate, has to be suspended even longer -- I'd say 20 games -- for going into the stands. It's not like he went in to grab Artest; he went in throwing haymakers.

Don't get me wrong; without question, fans provoked the brawl. If identified by police in suburban Detroit, the fans who hit Artest in the face with beer, who sucker-punched a peace-seeking Fred Jones in the back of the head, who threw a chair at Jermaine O'Neal, who threw bottles at Pacers players and doused them in beer and soda, should be arrested and prosecuted. The price of a ticket allows a paying customer to boo, even taunt, players from the stands. It does not allow for turning concessions into projectiles and throwing chairs.

That said, players cannot go into the stands, period.

They can go immediately to their dressing rooms, but not into the stands, no matter what some fool throws.

As one former player told me yesterday: "I understand the impulse. But I cannot condone the action. Players cannot go into the stands, not for any reason."

As a practical matter, it's far from certain that the perpetrator can be isolated, or even identified. Artest, in fact, chased down the wrong guy, according to two sources. He ran right past the offender and grabbed the wrong kid. And even if he had grabbed the actual perpetrator, what about the children or wheelchair patrons or seniors who might be sitting between the bottle thrower and the player? Not only that, but provocation does not legally allow a player to retaliate.

As a matter of law, my friend Vince Williams, a lawyer and Chicago Bulls season ticket holder, told me yesterday: "You are allowed to meet force with like force, which does not allow Artest, after being hit with a plastic cup of beer or soda, to pummel the person -- even if he'd gotten the right person -- within an inch of his life. You are allowed to defend yourself, but once the threat has subsided, you can't continue to fight or come back five minutes later and retaliate."

The NBA might announce the severity of its suspensions today. But Artest, Jackson and O'Neal have far more to fear than the league. Indications are the players could face criminal prosecution. The sponsors and season ticket holders who pay the freight in Detroit are apparently going to insist upon it -- and that doesn't even consider the lawsuits fans could file against the players.

Worse for the league than the Pacers' individual legal issues is the damage this latest episode does to the NBA.

What's increasingly apparent is that even fans who pay to watch the game are growing sick of today's players, their arrogance, their sense of entitlement. It's a stunning reversal from the 1980s and 1990s, when the league enjoyed enormous acclaim and popularity that included a celebrated intimacy between players and the league's patrons.

It's also not easy to figure out the racial complexities in a situation where a predominantly black league is being financially supported by fan base that is predominantly white. Take a careful look at the videotape of the fight and you'll see black and white fans in suburban Motown taking dead aim on black NBA players. And these fans weren't just willing to fight, they were eager to fight.

Yes, a lot of this, regardless of race, has to do with "beer muscles" as players like to say. I'd like to see beer sales cut off at the end of the first quarter. There's no question some of those fools in the stands were emboldened by alcohol. And liquored-up fans are as big a danger to sports as anything the players do or don't do. What were those fools doing coming on the court to physically confront powerful professional athletes? Tell me that's not alcohol at work? Still, as long as the beer companies are major TV sponsors, neither the networks nor the NBA will dare require them to dramatically cut their sales inside arenas.

Extra security isn't the answer. As one former player said: "Fans throwing stuff isn't new. It happened when I played. The answer is to kick them out of the arenas forever, arrest them and prosecute them."

What is the NBA going to do, ring the court with armed guards at every timeout? The intimacy of the setting, having people sit within touching distance, has always been part of basketball's appeal. People aren't going to pay $500 to $1,000 per seat to be 15 feet farther back, separated from the floor by some moat. A former White House correspondent and huge NBA fan e-mailed me yesterday morning, after hearing a former NBA player suggest on TV that the first few rows of seats should be pushed back from the court as a means or keeping fans away from the players and perhaps avoiding future fights. "Do they realize," my friend said, "that there is already a tremendous amount of distance between the NBA and its fans?"

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.