If anyone came out ahead as a result of the Pacers-Pistons riot, it would have to be swingman Fred Jones.
He showed his loyalty as a teammate by charging into the stands, yet he avoided swinging on any fans or incurring any punishment from the NBA. That left him ready and available to move into the starting lineup -- Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson not being so lucky or wise -- to log 40-plus minutes a night ever since. Exquisite timing, since he's eligible to sign a contract extension this summer.
Only Jones isn't sure even now if he behaved appropriately. Specifically, he wonders if he shouldn't have sought revenge on the beefy fan -- later identified as a friend of Pistons center Ben Wallace -- who sucker-punched Jones in the back of the head while he attempted to pull Artest back down to the floor.
"I still think about, 'Did I make the right decision?' every day," Jones said. "Right now I have mixed emotions about what I should've done."
How, you ask, is that possible? How could being potentially suspended and cast as a knucklehead along with Artest, Jackson and O'Neal be favorable to his current position?
The short answer is that unless you're part of the 2004-2005 Indiana Pacers, your opinion doesn't carry much weight. The longer answer is that Old Testament thinking -- as in that eye-for-an-eye stuff -- remains in vogue.
Back to the short answer: Everybody and anybody -- including many who weren't even in the arena or watching it live -- has critiqued what transpired and categorically blasted the participants. It has been labelled a tragedy and travesty, if not a death knell for the NBA, then certainly a warning shot.
The Pacers don't share that view, if Jones is any reflection. To them, they merely got caught up in a extraordinary combination of circumstances, or "an isolated incident," as Jones says, that won't happen again. Commissioner David Stern, in this view, cracked down hard to placate the ticket-buying public, not because something egregious occurred. Jones, in a sense, is suffering from survivor guilt.
Maybe he'd feel different if the remaining Pacers believed their suspended teammates had derailed their season or championships hopes. But, says Jones, "We embraced them right away. They're not any less as teammates because of what happened. If anything, we're looking forward to them rejoining us. The league has given us the opportunity to develop a lot of guys who ordinarily wouldn't get much playing time. It's going to be tough for somebody to stop us once we get everybody back, because we're going to have so many guys who played a lot this season."
But aren't Jones and his teammates aware of the harsh light in which this incident puts both them and the league?
Sure they are. It's just that comments about what happened from anywhere outside the Pacers' locker room are given the same respect a surgeon would give to someone who has never held a scalpel, or the same heed a soldier would pay to someone who never has been in combat. Crazy as that may sound, ask yourself this: How much validity do you grant to someone who tells you how you screwed up on your job, if that person isn't in your line of work and doesn't know firsthand what your job entails?
Players are routinely criticized from the outside, and often inaccurately. Sometimes it's by critics who don't know the game plan, or the game. Sometimes it's for situations off the court before all the details are fully known. In any case, rush-to-judgments are part and parcel in this broadband/videophone/299-channel/reality-TV age.
The new rules seem to be: Don't wait to find out what really happened. Say it loud and proud and without equivocation.
Should we really be surprised, then, that Artest or anybody else taking the brunt of all that criticism has tuned out the proselytizing? Or refuses to act as contrite as we'd expect them to?
I'll be honest: my original idea was to write about how well Jones handled himself in a difficult situation, and how we should be praising that behavior as much as we're condemning Artest's. I don't know Jones personally, but anybody who calls me back on Thanksgiving to talk about a subject already combed threadbare is a cut above, as far as I'm concerned. I appreciate that he's honest enough to admit his uncertainty over how he reacted when the easy way would've been to play along with my premise.
All of which makes me wonder if the real problem is what constitutes being a righteous fellow these days. Are you a wimp for not hitting back, no matter what, even if it means innocent people will be hurt and escalating the violence? My guess is that if Artest had actually nailed the guy who threw the cup at him and the skirmish had ended there, more than a few people would've lauded Ron-Ron for making the guy pay. As if that warrants admiration.
Jones, then, is working in a storm of competing ideas, or, at best, in a vacuum. The replays, tick by tick, frame by frame, show him getting popped in the back of the head. If you're a 20-something testosterone-jacked male, that doesn't come off as noble. It comes off as having been punked. Especially in the NBA, survival means never backing down from a challenge or allowing yourself to be intimidated -- or, if you do give in, enduring whispers of being "soft" from those you respect most.
That's why Jones wants it known he didn't just walk away.
"He hit me one time from behind, he missed with the other two," he says. "When I turned around, I couldn't see him. Everything was kind of cluttered up. I'm still upset that I couldn't defend myself."
Not that Jones believes players should be free to maraud the stands, pummeling anyone who confronts them. He simply believes codes of conduct should be set and enforced for all concerned. While questions are being raised about Artest's psychological makeup, few are really searching for answers about the fans who threw things, who punched players, who went onto the court. What, for instance, was Ben's boy thinking in slugging Jones, who obviously was trying to play peacemaker with his arms around Artest?
"It's hard because, to me, we are the most blessed people in the world that we can do what we do," Jones says. "Not all fans, but a handful, had the same goals we had in life and there's jealousy. They see the way we come to games and practice a couple of hours a day and that's it. They don't see how our bodies hurt. They don't see what we do in the community. They don't hear about guys giving back to the places they came from to make them better."
His points are valid. Being under a microscope comes with celebrity. Giving back should be a matter of course. But at least some fans believe a form of giving back for a player is taking whatever the fan chooses to dish out. Most consider boos to be severe enough. Others, perhaps wanting to make sure their opinion has registered, raise the ante to crude comments and thrown objects. Artest himself had been hit with items before while on the court.
"The same way people say there's no way a player can go into the stands, there's no way a fan can throw something at a player," Jones said. "Or at least that's how it should be."
We can all agree on that. And it is troubling that punishment hasn't appeared to be as swift and severe and publicized for the fans as the players.
Furthermore, the system seems broken. The Pacers actually asked about how to deal with abusive fans during the annual training camp visit by league officials in October. They were told to tell the referees, who would then alert the arena security, who would then take action.
I've been told by teams other than the Pacers, though, that they've followed that procedure and, to their knowledge, nothing has ever happened -- the fans weren't removed or confronted.
"I think it would help players from taking things into their own hands if they knew someone was going to pay a consequence," Jones said. "Even now, though, it's tough to know which way to go."
This is from Fred Jones, the guy who handled himself as well as can be expected and reaped the most benefits. If he isn't sure he'd do it again the same way, the solution is a little more complex than sending Artest to anger management or beefing up security.
For guys like Jones, the question is whether the Old Testament rules are still in effect. For everyone's sake, let's hope they aren't.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine and collaborated with Rockets center Yao Ming on "Yao: A Life In Two Worlds," published by Miramax and available in bookstores beginning Sept. 29. Click here to send him a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.