POOR DAVID STERN. The Pacers, the Pistons, the lunatics in Auburn Hills, a contentious union, an unfriendly arbitrator, a federal judge, borderline-hostile fans in Indianapolis, a perpetually dyspeptic coach - they're all lining up to drop lumps of coal into the commissioner's stocking.
Scheduling the traditional Christmas Day doubleheader last summer seemed so innocuous then. Kobe vs. Shaq was the natural main course, and Pacers vs. Pistons would be the perfect appetizer. Kobe and Shaq have played their prescribed roles, but the brawl in the stands on Nov. 19 rewrote the script, and despite every effort to the contrary, the early game is nudging closer to the nightcap as the must-see event.
That's not unanimous, though. Pistons coach Larry Brown told ESPN on Tuesday that the scheduling of the rematch for a national TV audience on Christmas "really makes me sick."
Never mind that no one could have foreseen that game being anything other than a routine showdown between last year's Eastern Conference finalists. Or that his team's record, pre- and post-brawl, might have made him sicker than the scheduling.
Not that all of Brown's gripes weren't legit: He lamented, among other things, having to re-live the ugly brawl every time his team faces an opponent for the first time, and having to address it for a new audience.
Rick Carlisle shares your pain. He went through that last Friday when the Raptors came to Indianapolis' Conseco Fieldhouse, managing to devote plenty of time to a month-old fight on the same day Vince Carter was traded by the team dressing down the hall.
"What about the Christmas Day game at Conseco?" Carlisle was asked as delicately as possible. His answer was as delicate, but quite direct: "We're not talking about it."
But that was before an arbitrator's ruling yesterday that reduced Jermaine O'Neal's suspension from 25 games to 15 (the only reduction given, and the only logical one possible), making him eligible to play Christmas - and before the NBA insisted it would make good on its plan to go to court to invalidate the arbitrator's right to rule on the case, a court date that might include an attempt to keep O'Neal suspended until it can all be sorted out.
Should that happen, expect the reaction in Indiana - which proudly touts itself as "the heart of basketball country" before every Pacers home game - to be volcanic. The Pacers' faithful have united in their reaction to the fight and the aftermath: They've thrown their full support behind what's left of the roster, and focused their wrath upon Stern.
A pair of local lawyers even printed and sold "Suspend Stern" T-shirts out of a makeshift store down the street from Conseco.
That generated a healthy debate on a Pacers message board, as well as several requests for the shirts to wear on Christmas, and an explanation from one of the entrepreneurs: "We just love to hate Stern."
The love and hate will surely fill the building Saturday. Before last night's game against the 76ers, the Pacers were 4-3 at home post-brawl, and the atmosphere has been no less raucous. Pacers fans are notoriously feisty, as much so under certain circumstances (such as playoff games) as the knuckleheads on the scene at The Palace of Auburn Hills last month.
Few signs indicate that it will be any more sedate a Christmas, one being that, in accordance with state law, alcohol will not be sold in the arena that day.
This leaves the Pacers walking a fine line. Carlisle said that with the suspensions and a rash of injuries, he doesn't know where his team would be without the outpouring of support.
"I've been with six other franchises," he said Friday, "and this is the least-deserving of this sort of situation that you can think of. When you talk about quality of people in the ownership level and management level, and you talk about great fans, nobody deserves this."
On the other hand, no one wants to encourage the fans too much, or prod them into thoughts of revenge. The NBA's mandate to all teams about new security guidelines won't take effect until next month.
At some point, of course, an actual game will be played, between a team stripped of its stars and struggling, and a team that can't figure out why it's not playing like a defending champion. One instigator from the brawl, Piston Ben Wallace, will be in uniform; another, Ron Artest, won't.
Yet there are still some 17,000 potential cup-hurlers and chair-tossers to account for. "They know the team is down and needs help as much as possible," Pacers forward and former Piston Michael Curry said of the Pacers' fans, "and they're going to get behind the team to support it, just like they always do. But as far as going overboard, no."
The NBA hopes he's right. Just get us safely to Kobe vs. Shaq and it'll be the best Christmas present ever.