Christmas may have come early for Jermaine O'Neal and the Indiana Pacers, just in time for Saturday's much-hyped rematch against the Detroit Pistons. Now, it's a matter of whether the NBA, with the help of a U.S. District Court judge, will play Scrooge.
A New York arbitrator yesterday reduced by 10 games O'Neal's 25-game suspension for his part in a Nov. 19 brawl with Pistons fans at The Palace of Auburn Hills, making the three-time All-Star forward eligible to play against Detroit at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on Christmas Day.
Though ruling in favor of O'Neal, arbitrator Roger Kaplan upheld the season-long suspension of forward Ron Artest by NBA commissioner David Stern, as well as the 30-game suspension of guard Stephen Jackson. Kaplan was brought in after the National Basketball Players Association appealed the length of all three suspensions.
"This should not be viewed as condoning what O'Neal did. He did punch a fan. The 15-game suspension is a significant penalty. The NBA cannot tolerate such conduct," Kaplan wrote as part of his 28-page decision.
Kaplan took into account the previous behavior of O'Neal and Artest in making his ruling.
"O'Neal's previous conduct in the NBA is vastly different from Artest's," Kaplan wrote. "He is the recipient of a couple of awards attesting to his character, community involvement and citizenship. His one punch of a spectator, while excessive, was clearly out of character."
Seeking a temporary injunction to prevent O'Neal from suiting up until finishing the original sentence handed down by Stern, the NBA will go to federal court today to get Kaplan's ruling overturned. A hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. at U.S. District Court in New York.
"We have consistently maintained that the arbitrator has no legitimate role in this matter," said NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik. "While we obviously agree with Mr. Kaplan's decision upholding virtually all of the suspensions, we don't agree with his conclusion that the conduct did not occur on the playing court, and we have no choice other than to challenge it in federal court."
The NBPA was left similarly unsatisfied by Kaplan's ruling.
"We're extremely pleased that Jermaine will have the opportunity to play, although we respectfully disagree with the decision on the other ... players," said Billy Hunter, the union's executive director. "We're also pleased that the arbitrator has affirmed the right of players to appeal disciplinary measures."
O'Neal was not available to comment, but his agent, Arn Tellem, said: "Jermaine is anxious to put this matter behind him."
The Pacers are 5-10 since the brawl and 12-12 overall after last night's loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.
"We need him," Pacers point guard Jamaal Tinsley said. "We've been going through a tough stretch here, short-handed every night, guys banged up, not knowing who is going to be in the lineup. We've got a couple of games coming up that we need him."
Said Pacers coach Rick Carlisle: "It's good news. It would have been great to get some good news on the other two - Stephen and Ron - but that didn't happen. But again, Jermaine's situation is far from resolved, and we know that. We just keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best."
The announcement of Kaplan's decision comes a little more than a month after an on-court incident between Artest and Pistons center Ben Wallace precipitated what many have called the worst brawl in U.S. sports history.
After Artest gave Wallace a hard foul as he went to the basket in the waning moments of the game, Wallace retaliated by shoving Artest in the chest. The game officials quickly restored order on the court, but as Artest stretched on the scorer's table, a fan threw a cup of liquid at him.
That set off a wild melee in which Artest and Jackson went into the stands and fought with fans, and O'Neal fought with a fan as he came onto the court. It resulted in seven players being suspended for a total of 143 games by Stern, who said he had complete authority in doling out the penalties.
Two weeks ago, the three Pacers, as well as teammates David Harrison and Fred Jones, were charged by an Oakland County (Mich.) prosecutor with misdemeanor assault and battery. Seven fans also were cited, with the most serious charge coming against a fan who allegedly threw a chair into the middle of the brawl.
Earlier this week, a fan involved in the brawl filed suit against the Pacers organization as well as against O'Neal and Johnson. Charles Haddad, 21, said in his suit that Artest knocked him over while fighting with another fan and that Johnson and O'Neal later hit him.
"Before he could get up, and while he was still face-down, [Haddad] was jumped upon by ... Johnson and pounded repeatedly in the back of his neck, head and kidneys," the suit said. "O'Neal came running from middle court ... and struck him barehanded with a windup punch [in the face]."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.