Sunday , Nov , 21 , 2004 C.Y. Ellis

NTT Special Edition: Fight Night in Detroit

Although I promised you Volume 2.2 tonight, I feel it’s more important to cover the big issues of the moment, as was my aim in writing this column. For this reason, today’s edition concerns last night’s melee at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

Firstly, for those of you who are yet to see footage of the events, click on the link below for a clip of ESPN’s coverage of the free-for-all.

Before I begin to comment, here is the official press release posted today on

NEW YORK, Nov. 20 — NBA Commissioner David Stern issued the following statement today:

“The events at last night’s game were shocking, repulsive and inexcusable — a humiliation for everyone associated with the NBA. This demonstrates why our players must not enter the stands whatever the provocation or poisonous behavior of people attending the games. Our investigation is ongoing and I expect it to be completed by tomorrow evening.

The NBA has taken the following actions, effective immediately:

1. Indiana players Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O’Neal are suspended indefinitely, the length to be determined upon completion of the investigation.

2. Detroit player Ben Wallace is suspended indefinitely, the length to be determined upon completion of the investigation.

3. Review of rules and procedures relating to altercations and security have been undertaken so that fans can continue to attend our games unthreatened by events such as the ones that occurred last night.”

This is undeniably the most important event in the NBA’s recent history. The level and spread of the violence is unprecedented, for the first time involving a significant number of fans, both those passive and those directly involved in the skirmishes. A player has not entered the stands to assault fan since Vernon Maxwell in 1995 who, given the nature of the comments made by the fan, had every right to deck him. Since that was the case, he was fined only twenty thousand dollars and suspended ten games, which, all considered, was still very little.

The question now is “What will Stern do about it?” My response is this: whatever he thinks will do best for the league’s image. You have to remember that the NBA is a business and that David Stern is a salesman. His job is to attract and retain as many fans as possible, in particular those who are likely to purchase NBA merchandise. Accordingly, his focus demographic is families with children, exactly the sort of people likely to be dissuaded from buying the NBA product if they associate such violence with the league. As such, he’ll be a very concerned man tonight.

It is very likely that Jackson, O’Neal and Artest will be awarded long, long suspensions and very large fines. There are whispers that the trio may be out for the rest of the season, although thirty games seems more likely. This will undoubtedly draw the ire of fans who claim that their reactions were provoked and that they were merely defending their team-mate. This, however, ignores the fact that they went far past simply defending Artest who, it must be noted, set it all off by stomping an innocent fan.

Below is a brief rundown of the key moments of the incident. My comments follow.

1. Ben Wallace is fouled by Ron Artest with around forty-five seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
2. Ben Wallace shoves Artest in the throat and the referee steps between the two players. Artest retreats and players on the floor tussle at half-court.
3. Ron Artest lies on the press/score table, smiling and briefly donning a headset.
4. Ben Wallace throws a towel at him and, shortly thereafter, a fan throws a water bottle at the supine Artest.
5. Artest jumps up and runs into the crowd, attacking a visibly shocked fan who claims not to have thrown in the bottle. This fan later says that as Artest kicked him while on the floor, he asked him “Did you do it?” and ceased to kick him when he said he did not (throw the bottle).
6. A fan wearing a blue jersey and a cap attempts to restrain Artest. ABC news reports that this is the man who threw the bottle at Artest. Another fan to his right throws water in Artest’s face.
7. This fan is caught by a vicious right from Stephen Jackson, who had followed Artest into the stands.
8. The fan who had at first restrained Artest begins to punch him in the head from behind.
9. Another wearing a grey or beige sweater punches Fred Jones from behind. This fan is said to be a brother of Ben Wallace.
10. Artest returns to the floor and is confronted by a fan wearing a Rip Hamilton jersey. He swings at this fan twice, connecting on the first, and is pushed back by another fan. Both fans fall to the floor.
11. As the fan who pushed Artest to the floor returns to his feet, a sprinting Jermaine O’Neal punches him in the face, slipping and falling to the floor as he does so. He stands and flexes his muscles at the fan.
12. Official Tommy Nunez is hit in the face by a plastic bottle, opening a cut above his eye.
13. A police officer threatens Artest with pepper spray. Chuck Person intervenes and Reggie Miller brings over two more officers to escort Artest from the floor.
14. Artest and Jackson leave the floor. As O’Neal leaves, a chair is thrown, hitting his left arm.
15. As O’Neal is about to enter the tunnel, he is hit by a bucket of popcorn. He breaks loose of those escorting him from the floor and shouts into the crowd.
16. Jamaal Tinsley emerges from the tunnel brandishing a dustpan. He holds it aloft as if to swing or throw it, but does neither and retreats into the tunnel.
17. The game is called and fans are encouraged to exit the arena peacefully by Larry Brown speaking over the P.A. system.

I’ll deal with those above moments by number.

1, 2, 3, 4: Other than for Ron’s antics, there is little to distinguish this from a standard standoff. While increasingly infrequent, it’s still not uncommon to see all ten players jostling as they were at this point. If it had all ended here, there would have been a small fine and suspension for Ben Wallace and little else. However, as the bottle hits Artest, the situation escalates.

5,6: This is where it really kicks off. Entering the stands is a big step and one which will do Artest no favours when this is reviewed by the league. Similarly, the fact that he went after the wrong fan will not help him. While Artest was provoked, I think Stern will be justified in throwing the book at him for mixing with the crowd.

7: This is the moment Jackson implicated himself. Again, it could be argued that he was protecting Artest, but it’s clear from the tape that the recipient of his round right was making no advance and showed no intention to attack Artest.

8, 9: At this point it becomes apparent that there may not be a swift end to this incident. As these two fans begin to scrap, more are drawn in, either to join the brawl or to attempt to break it up. Either way, the result is the same: it now has the look of a riot.

10: I’ve a feeling this one will be overlooked. The fan clearly approaches Artest with a clenched fist and squares up to him. Ron will be able to make a legitimate case that this was self-defence. Artest shouldn’t be in too much trouble for this.

11: O’Neal, conversely, signed his suspension sheet with this punch. The fan was unaware of O’Neal until the last moment and was making no aggressive movements towards the players. While it’s unclear from the footage I’ve seen whether he meant to avert further incident by pushing Artest back or not, he certainly did not warrant the running punch to the face that O’Neal delivered.

12: Again, this is totally unwarranted. Although fans involved in the fighting could perhaps partially excuse themselves for assaulting the players, there is no justification for this. He was an impartial official who was merely standing aside, entirely unaware that he was about to be hit in the face by a projectile that was travelling at considerable speed.

13: This is one of the more bizarre moments of the incident. I cannot imagine what may have happened if Artest had been sprayed. In my mind I have the image of a caged lion being shot with a tranquiliser dart and tearing its surroundings apart.

14, 15: This is yet more disgraceful behaviour from the fans. Perhaps my faith in the human race is too great, but I’m amazed so many acted as hideously as they did. That said, in extreme situations, extreme reactions are provoked.

16: This is by far the oddest sight I’ve yet seen in my years of watching basketball. What Tinsley expected to achieve with a dustpan is beyond me. He had played the peacemaker thus far, but was unwise to leave the tunnel, although he quickly returned.

17: The ruckus slowly dissipates, the fans leave and workers get to clearing the phenomenal mess left following the dozens of altercations throughout the arena.

What next then? Well, according to Stern, he’ll be passing judgement Monday evening, at which point we’re likely to have had some indication of the punishments from league office sources. Hopefully he’ll take into account the actions which incited the players involved while still matching the inappropriate conduct of Jackson, O’Neal and Artest with fitting penalties. His handling of this episode is to be the hot topic of the next few days, be it more moderate or severe than expected. Whatever the outcome, there will, as outlined in Stern’s third point, be drastic changes to arena security. Expect to see courts surrounded by police officers and hired guards in the near future. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a new policy introduced to have security officials intervene in future violent incidents, either on-court or off.

We also await the word of the Detroit Police Department, who say that they have identified from the tape two fans who threw punches and will press charges.

Pending further news, there is little more to be said. Let us know your feelings on the issue by commenting below or by emailing me ([email protected]). There will be a follow-up column in a day or so dealing with the punishments and your responses to the whole affair. This is the opportunity to have your thoughts aired, so please get at me if you have something to say. Until then, take it easy and stay safe.