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Saturday, November 20, 2004
NBA should throw book at Artest

By Jim Caple
ESPN.com

Go ahead, Ron. Take a good, long time off. You earned it.

Last week Ron Artest asked for a month off to rest up from a grueling schedule that included producing a rap album, providing the most outrageous basketball quote of the year that was not spoken by Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O'Neal: "I've been doing a little bit too much music, just needed the rest. I've still got my album coming out Nov. 23. After the album comes out I'm going to make sure all of my time is focused on winning a championship.''

Artest received a two-game suspension instead and he deserves another far, far longer suspension for his behavior Friday night when he charged into the stands after fans and later punched one on the court. Teammates Jermaine O'Neal and Stephen Jackson likewise slugged fans.

The whole melee began when Detroit's Ben Wallace gave Artest a hard, two-handed shove in the chest and face after being fouled with 45.9 seconds left in the game. That started a scuffle between the two teams that ended with referees calling an end to the game. Everything seemed to be calming down when someone threw a full cup on Artest, who was inexplicably lying on the scorer's table, and that's when everything went to hell. Artest and Jackson went into the stands swinging for fans and fans spilled onto the court trolling for lawsuits.

Why everyone should get so upset, especially about an NBA game in mid-November, is unclear. Evidently, Detroit fans are going through withdrawal because of the NHL lockout. The only thing they didn't throw at the Pacers was an octopus.

How ugly was this fight? So ugly that Rick Mahorn and Rasheed Wallace were the peacemakers.

Now, let's be clear. The fans in Detroit are equally at fault here. They crossed the line further than if they had Pittsburgh Steelers blocking for them. They inflamed a situation that was about to end peacefully. What we can see them doing is bad enough; what we can't hear them shouting at the players can only be imagined.

Without question, the fans deserve severe punishment. But other than taking away their season tickets and banning them from games, there isn't much the NBA can do about those morons. Their punishment must be handed out by the justice system, which should not only charge each one involved with assault but also reject any possible lawsuit directed at a player's checkbook.

The NBA, however, does have jurisdiction over its players and should throw the book at the three Pacers who fought with fans.

Artest went charging into the stands, looking wildly for the fan who threw the cup. It isn't clear whether he knew who actually did it, but he did shove down one fan he suspected. Then Jackson came up and drilled another fan who threw another beer at Artest.

After that settled down and security and teammates separated everyone, two fans came strutting onto the court toward Artest, essentially asking to be clobbered. Artest obliged them, as did an unidentified assistant coach and O'Neal, who all threw some very violent punches.

While the fans clearly asked for it, that in no way gives the players permission to give it to them. The players must be mature enough to let security and police officers handle such situations, if only to protect their bank accounts. Fan behavior can be ugly. It always gets much, much uglier when players respond.

As NBA commissioner David Stern said when announcing the indefinite suspensions, "This demonstrates why our players must not enter the stands, whatever the provocation or poisonous behavior of people attending the games."

We've had a distressing number of such incidents recently -- the father-son morons attacking a first base coach in Chicago, Frank Francisco tossing a chair in Oakland -- and the only way to end it is to get tough. Prosecute the fans and suspend the players without pay long enough that they have to take notice.

The NBA is already dealing with falling popularity and a perception that it has lost control of its players. To rescue its image, it has to come down hard -- the minimum suspensions should be 20 games. And Artest, whose record demonstrates a profound lack of control, should face a season-long suspension.

If Artest wants to record an album, fine. But the NBA can't tolerate him fighting everyone as if he's in the audience of the Vibe magazine awards.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.